Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A House Divided

Israeli Chief Rabbis Yaakov Yosef and David Lau
A few days ago I strongly criticized the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s treatment of converts to Judaism. Converts whose legitimacy was certified by no less a Posek than Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz, Av Beis Din of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA).

This was (and still is) reprehensible on 2  counts. One - it violated the Torah’s prohibition against mistreating legitimate converts to Judaism. And two – it dishonored a Zaken. Rav Schwartz is an elder – a rabbinic leader who is a major Talmud Chacham and a widely respected Posek.

It was this act that caused me to re-examine my support for that religious body as it exists now. I had concluded that unless there was a retraction of its invalidation of Rabbi Schwartz’s certification, and a public apology was made to the converts and to Rav Schwartz, it is the Chief rabbinate themselves that has lost its legitimacy as the rabbinic authority of religious matters in Israel.

There has however been a development about who in the Chief Rabbinate hierarchy is responsible for that deplorable behavior. I have been informed through an intermediary that a high ranking official at the RCA explained the situation as one of incompetence. Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi has rejected the protocols set by his predecessor, Rav Shlomo Amar whose knowledge about the American rabbinate enabled him to decide who to trust - and who not to trust - to certify the legitimacy of a conversion.

This was in addition to the agreement made between the RCA and the Chief Rabbinate about standardizing conversions standards. Back in 2008, the RCA had set up the Geirus Policies and Standards conversion system (GPS).  They certified only those conversion courts that followed these standards. The GPS protocals were acceptable to the Chief Rabbinate. On that basis all converts certified by the RCA after the GPS was set up would be automatically accepted as legitimate by them. 

What about those that were converted prior to that? Since there had been abuses by some RCA members that performed questionable conversions, the Chief Rabbinate had made provisions that trustworthy rabbis could certify which of them were are legitimate.

Rabbi Amar knew which rabbis could be trusted to do that. Chief among them, Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz. Rabbi Amar’s successor, Rav Yosef, had no such knowledge and decided to no longer grant automatic recognition to such conversion no matter who certified them, thus reneging on the agreement made with the RCA. 

It has now come to light that Rabbi Yosef’s counterpart, Asheknazi Chief Rabbi David Lau disagrees with him. He   was quoted in the Jerusalem Post* saying the following: 

“approvals issued by the Beth Din of America and signed by Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz should be recognized, …and should be relied upon for the purposes of approving [conversion] certificates which are received from the US.” 
The Department of Marriage and Conversion is under R’ Yosef’s jurisdiction and is run by Rabbi Itamar Tubul. The Post reports that sources in the Chief Rabbinate are saying that R’ Yosef instructed Rabbi Tubal to follow his directive: 

On Sunday, a spokesperson for the Chief Rabbinate said that every case requiring conversion verification from the US “is examined on an individual basis,” and that “there are no all-inclusive approvals or rejections,” indicating that the Chief Rabbinate, under Yosef’s direction, no longer considers the 2008 agreement to be binding.  
This does help explain what’s behind this outrage. But it does not make matters much better. It’s nice to know that there are more reasoned leaders there. But if the two top rabbis are in dispute over such a fundamental issue it serves no one. Least of all those Jews whose legitimacy has been put into question.

I applaud Rabbi Lau’s position. But unless he can convince his Sephardi counterpart, R’ Yosef to restore the agreement with the RCA made by his predecessor, the rabbinate remains in a state of uncertainty and ineffectiveness. 

Rabbis are certainly allowed to disagree. But when that disagreement is on an issue that is so fundamental to the very nature of the state - who is and isn’t a Jew - it diminishes the confidence its citizens have in it in all other matters. 

The Rabbinate must restore that agreement, and apologizes to those hurt by R’ Yosef’s apparent willful ignorance. If this does not happen, I remain skeptical of it as the ultimate religious authority in the Jewish State. Anything they may say or do in the future should in my view - be completely ignored. And a new Chief Rabbinate should be established that does not have the kind of hubris that one of its leaders appears to have. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

*I have not linked to that article in the Jerusalem Post. I believe it may be infected by a virus.