Israel’s Chief Rabbinate this week announced details of an unprecedented power-sharing agreement with the main association of Orthodox rabbis in the U.S., in a deal that will determine how Orthodox conversions to Judaism here take place.
The move is prompting sharp criticism from some long-time members of the clergy group, the Rabbinical Council of America, who say the agreement is “a complete capitulation” to ultra-Orthodox control of the rabbinate in Israel that is now extending its reach into the United States. At least two critics are starting their own rabbinic group and hope to eventually establish their own religious courts.
The new arrangement requires that all judges overseeing conversions in the U.S. be approved by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, with the RCA providing domestic oversight. The RCA is establishing a national system of regional religious courts it is calling the GPS Network, for Geirus [conversion] Policies and Standards.
“We like to think we know where we’re going,” quipped Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the RCA, referring to the navigation systems on cars also called GPS.
There are currently 15 religious courts in the GPS Network, and between 30 and 35 rabbis approved to serve as judges in these courts, though they intend to add more, said Rabbi Herring.
Some rabbis who have applied have been turned down, he said, because they lacked “maturity, experience, their ability to understand and apply the laws of conversion, or an appreciation for what a legitimate candidate should commit to in terms of acceptance of what we refer to as the yoke of the commandments,” he said.
Any rabbi who wants his conversions to be accepted must pass eligibility tests created by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, an aide to Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, told The Jewish Week.
“Rabbis have to have had practical experience, for example through an apprenticeship, in these areas under supervision of the courts in addition to taking the qualification tests,” he said.
Two senior members of the RCA, Rabbis Hershel Schachter and Mordechai Willig, must first accept potential conversion judges. They were approved for the role by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, said Rabbi Herring.
Rabbi Schachter heads Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, and Rabbi Willig is a professor of Talmud there. He is also deputy head of the RCA’s Beth Din of America, its own network of religious courts, which adjudicate business disputes and divorces as well as conversions.
Both men are on the conservative end of the spectrum of centrist Orthodox authorities. “One can say they are representative of where Modern Orthodoxy is today,” said the RCA’s Rabbi Herring.
They are not making ideological positions on Orthodox issues the test of whether someone is fit to serve as a conversion judge, he said.
“There are judges approved who have women’s prayer groups in their synagogue. That says a lot, that you don’t have to be an ideological clone in order to be an approved judge.”
The announcement of the new system comes 10 months after the RCA announced it would work with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, and nearly two years since it announced a desire to reform the conversion system in the U.S.
“About two years ago Rabbi Amar came up with the idea of enforcing his standards on all of the rabbis of the geulah [diaspora]. The RCA negotiated this compromise, which is a complete capitulation,” said Rabbi Marc Angel, retired spiritual leader of Congregation Shearith Israel on the Upper West Side, and founder and director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals .
The Chief Rabbinate — which controls all matters of Jewish religious status in Israel — has held to an ultra-Orthodox standard of observance that, critics say, is not realistic for many who want to join the Jewish people.
“It’s no secret that in Israel today [the Chief Rabbinate] represents the haredi element,” said Rabbi Avi Weiss, leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and founder of “openly Orthodox” rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.
“It seems the RCA has bought into that, and I’m terribly concerned.”
The RCA-Chief Rabbinate agreement marks a major shift from the longstanding traditional approach of generally accepting as Jewish, at least in the U.S., anyone converted by an Orthodox rabbi.
It is an “attempt to concentrate as much authority in as few hands as possible,” said Rabbi Angel. “It is the RCA disenfranchising their own rabbis. It is inimical to the best interests of Judaism.”
He said the agreement heralds a dangerously slippery slope of potential attempts by the Israeli rabbinate to control what diaspora rabbis do.
“If you can do weddings, you should be able to do conversions. They should take away all rabbis’ powers here. If you can’t trust a rabbi to do conversions, how can you trust a rabbi on weddings?
“Where this will end no one knows,” said Rabbi Angel.
Rabbis Angel and Weiss are establishing what they are calling The Rabbinic Fellowship as a corollary to the RCA (to which they belong), and hope to bring together 75 to 100 rabbis for a conference in Florida at the end of April. They hope, eventually, to establish their own network of religious courts.
For the moment, however, only the GPS Network oversees conversions that will be endorsed by the RCA and Israel’s Chief Rabbi — critical for any convert or their descendants who want to move to Israel and marry.
The new unified standards for conversion are rigorous, requiring the convert to commit to a life of total observance.
There is some flexibility within it, however, said Rabbi Herring.
When it comes to whether or not a woman may wear pants or must cover her hair, or the size of a man’s kipa — all things mandated by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate for people converting in Israel — the local religious court will have “a certain amount of flexibility,” said Rabbi Herring.
The Israeli rabbinate “may have a rigid standard but that is not the case here,” he said. “If local rabbis feel that those candidates will in fundamental respects keep kosher, Shabbos, mikveh, and reflect the local Orthodox women’s standards of dress and fit into the community, we will leave it up to them.”
The newly unified conversion standards may be most demanding for those who are adopting a child and want him or her converted under Orthodox auspices. They will be required to have their family be completely observant of the commandments — for example, living within walking distance of an Orthodox synagogue so that they can attend on the Sabbath without driving, and must commit to having their child educated for 12 years in an Orthodox Jewish day school.
But what if the child needs to leave the day school because it is not meeting his educational needs or because the family can no longer afford tuition?
“If there was clear indication that the commitment was a real one, not just posturing to fool the court, but that subsequently they were unable to follow through for whatever reason, that does not undo the conversion,” said Rabbi Herring. “Everything here is in the details.”
The overall goal, said Rabbi Herring, “is to give converts a measure of assurance that when they go beyond the system they will not be doubted, alienated and hurt” by questions about their legitimacy as Jews.
“The most important thing we believe the system brings about is that converts can now truly have confidence that their children and grandchildren will not have to go through a process embarrassing and insulting to them.
“If some rabbis find fault with this system, let them answer the question of how they will produce converts likely to avoid being rejected later on.”
Israel correspondent Michele Chabin contributed to this article.