Daily Israel Report

Op-Ed: Reforming Conversion Standards: A Most Dangerous Idea

Published: Friday, November 15, 2013 7:19 AM


In an effort that could effectively strip the Chief Rabbinate of its authority over conversions, Yesh Atid and Hatnua Parties Knesset members, with the assistance of left-wing social action organizations and Reform and liberal rabbis, are calling for potentially seismic reform of the Israeli religious status quo, especially as regards deciding the legal Jewish status of Israelis.

On November 13, 2013, the Knesset People, Religion and State Caucus held an emergency session to address the Israeli Chief Rabbinate's policies regarding personal status and Jewish identity.

In this unprecedented session, MK Elazar Stern of the Hatnua party stated, "we came here today with the belief that Israel is a Jewish-Democratic state - not only Jewish or only democratic - and that sometimes it comes at a price: that sometimes Judaism needs to bow to the rules of a democracy, and sometimes a democracy needs to bow to the rules of Judaism."

This is a frightening quote; will the State of Israel legislate that rabbis are to override Halakhah, (Jewish Law) or that the Rabbinate’s objective halakhic mandate is to be trumped by political considerations? Will the Rabbinate be stripped of its ability to exercise independent judgment pertaining to conversions? Will Jewish status now be redefined in a manner that contradicts or compromises Jewish Law? (Regarding Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who attacked the Rabbinical Council of America [RCA] at the session for supporting the Rabbinate’s “haredification and brutalization”, I am afraid that we know his thoughts on the matter.)

And consider the suggestion of Rabbi Seth Farber of ITIM that was presented at the session:

“ITIM is proposing as a solution that any Orthodox institute more than 10 years old and with 50 or more members be accepted by the Chief Rabbinate as able to authorize issues of Jewish and marital status, with those institutions being able to de-authorize their own members if they so wish.” Readers must note that there are indeed many such Orthodox institutes, including those that most Orthodox rabbis and laypeople consider to be on the fringe of Orthodoxy and of very unreliable halakhic standards. Will the Chief Rabbinate, and hence most of Israeli Jewry, be forced to now accept the conversions of such shady entities?

Although it is imprudent in today’s society to force religious standards upon anyone, and Torah observance should rather be embraced at will than under compulsion, the status quo, such that the Jewish status of all Israeli citizens must and does meet high and unquestionable halakhic standards, is a no-compromise must.

Imagine what would happen if, via marriage with Israelis who underwent questionable or halakhically invalid conversions, whole swaths of the Israeli population became questionably or definitely non-Jewish? Imagine what would happen if Israelis could not marry each other due to the inability to verify halakhic Jewishness? Such a scenario would split the nation, causing untold strife, and would jeopardize the Jewish integrity of the State and its citizens. It would be an incredible disaster.

Although not perfect, the current Israeli Rabbinate system, which maintains strict standards for Jewish identity and personal status, has maintained and preserved the halakhic integrity of Israeli Jewry. Innumerable cases of mamzeirus (children born of forbidden unions) and intermarriage (due to lack of verified halakhic Jewish status) have been prevented.

Without Orthodox rabbis whose services must conform to one halakhic standard in areas of Jewish and personal status, maintained under one centralized rabbinical authority, the halakhic integrity of Jewish and personal status of Israeli citizenry will suffer. Stripping the Rabbinate of its independence and its ability to continue to enforce universally-accepted halakhic conversion standards would result in untold and mass tragedy regarding Jewish personal status.

There is certainly an element of kefiyah (compulsion) involved here; submitting Israeli society to the halakhic marriage, divorce and conversion requirements of the Rabbinate is obviously not something that everyone embraces, although surveys have shown that most Israelis recognize the need for it but would like the services themselves to be more user-friendly. Yet, the positive yield of this system, which is the preservation of yuchsin (the integrity of Jewish lineage), is unquestionably worth the price of the imposition. The current system, despite its inadequacies, has undeniably served the Israeli population well and has protected and secured the legitimacy of its yuchsin. In fact, the system is a no-compromise must, without which the Jewish People cannot endure and perpetuate.

While it is true that there was much controversy within the Orthodox camp over hareidi atittudes to the conversions of Religious Zionist Batei Din (rabbinic courts), this was an internal Israeli controversy within halakhic parameters and has no bearing on the issue at hand.

To quote from a 1970 letter by two universally accepted halakhic and spiritual giants of the twentieth century, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Yosef Dov Ha-Levi Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, to the Chief Rabbis and the Interior Minister, in relation to the Benjamin Shalit case:

“Regarding the issue of conversion in the proposed legislation (assuring that only those legitimately Jewish would be registered as Jews): We forcefully demand that you strongly insist on inclusion of language in the law that will include the clear condition that only converts who have been converted according to Halakhah shall be registered as Jews. Without this clear condition, the legislation may be falsely interpreted and will include counterfeit conversions carried out by people unauthorized by Torah law from directing matters pertaining to conversion. The registration of fraudulent converts is likely to cause a public desecration of the fundamental Torah law of conversion and to endanger Orthodox Jewry and create an obstacle to the unity of the nation.”

The greatest of Orthodox rabbinic scholars have unanimously backed the Chief Rabbinate's authority over conversions, as has every Israeli government. The stakes are incredibly high, and the future existence and unity of the Jewish People are at stake.

However, let’s take a step back and examine how this all began. Although the repeated catchphrase of the reformers here is the need to “repair the split between Israel's Chief Rabbinate and the Jewish Diaspora”, the singular event that caused the sudden urgency, rising to the level of an emergency Knesset caucus session and an international outcry, was the recent rejection by the Rabbinate of a letter from Rabbi Avi Weiss, an American Open Orthodox rabbi, attesting to the single and Jewish status of a couple that sought to wed in an Israeli ceremony.

Rabbi Weiss, who is no stranger to religious controversy, did not contest the Rabbinate's decision by enlisting the input of major halakhic authorities in an effort to resolve this issue in a rabbinic and halakhic manner. One would expect an Orthodox rabbi in an halakhic  dispute to muster halakhic resources and work within the parameters of the general rabbinate, engaging the matter with halakhic discourse and perhaps penning a responsum supporting his contention.

Rather, a student and close colleague of Rabbi Weiss first contacted American Ambassador Daniel B. Shapiro with a plea to intervene diplomatically on behalf of Rabbi Weiss; this plea contained a strong condemnation of the Israeli government and was most inappropriate in many ways.

Then, Rabbi Weiss took to the secular media in an effort to gain popular support, publishing articles in The Jewish Week, The Times of Israel, The Jerusalem Post and The Algemeiner, assailing the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and calling for a total dismantling of its conversion authority, arguing that non-halakhic conversions should be authorized and recognized:

"Israel as a state should give equal opportunities to Conservative and Reform communities. Their rabbis should be able to conduct weddings and conversions.

"For that matter, civil weddings should also be recognized by the state.

"I am not advocating that the Orthodox rabbinate accept these conversions or weddings as halakhically valid. No rabbi should be called upon to give up his halakhic principles.

"At the same time, however, the State of Israel is the nationstate for the entirety of the Jewish people. As the state accepts non-Orthodox definitions of Jewishness for aliya and Israeli citizenship, so, too, the state should move to accept non-Orthodox conversions and weddings done in Israel as a matter of Israeli law."

In these articles, Rabbi Weiss assailed the Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinical Council of America:

“…it’s about a Chief Rabbinate whose power has gone to its head. As Israel’s appointed rabbinate, it is accountable to no one but itself.

“Built into the very fabric of the institution is the principle of kefiyah, rabbis overlording the citizenry, forcing their religious dictates down their throats.

“…the Rabbinical Council of America, (RCA), rather than challenge the Chief Rabbinate and say clearly we have faith and trust in our rabbis in the field, capitulated to the Chief Rabbinate, and imported Israel’s failed rabbinic centralized format to the US.”

It should be noted that the RCA, despite Rabbi Weiss’ negative portrayal and condemnation, seeks to build bridges and work together with other rabbinical bodies for the betterment of Judaism and the Jewish People. It is in this spirit of mutual cooperation that the RCA, together with the Conference of European Rabbis, just signed an historic pact to work together on many fronts, including protecting the right of Jews worldwide to perform Bris Milah (Jewish ritual circumcision) and Shechitah (kosher slaughter), as well as battling anti-Semitism.

Then, Rabbi Weiss retained Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz as legal counsel. Dershowitz wrote to Israeli President Shimon Peres, calling for the State’s leaders to intervene on behalf of Rabbi Weiss and “to understand that they mustn’t bend to baseless religious tyranny.” (It is interesting that Dershowitz, notwithstanding his love for the Jewish People and the State of Israel, is a wholly nonbelieving Jew, such that his intervention in this rabbinical/halachic dispute is quite awkward and inappropriate.)

The secular/political approach utilized by Rabbi Weiss in addressing this entire episode is really unbelievable.

As has already been documented (please see here, here and here), the Orthodox bona fides of Rabbi Weiss and his Open Orthodox movement (now referred to by many as the Neo-Conservative movement) have been the subject of incredible controversy. Innumerable religious innovations, including feminizing prayer services, the independent ordaining of women for rabbinical roles and radical interfaith programs and interfaith celebrations have placed Rabbi Weiss and his movement under intense scrutiny.

Most telling, they have caused Orthodox rabbis of all stripes from around the globe to distance themselves from Open Orthodoxy, with many considering the Open Orthodox movement as having left the fold and predicting that the movement will soon assume the place of the dying Conservative movement. And they have good reason to state those predictions. Please see this, as well as this brand new and important article by a Conservative Jew, again linking Open Orthodoxy to the Conservative movement.and tellingly titled "Conservative Judaism may be failing but its ideas are thriving".    

Aside from its many deviations from normative Orthodoxy, recently, a senior rabbi at Rabbi Weiss’ yeshiva, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), permitted two Kohanim to marry converts, issuing p’sakim  (halakhic rulings) to permit these two marriages; these p’sakim have been roundly condemned by mainstream Orthodox rabbis of all stripes in New York and New Jersey. Open Orthodox leadership has also suggested that observance of Yom Tov Sheni (second day of Jewish holidays) outside of the Land of Israel should be subject to reevaluation.

It is tragic that the rejection of Rabbi Weiss’ letter has led to a Knesset caucus session that could end up jeopardizing the Jewish status of Israeli Jewry; that it has led to a call for the authorization and recognition of non-halakhic conversions in the State; that it has led to inappropriate pleas for diplomatic intervention, involving the US State Department, a renowned non-observant law professor and President Peres, seeking secular tampering with halakhic/rabbinic systems; and that it has caused massive friction and ill-will within the Israeli government and among its citizens.

Rather than Rabbi Weiss considering that it may be his own unOrthodox conduct and outlook that are to blame for the rejection of his letter that rested on his Orthodox rabbinic bona fides, Rabbi Weiss and his supporters have placed the blame on others and precipitated a massive and negative shakeup, with great turbulence and ill-will between fellow Jews.

Rabbi Weiss: For the sake of the unity and the halakhic integrity of the Jewish People and State, please return to your original mission of spreading authentic Judaism. Please reign in the outlier elements and actions of your movement and inspire them to reach other Jews with a message of unadulterated Torah tradition. Please turn this movement into a force for Kiddush Hashem (Sanctification of God’s Name) and a return to the Judaism of your great teachers and forbears..  

This article reflects the views of its author and does not represent the views of any other persons or organizations.