Op-Ed: The War Against the Rabbinical Council of America
The chaos of American Jewish demographics inevitably impacts Israel.
It is not clear exactly when Rabbi Avi Weiss decided to launch a war against the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), but the onslaught is underway.
Maybe it started when RCA refused to accept students ordained by his rabbinic seminary, Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT), into RCA membership. In the entire history of YCT, only one single graduate among its seminary students gained entry into RCA, and that happened in YCT’s earliest of years and only after that applicant could present a series of other Semikha (rabbinic ordination) proofs.
Maybe it started when Rabbi Weiss decided to compete with RCA by forming his own rabbinical association, International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), to advance his new theological denomination, “Open Orthodoxy,” which breaks from mainstream Orthodox Judaism in a wide range of ways, including but not limited to its ordaining women rabbis and its appointing to rabbinic leadership positions people who publish their denial that Avraham Avinu (Abraham our Patriarch) existed.
Indeed, one such fellow among the leadership of “Open Orthodoxy” is the only person whom YCT ever has ordained a “Dayan” (“Rabbinic Court Judge”). He entertains no question that he exists, but he writes — again, the writings of the only “Dayan” ever ordained by “Open Orthodoxy” and YCT — that “Abraham and Sarah are folkloristic characters; factually speaking, they are not my ancestors or anyone else’s.” He is ordained by “Open Orthodoxy” to be a Rabbinic Court Judge, with full authority to convert people to “Open Orthodox” Judaism.
Rabbi Weiss’s war against the RCA — the largest body of Orthodox rabbis in America, comprising more than 1,000 rabbis and dating back to 1935, with its roots stretching back a decade earlier to 1923 — took a tragic and perilous turn on January 29, 2014 when he published an op-ed column in the New York Times, attacking the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the RCA. The article was so vicious and vituperative that it has been re-tweeted by the Palestine Liberation Organization. With that unthinkable barrier now broken, the floodgates have been opened for mouthpieces of “Open Orthodoxy” to spew calumny against the RCA.
The battle front now has turned to conversion.
Readers outside America may not realize what is unfolding in the United States Jewish community.
During the era that Irving Howe called “the World of our Fathers,” most Jews in America were not Orthodox, but virtually everyone married a Jewish spouse. The reasons were many. The children of immigrants from the “Old World” grew up in deeply ethnic and religiously literate homes, even if those homes were not Orthodox. Their Friday night was different from other nights, and television and movies did not envelop the 1930s and `1940s air. Gefilte fish and challah (Sabbath bread) were not exotic to Jews, and bagels were not universally available in the Appalachian hills of West Virginia.
Thus, Jews still were apart. Even non-believers regarded their Jewish heritage as precious and imperative to transmit generationally. Those who bragged about their “universalism” actually found that all their other “universalist” friends also were Jews. Meanwhile, American anti-Semitism in the mid-Twentieth Century still was rife, as universities excluded Jewish faculty and students under rigorous anti-Jewish quotas, country clubs banned Jews, prominent law firms excluded Jewish attorneys, and hospitals barred Jewish doctors from practicing. In that world, exogamy (“intermarriage”) was virtually unknown in America.
By contrast, today in America, 71 percent of non-Orthodox American Jews “marry out.” This has caused demographic chaos in Orthodox American Jewish circles because the halakha (Jewish law) defines as Jewish someone born to an authentically Jewish mother or converted according to the specifications of halakha. It is becoming increasingly difficult to know who in America, among those claiming to be Jewish, really are Jewish, born to mothers who really are Jewish. In my rabbinical career alone, I have been approached several times by people who grew up thinking they were Jewish, learned as teens or collegiates that their mothers never properly had converted to Judaism, and therefore now themselves insisted on pursuing a proper Orthodox conversion. It is that chaotic.
The chaos of American Jewish demographics inevitably impacts Israel. One cannot expect the State of Israel to allow American politicos to dictate her political or security borders, and one cannot expect the Jews of Israel to allow American Jews, immersed in demographic chaos, to dictate the definition of Jewish status or conversion to Israel. When the great miracle of “Operation Magic Carpet” saw a massive aliyah to Israel of nearly 50,000 Jews from Yemen between 1949-1950, Israel made some temporary accommodations for those arriving with more than one wife, but Israel did not allow that community’s practices to force nullification of laws limiting marriage to monogamy. In the same way, American Jewish chaos in status and lineage, extending to varying conversion practices, cannot dictate a change in the way that Israel — the country of Israel, the international People of Israel, the Torah of Israel — defines Jewish status and kosher conversion.
Towards that end, amid and recognizing the surge in demographic chaos in America, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Rabbinical Council of America arrived at a formal agreement to normalize standards of halakhic conversion so that people converting to Judaism in America can proceed with their Judaic lives assured, confident that their Jewish status is secured forever, that the Judaic halakhic status of their grandchildren — and of theirs — will never be doubted in future centuries in Israel.
This formal agreement to follow designated Gerut Policies and Standards (“GPS”) has worked remarkably well from the day it was signed in 2007. I personally have sponsored several people through conversion under GPS, conducted by the rabbinical court of the Rabbinical Council of California, and their lineage is set for the generations.
But the RCA’s extraordinary resolution of the problem of conversion chaos in America, via the GPS Agreement with the Chief Rabbinate, now has become a new battle target in the war that Rabbi Avi Weiss and his minions have launched against the RCA. In the latest despicable volley, on Thursday, March 6, RCA member Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld — an “Open Orthodoxy” stalwart who was ordained outside YCT and thus was admitted into RCA before his “Open Orthodox” affiliations were clear — published a blistering attack against the Rabbinical Council of America.
Like his mentor Rabbi Weiss, Herzfeld has cultivated a sordid habit of attacking the Rabbinical Council of America in anti-Orthodox American media, including the op-ed page of the New York Times. In his latest public salvo against the RCA, contemptuously titled “The RCA Breaks Its Word on Conversion,” Herzfeld writes: “[N]ow, thanks to the direction of the current leadership of the RCA, such decades-old conversions are being rejected. . . . Despite what the RCA promised in 2008, it is retroactively negating and rooting out converts who were for decades fully integrated into the Orthodox Jewish community. In doing so, it has set a dangerous precedent that should make every convert afraid and all of us angry and disappointed in its leadership.”
This is a lie, and it is a vile canard. The Rabbinical Council of America is not going around “rooting out converts.” That was done by the Spanish Inquisition. The asseveration is both shocking and despicable. Moreover, RCA is not advocating retroactive nullification of conversions. It is both alarmist and despicable to suggest, much less to assert, that “every convert [should be] afraid.”
I personally am now in my fourth year as a member of the National Executive Committee of the RCA. I am not a spokesperson for the association, nor do I need to be when I write that I have never heard anything of this sort discussed within RCA. I have served several years on its National Convention Resolutions committee. I have chaired its Rabbinic Discretion Fund committee. I have served on its Jewish Principles and Ethical Guidelines committee on business ethics. The list of my RCA participation is immense. Yet, in all those environments and in all my private discussions with RCA leaders and members, never once have I ever heard even the slightest interest within RCA of investigating or otherwise researching or looking back into past conversions, or of negating any past conversion. The suggestion otherwise is an outright lie.
There is now a war going on. Because the denomination that chose to break off from Orthodoxy and denominate itself as “Open Orthodoxy” has managed to define itself outside the mainstream of normative Orthodox Judaism, its rabbis are not RCA members. Nor are they permitted to serve as rabbis at Young Israel synagogues. They are not bound by RCA’s GPS agreement with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.
For them, this is about politics, It is about publishing canards against the RCA in anti-Orthodox media of communication. It is about scaring people into thinking that rabbis — imagine Inquisitors with the figurative equivalent of red yarmulkas and red robes, chanting in the figurative equivalent of Latin chants — are searching through dusty protocols to “root out” converts.
The charge is disgusting. It is a lie. And every such lie will be met and exposed.
Rav Dov Fischer is rav of Young Israel of Orange County, a practicing attorney and an adjunct professor of law. He formerly was Chief Articles Editor of UCLA Law Review, clerked in the United States Court of Appeals, and is author of several studies on defamation and libel including General Sharon’s War Against Time Magazine (Steimatzky, 1985) and “The Libel Trial of Robert Edward Edmondson: 1936-1938”(71 Am. J. Hist. 79).