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Judaism: The RCA Works With the Israeli Rabbinate on Conversion

The Orthodox American rabbinic body upholds standards on conversion, as does the Israeli Chief Rabbinate
Published: Tuesday, March 18, 2014 2:56 PM


Much has been said about the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s policy on matters of conversion, much of it directed against the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) that works in cooperation with it. The most recent attack came from my colleague, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue in Washington, who accuses the RCA of misrepresenting its positions on the issue.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

To quell the recent misunderstandings regarding conversion status, we need to understand that the RCA, as a rabbinic body, does not retroactively nullify previously accepted conversions. Period. End of story.

I do not speak for the RCA, but it appears that Rabbi Herzfeld, a self-described student of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah founder Rabbi Avi Weiss, has his facts wrong.

The modified conversion structure of the RCA, called GPS — Geirus Policies and Standards — dates back to 2008. Its resolutions are far too numerous to mention here in detail, but it has solved many problems for the conversion world. Hundreds of converts have become truly Jewish through its auspices, and Orthodoxy, as a unified branch of Judaism, should be proud of this accomplishment, not attack it unfairly by citing isolated cases.

The implementation of firm but flexible conversion standards is undoubtedly difficult. Such standards may cause pain in some cases, and it is easy to challenge those who maintain the benchmarks by citing a case in which a convert has struggled. Those who maintain the standards may be truly troubled by the hurt, but they stand by their position, because they are protecting something dramatically more important.

Rabbi Herzfeld writes with concern, albeit selectively, about the issue. In 2008, a rabbi ordained by Chovevei Torah sat on a conversion court with individuals who did not meet halachic criteria. As reported by JTA, the leadership of the yeshiva, including Rabbi Weiss, who said “there are limits and there are standards,” publicly rejected the court.

In short, a rabbi ordained by the school had one of his conversions retroactively questioned and apparently rejected, based on the status of the court’s other participants. Since conversion in Jewish law centers on the convert, his or her religious commitment and the judges before whom sits the potential convert, I would agree with the decision.

I wonder what Rabbi Herzfeld’s position would be, particularly because he seems to oppose retroactive rejection. Would he, contrary to his teacher and Chovevei Torah’s standards, accept this particular conversion?

Citing the self-reported case of Karen Brunwasser, whose own status was questioned because the judges who presided over her conversion held pulpits in mixed-seating synagogues, Rabbi Herzfeld argues that those rabbis were justified because they had rabbinical approbation to do so. He ignores the fact, however, that in the 2008 case, the Chovevi Torah rabbi also had his justifications.

The key point here is that in both cases, an organization drew a line, making a decision with which others disagreed. In the end, the organizations remained true to their principles, as well they should.

It should be remembered that the GPS mechanism was established to deal with all conversions from 2008 and beyond. There is no mandate or mechanism in the system to review conversions prior to that date.

Long before GPS, if a convert came to my or any RCA rabbis’ synagogue and asked for membership or to be married, and the rabbi did not know the converting authority, there was a mechanism available. One contacted the RCA with the conversion information and, after an investigation by the RCA-affiliated Bet Din of America, would be told whether or not the conversion met the standards of the RCA. The accepted standard for decades has been that a conversion court could not include a rabbi who served in a mixed-seating congregation.

In this fashion, a conversion that was performed many years ago can be checked using the same decades-old criteria. That is exactly what happened in the Brunwasser case, which Rabbi Herzfeld fails to mention. No one annulled an accepted conversion; instead, a conversion that had never previously been brought to the RCA was reviewed. Using accepted criteria, that conversion was found to not meet those standards.

Membership means that an individual’s ordination and personal behavior conform to the RCA’s standards.

This does not mean, and has never meant, that the RCA stands behind every action or halakhic position of each individual member. As with kashrut, so with conversion. Just because one is an RCA member does not mean that the RCA will endorse the Jewish status of his converts.

Rabbi Barry Freundel, Ph.D., is the spiritual leader of Kesher Israel: The Georgetown Synagogue

This article appeared in the Washington Jewish Week.