Further thoughts on the conversion mess

The Torah community simply is trying to implement safeguards to bring order out of chaos.

Rabbi Prof. Dov Fischer,

Rabbi Prof. Dov Fisch
Rabbi Prof. Dov Fisch
צילום: PR

I wrote at length not long ago on American Judaism’s massive conversion crisis.  The tsunami of non-halakhic conversions has compelled American halakhists, who bear fidelity to normative mainstream Torah observance, to act extraordinarily in the face of this unremitting disaster that grows more chaotic every day.  As I wrote at much greater length, one such solution that has proven enormously effective and successful has been the 2006 “GPS” agreement between the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA).  The entire ten-page textof the RCA’s Geirus Policies and Standards was adopted by the RCA membership on May 2, 2007. 

For those rabbonim who guide their prospective Gerim on the GPS path, the results have proven mostly successful in achieving the program’s primary goals: (i) peace of mind for Gerim, and (ii) uniformity of standards. As with all systems created by humans for humans, initial procedures needed fine-tuning, and GPS is a dynamic undertaking. As I also noted, GPS does not bar non-participating rabbis, including RCA rabbis who choose to operate their own personal conversion batei din independently, from conducting their own private conversions. Thus, just as rabbis may conduct their own private kosher-food supervision services rather than work within the rubric of established and community-accepted kashrut agencies, so may rabbis conduct their own private conversions independent of the aegis of GPS.

When a rabbi gives a private kashrut certification on food, he has to expect that kosher consumers will call, from anywhere and everywhere, to ask him questions to confirm the supervision and the procedures he follows. He has to expect that; it goes with the turf of private hashgachot (certifications).  I have called many such rabbis. We all have.  In those calls, the rav behind the certification explains his credentials, his standards, and then the caller has to decide: "Do I trust this kashrut?"  Over the years I have had congregants ask me about all sorts of food items with a generic "K" or with a certification we did not recognize.  In some cases, after my call, I have told the congregant that the food absolutely is kosher to eat.  In other cases, I have come away from the interview with the sense that "I cannot say definitively that it is not kosher but, now that I have had a good talk with the rabbi, you won't ever find it in my home." 

On one occasion, I was with a group of Orthodox Union rabbonim on a West Coast kashrut program, where we visited a food factory.  We got a wonderful presentation from a non-Jewish corporate guy at the factory who explained that some of their products carry the "OU" and some others just carry a generic "K."  I asked the gentleman the identity of the rabbi who does their generic "K work and how his supervision differs from that of the "OU."  Speaking in response according to his simplicity in terms of kashrut, the non-Jewish corporate executive answered: "With that rabbi, he sends us a bill once a year, and when he receives our payment he sends us his certification letter.  Otherwise, we never see or hear from him."  

On the other hand, when a mashgiach (kashrut inspector) certifies under the institutional imprimatur and rubric of a well known and accepted kashrut agency, he typically does not get called because the agency name speaks for his kashrut.  Thus, for example, I do not know who particularly watched the ketchup or baked beans at my dinner table, and I do not care, because the OU symbol tells me that he was vetted, and the hashgachah is good.

Likewise in Giyur (Conversion), that is what GPS does.  It overcomes the sticky question of who the private converting rabbi is and what standards he employed or chose not to employ in one or another conversion.  The institutional imprimatur affords a measure of comfort that a converted person now is suitable to marry your (grand)daughter or (grand)son -- or you -- not to mention that you may count him in a minyan, eat of his cooking, drink from non-mevushal wine she has touched, and so much else. Thus, the Torah community simply is trying to implement safeguards to bring order out of chaos.

I am a shul rav, and I know colleagues.  Here are some examples of situations encountered in just the past few months:

Case 1: A couple comes to the rabbi. They present as Jews. They know he is Orthodox.  They want an Orthodox wedding because the groom’s parents demand it of them. The rav (rabbi) asks a few questions and, through small talk, learns that one of them is a child of a mom who converted non-halakhically. That person is not Jewish. It would be an intermarriage if the non-Jew does not convert properly.

Case 2: Another couple. Another proposed Orthodox wedding. Small talk. It emerges that one of them was adopted years ago.  A week or two later, the rav speaks to the adopted person's parents when he meets them to discuss certain logistics. He hears first-hand from the parents that their child never was converted because "the moment I held that baby, I knew (s)he was Jewish. So why bother with a conversion?" It would be an intermarriage if the non-Jew does not convert properly.

Case 3: A third case.  A person comes to shul and asks for an Aliyah.  The gabbai is about to accommodate and asks the name.  The person says "[Ploni] ben Avraham Avinu."  Those last two words signify a conversion. The gabbai consults the rav.  The rav warmly greets the prospective Oleh and invites him to his home for Shabbat lunch.  While making small talk, the rav learns that the fellow is so glad because has driven 45 minutes on Shabbat morning to get this aliyah at an Orthodox shul.  The rav smiles:  "Oh, you drove 45 minutes!  Wow!  Such commitment!  Where do you normally go to shul?"  The fellow responds: "Well, I normally go to the temple that is only a 15-minute drive.  But today is a special occasion, so I wanted to be at an Orthodox place."  The rav thinks, quietly to himself: “He converted to Judaism, and he drives to shul on Shabbat! Hmm.  Was the fellow ‘converted’ by a non-Orthodox temple's rabbi?  Was the fellow ‘converted’ by an ‘Orthodox’ rabbi who never cared or taught from Day One whether the fellow drives on Shabbat or keeps mitzvot, just that the fellow pay the rabbi a steep tariff for a certificate?  Or was the fellow converted according to halakha, committed to Shabbat and all the mitzvot, and later in his life who knows what happened with this fellow?”  Lots of questions, and the fellow is standing there in shul asking for an aliyah, and the Torah reading is drawing to a close.

Case 4: A family sign up their daughter for bat mitzvah studies.  The Mom absolutely is Jewish, though not the Dad.  The intermarried home is non-observant, never was.  The Mom explains that they have several kids, some adopted, but one of them natural-born to the Jewish Mom.  Thus, Mom forthrightly discloses that several are non-Jewish and tells the rabbi that this daughter is the Jewish one.  The girl begins her bat mitzvah studies.  After a few months, it emerges that this girl actually is not natural born but actually among the adopted.  The Mom thought she was disclosing honestly because, unlike the other adopted children, this child was converted — except that the conversion was non-halakhic.  The child is non-Jewish.  That “bat mitzvah” is non-Jewish and has no desire to start being kosher or observing Shabbat.  What does the rabbi do?

Case 5: A couple show up in shul -- Dad and daughter.  The girl studied two years in an Israeli seminary.  She and Dad really know stuff; the rav can see during davening.  They are making Aliyah in two months, visiting town for Shabbat.  They come to the rav for Shabbat lunch.  Turns out that Dad's former wife -- the girl's mother -- was not Jewish, and the seminary where the daughter is studying is not a normative Orthodox place but a place associated with the very-liberal side of quasi-Orthodoxy.  The girl is not Jewish.  But she is dating Jewish guys in Israel.

These cases do not end. They are non-stop.  All the above five happened in the past six months. The chaos in America is unbelievable.

In this situation, there is an absolute hora'at sha'ah (emergency) that demands extraordinary steps to figure out what is what. It is an abuse of the Hebrew language and of halakhic consistency to bandy-about the term "Inui HaGer" (oppressing the convert) to describe a system that aims to make a gentle and genteel effort to determine who is Jewish and who Gentile.  This is not "Inui HaGer."

Every time an exception is made to a regulatory system, the system erodes.  Consider the year-long Clinton e-mail controversy. 
I have been at many weddings where I have been asked to be an Eid (an halakhic witness). At the tish or chupah, the m'sader kiddushin (rabbi conducting the wedding) asks me questions like whether I observe Shabbat.  That question is totally legitimate to ask me.  It does not embarrass or oppress me.  The m'sader kiddushin does not know me.  Why should I be offended?  Where is the Inui (oppression) in my being asked such a question?  What makes me so special that I should be exempt from the oversight that everyone else faces?

Under the chupah, we ask the chatan (groom) whether the ring with which he will m'kadesh (betroth) the kallah (bride) is a shaveh prutah (worth a small amount of money, less than a dollar).  Is the groom embarrassed -- being asked in front of everyone whether he is so cheap that he would marry with a ring out of a “Cracker Jacks” box?  (By the way, if you must, check with your local rav as to whether such a ring may or may not be permitted for kiddushin.)  But is this "Inui HaChatan (oppression of the groom)?"  On his wedding day, we are supposed to treat the chatan (groom) like a king -- "Chatan domeh l'melekh (A wedding day groom is to be deemed a king)."  Would you ask a king whether his ring is real?  Would you even ask Erdogan in Turkey?  But we do ask the chatan -- and loud enough for the eidim (witnesses) to hear.  Yet -- even in an age of trigger warnings, microaggressions, and safe spaces -- who would call this "Inui"?

At one of the law schools where I have been teaching for several years, all the adjunct professors have to fill out the same proofs of citizenship, employment eligibility, and such each and every year. No such employee gets offended.  America is embroiled in a serious dilemma presently as she confronts the recognition that millions in the country are not legally eligible to work here. Therefore, the system requires that new hires complete an “I-9” Employment Eligibility form -- and for annually recurring "new hires" a new I-9 every year.  This is not "Inui" -- oppression.  It is a system that requires regulation.

When an attorney goes into a courthouse, she has to go through the same security procedures that air travelers endure on the TSA lines. Many attorneys are regulars at certain courthouses where they practice.  The security guards recognize them by first name; yet they must empty their pockets, remove their belts, and go through the metal detectors.  This is not "Inui" -- oppression.  Rather, it is how a society functions when it must take security precautions.  

In the same way,  tragically, there now is a compelling need to protect against the ramifications of non-Jews presenting successfully as Jews.

Every time an exception is made to a regulatory system, the system erodes.  Consider the year-long Clinton e-mail controversy.  There are rules regarding preserving and protecting the security of sensitive official government documents.  Hillary Clinton determined that these rules that apply to everyone else do not apply to her because she is smart enough to handle secure documents safely off site.  There is a very strong American consensus, from the FBI Director down to common people, that she acted wrongly (probably criminally) and that, if any one else had done that or ever does that again, they will end up in prison.

But why apply the rules to her?  Isn't she qualified, after years as an Arkansas lawyer, a First Lady, a United States Senator, and a cabinet official to handle such secure documents however she sees fit?  Why should these laws apply to someone as experienced as she?  The answer seems clear, regardless of one's political preferences:  the Government has determined that the matter requires regulation, and the same rules must apply to everyone.  No one is free from oversight, and -- at least going forward -- it won't matter who you are.

In the matter of the recent discussion regarding the Rabbi Lookstein conversion, the great unasked and unanswered question is:  Why did that rabbi knowingly go to the effort of assuring that one convert be conferred peace of mind by having her conversion conducted under the aegis of the GPS institutional imprimatur while other of his converts were not conferred with that GPS process?  That is the question — and that is the scandal.

Should a court accept the argument that “Do you know who I am?  I am too famous for the rules to apply to me.”  Maybe that applies for Hillary in America, but it does not apply for former President Katzav and former Prime Minister Olmert in Israel.  The scandal is not whether an Israeli bet din of conversion accepts his convert because of that rabbi’s insistence that he is above the rules.  Rather, the question is: “Rabbi Lookstein, you clearly knew that there is a mechanism (“GPS”) under the RCA’s institutional imprimatur that gives Gerim (converts) added peace of mind.  You demonstrated that you knew it and appreciated the peace of mind it offers when you did that for a profoundly wealthy and famous woman, who deserved the best.  It did not cost more than a private conversion; it is not that she paid extra for it.  GPS actually costs less because the RCA Bet Din charges much less than do private rabbis for their time. So you did this for a famous person.  She came to you honestly, sincerely, and deserves the best in conversion standards — and you conferred it upon her.  Moreover, you even sit on the RCA’s GPS Conversion Committee!  Therefore: Why, Rabbi Lookstein, did you not give that same exact GPS standard of peace-of-mind to other of your less famous, less wealthy converts?”

That is the question that the media should be asking.  Maybe Rabbi Lookstein has a fabulous answer.  But that is the question to ask.  And that is where the scandal lies.  Why a lesser institutional imprimatur for the less rich-and-famous, if it was so easily accessible and if the rabbi knew about it?

I am not alone among most of my RCA colleagues in refusing to conduct any conversion outside of GPS.  That strict adherence to GPS has caused my congregation to lose at least two families.  In those cases, the non-Jewish partner simply did not want to go through the longer and more demanding GPS process, and instead found another nearby Orthodox rabbi and congregation who were willing to proceed much faster and with a less demanding program outside GPS.  So we lost two couples — and I really valued them.  But I will not operate outside GPS, even though there is no bar on my doing so. 

Nota bene — Note well:  I will add another consideration that less knowledgeable observers overlook.  Any conversion requires a Bet Din of three independent judges.  Imagine a Bet Din comprised of a synagogue rabbi, along with the Assistant Rabbi whom he hires and can fire, and an ordained Rabbinic Intern whom he retains and can release.  How do you feel about that?  How would you feel about a secular appellate court of three arbiters comprised of a fully qualified appellate judge — and two law clerks whom he hires and whom he can fire?  I will tell you, as a shul rav who has the standing to say it, that I have never ever met an Assistant Rabbi or a Rabbinic Intern who would vote differently from or otherwise go against something that he is told by his boss to do or say.  A Supreme Court on Giyur is fully within its rights to reserve the right to inquire into a private Bet Din’s practices, who the three judges are, what their relationships are to each other, and whether proper practices were followed.

The most valuable asset of GPS is that an institutional imprimatur is accorded to the conversion.  A century from now, few of today's rabbonin will be identifiable, even as the conversion tsunami will have gotten even worse.  Consider: with today's American Jews intermarrying at more than 50 percent – with the vast majority (though not exclusively) seeming to be Jewish men with non-Jewish women – and with lots of them doing “quickie conversions,” how will their children be presenting and grandchildren and great-grandchildren be presenting in a century?  It used to be a Marilyn Monroe here, a Sammy Davis, Jr. there.  Now it is all over the place.  Clinton’s daughter (no conversion) is married to a Jew.  Trump’s daughter (halakhically Jewish now) is married to a Jew.  Obama has a Jew in his family.  The Kennedys have a Jew.  Cybill Shepherd was married to a Jew.  Sharon Stone.  Kirk Douglas married out. Carly Simon married out.  Paul McCartney married a Jew.  David Cameron has a Jew somewhere in his family line.  The next Queen of England has Jewish lineage.  And, by the way, with intermarriage so ubiquitous inAmerica, even Orthodox practice is not what it once was.  People no longer sit shiva; otherwise, half the Jewish work force would be home.  Intermarried men get Haftorah aliyas, p’tichah (ark-curtain opening and closing) honors.  This is the back story behind the Lookstein Conversion scandal.

It seems to border on rabbinical malpractice for an Orthodox rav hereinafter to proceed with a conversion nowadays, in the aftermath of the past week's Rabbi Lookstein Conversion Controversy -- without at least providing a full and forthright disclosure and formally offering a prospective Ger a GPS option.  Then, if they knowingly refuse the option when presented -- well, it's their choice.  Just don’t blame the Bet Din Supreme Court for applying the rules fairly to everyone, regardless of wealth or standing, and conducting a legitimate alternate inquiry when so requested.

Rav Prof. Dov Fischer, Esq., who has served two three-year terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America during the past seven years, is an adjunct professor of the law of Torts, Remedies, and Civil Procedure at two major Southern California law schools and is rav of Young Israel of Orange County, California. His views on this and other subjects are his own and can be found at www.rabbidov.com