PART ONE. Giyur (Conversion), Matan Kahana, and the Law of Unanticipated Consequences
In public life, there are two immutable laws: (i) the law of gravity and (ii) the law of unintended consequences. (I suppose we can add Murphy’s Law, the Peter Principle, Occam’s Razor, and Godwin’s Law.) How many Orthodox Jews, motivated by and acting on traditional values of kindness, anticipated that advocating fairness and common decency to homosexuals, including allowing them to visit “partners” in hospitals during after-hours when only family may visit, and even allowing two of them living under one roof to access health insurance on terms identical to those of proper civilly married couples, would lead one day to
(i) bakers, photographers, and florists being bankrupted in punishment for exercising religious conscience,
(ii) unisex bathrooms even for elementary schoolers,
(iii) public school classes and mandatory reading lists advocating “non-binary” gender lifestyles,
(iv) public enforcement of “non-binary” pronoun choices, and
(v) governmental laws supporting gender-change surgery for children without alerting their parents?
How many expected that righteous advocacy for racial equality would result in
(i) disfiguring or toppling monuments to Lincoln, Jefferson, and Wallenberg;
(ii) cancellation from employment of professors unwilling to extend special treatment and grading options for certain minorities;
(iii) “woke mathematics” by which equations are not marked wrong on exams when students incorrectly fail to solve a problem;
(iv) re-writing of plain historic facts to accommodate a false woke narrative of the United States — and then inculcating that hate of America into children;
(iv) demands, expectations, and now legislative initiatives that monetary “reparations” be paid to the likes of LeBron James, Beyoncé, and the Obamas by the descendants of people like our grandparents and great-grandparents who arrived in America in steerage after 1881, fleeing the Tsar and pogromists long after America had emancipated her slaves in the mid-1860’s; and
(v) ever-increasing demands for “diversity, equity, and inclusion” that continue effectively closing doors to Jews and other disfavored classes a full half century after the U.S. Supreme Court gave the “green light” to “affirmative action” quasi-quotas in the Bakke case that was supposed to get Blacks on equal college-admissions footing within a generation?
Or that certain earlier abortion liberalizations under Roe v. Wade would lead to Democrats advocating for unrestricted abortion to the day of birth — and even outgoing Virginia Governor Ralph Northam supporting “making the baby comfortable” after birth while the family and their obstetrician discuss whether to kill the baby that came out alive.
Or that certain “one-time amnesties” for illegal immigrants now would see California depriving its own tax-paying citizens’ children access to college admission to state colleges, universities, and professional graduate schools as the state assigns their seats instead to the children of Illegals, while the New York City City Council votes unprecedentedly to allow 800,000 non-citizens the right to vote in municipal elections?
For some time — now and henceforth — Jewish history is being written in Israel; America’s chapter, a mostly fine one, is waning rapidly.
The above merely are examples from the secular world on matters outside of halakha (Jewish law). To that degree, they do not matter Judaically in and of themselves. For some time — now and henceforth — Jewish history is being written in Israel; America’s chapter, a mostly fine one, is waning rapidly. Thus, the greater concerns here are the Laws of Unintended Consequences as they apply to gerut — particularly as implemented in Israel. Israel’s great achievement, an outgrowth of the same achievements of other Judaic communities built around a United Kingdom-style central clerical authority (England and UK, South Africa, etc.), has been to keep conversion to Judaism in the hands of authorities rooted in Mesorah (authentic Judaic tradition).
The Israeli Chief Rabbinate has flaws and failings as do all long-term established governmental bureaucracies. So do Israel’s and America’s courts, for example. So do America’s and Israel’s police departments, border authorities, even militaries. (Remember Biden’s Afghanistan evacuation?) In virtually no other area of public governance do proposals hold sway when they go beyond efforts to repair. Likewise, failures of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate are potentially fixable and improvable. By contrast, the moment that ultimate conversion authority is ripped from the Chief Rabbinate, Israel will experience the American conversion nightmare that has divided American Jewry into two communities, where some 40 percent of those who call themslves “Jews” simply are not.
Did anyone ever anticipate that one day a Reform Rabbi almost would have been appointed (under a Yamina Prime Minister, no less) to be Israel’s Minister to Diaspora Jewry? “For out of Zion shall come forth the Variant on Torah and the Word of Deviation from Jerusalem?” And perhaps one day later a Reform rabbi as Minister of Interior? Minister of Religion? That unthinkable prospect now is possible — forevermore.
Or consider this Israeli halakhic conundrum now emerging under the law of unintended consequences:
Israel has an interesting rule that makes sense concerning Jews marrying: Israel does not allow Jews to enter into non-halakhic marriages inside Israel, but — for comity of nations — Israel necessarily recognizes civil marriages certified by foreign governments’ marriage courts and authorities when conducted in their lands. Consequently, many non-halakhic prospective Israeli brides and grooms fly to nearby Cyprus to tie the knot. At least they know — and always will know, as their children and subsequent descendants will know when they research “family trees” in the future — that they did not get married under proper Judaic auspices but instead got involved in shtick in Nicosia, Limassol,Larnaca, or wherever.
Indeed, a great many secular Israeli Jews ultimately “put up with halakha” to avoid needing to schlep with family and friends there; they just accept Jewish law and marry in Israel.
Now for the law of unintended consequences:
Who among anyone ever imagined that, one day, the State of Utah, amid a pandemic, would start conducting civil marriages via Zoom — even lesbian marriages? (Utah — the latter day saints!) So now it is possible for two lesbian Jews (even two lesbian Conservative rabbis) in Israel to marry “in Utah” via Zoom — while online in Israel — in a marriage conducted by a Utah family court and certified by the Utah authorities. Then the Israeli lesbians present their “Utah-certified marriage” to the Israeli Interior Ministry for registration: “Hey, we were married in America, not Israel, and it is registered in Salt Lake City, not the Dead Sea, so — per comity of nations — you have no choice but to register us in Israel as two lawfully married lesbians.” See “Marriages Online: Utah County’s System a Hit with Israeli Couples,” Salt Lake City Tribune, Jan. 19, 2021.
We never know — on anything — how one innovation or regulatory change will impact other rules.
It is so much easier to tear down the Chief Rabbinate with a new regulatory plan for giyur that seems to resolve one set of concerns: overriding some really awful city rabbonim (Orthodox rabbis) who disappoint and do not have people skills and seem quite lacking, while other intransigents within the Chief Rabbinate wrongly perhaps discriminate against exceptionally qualified rabbonim and conversion-mentoring programs because the rabbonim are religious Zionists who wear a kippah srugah (knitted yarmulka) or are “too Zionist” or simply do not play the politics game well.
However, if the greater institution of Chief Rabbinate control over giyur is torn down because of those few who are “bad apples,” such a “reform” inadvertently can lead to far greater indescribable calamity.
Imagine rabbis outside Orthodoxy’s framework eventually named to local conversion courts in municipalities that are not Orthodox-friendly, with perhaps anti-Orthodox mayors and hateful government ministers — Tamar Zandberg? Avigdor Liberman? Nitzan Horowitz? A future Shulamit Aloni? — becoming empowered by Bagat"z (Israel’s Supreme Court) after one or another appeal to name conversion panel judges.
Never underestimate the mess Bagat"z can and is prepared to make of Judaism, even interfering in religion by ordering Orthodox rabbinic authorities as to who may or may not sit for rabbinic exams.
It may be said with a certainty that, if official Judaic conversion authority within Israel is transferred from its historic status under the Chief Rabbinate into a decentralized system along the lines proposed by Matan Kahana, with an uncertain future as to who may end up on local conversion panels, the Judaic status of Israeli converts coming to the United States will be subject to unprecedented scrutiny and investigation in America.
Just as Israel’s Chief Rabbinate historically and presently has looked upon Jewish converts from America with a cynical and skeptical eye when the official Israeli rabbinic authorities do not recognize the name or authenticity of the individual American rabbonim (Orthodox rabbis) signing a person’s certification of gerut (conversion), but they do accept whole-heartedly any American conversion certified institutionally by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) or by one of its duly authorized regional rabbinic conversion panels operating under RCA’s Gerut Protocols and Standards (GPS) network, so the circumstances will turn topsy-turvy if Matan Kahana’s proposals are implemented.
Thus, Kahana’s conversion proposals will cause an unprecedented schism within and among world Jewry.
- Agudath Israel of America will not accept such decentralized Israeli conversions in the United States without significant follow-up, investigation, and possibly requiring re-conversions.
- Igud HaRabbonim (the 1,000-member Rabbinical Alliance of America) has announced that it will not accept Israeli conversions conducted outside the Chief Rabbinate’s authority.
- The Conference of European Rabbis (CER) has made the identical announcement.
- It may be expected with absolute certainty that, before the Rabbinical Council of America even undertakes to adopt its own national policy on the same matter, its independent regional GPS batei din l’giyur (rabbinic conversion courts) like the Rabbinical Council of California, the Chicago Rabbinical Council, and several others across the United States will follow the same policies adopted by Agudath Israel, the Rabbinical Alliance, and the CER.
For all the talk about the Bennett government reaching out to world Jewry and sending Nachman Shai as their emissary for Israeli governmental damage-control with Jews in the Diaspora, the proposed Kahana conversion “reforms” will blow a gaping hole in those relations and cause the most severe of ruptures possible: a schism under which Torah-observant Jews in America will be unable to marry pseudo-Orthodox converts from Israel. As bad as that sounds — and it is horrible —
Part Two of this two-part series will demonstrate further that the situation will degrade even much worse than that if Israeli Conversion Authority proposed changes weaken the conversion role of the Chief Rabbinate.
Rabbi Prof. Dov Fischer is Contributing Editor at The American Spectator, adjunct professor of law at two prominent Southern California law schools, Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Coalition for Jewish Values, rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County, California, and has held prominent leadership roles in several national rabbinic and other Jewish organizations. He was Chief Articles Editor of UCLA Law Review, clerked for the Hon. Danny J. Boggs in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and served six years on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. His writings have appeared in The Weekly Standard, National Review, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Jerusalem Post, Israel Hayom, and The Jewish Press. Other writings are collected at www.rabbidov.com .