There is no greater cruelty to non-Jews who seek to become Jewish than for renegade rabbis to tell them that they now suddenly are “converted” to Judaism — but without advising them that the “conversions”
(i) will lack broad-based recognition among the Jewish people and
(ii) in fact will be rejected by the overwhelming majority of mainstream normative Modern Orthodox rabbis — not to mention the universal rejections from the Agudah and hassidic worlds.
I will give a specific example:
There are two “Open Orthodox” rabbis who were ordained (I do not use the word “semikha” intentionally) by the Chovevei Torah seminary (I do not use the word “yeshiva” either). They post on Facebook and on Twitter. They have their “likes.” I am not sure how many “likes” HaRav Moshe Feinstein zt"l or HaRav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik zt"l ever had — but these two guys definitely garner many more. They have been “friended” by more than all those who “friended” the Rambam, the Rama, the Vilna Gaon, the Chofetz Chaim . . . and Rav Moshe and the Rov. In their social media pulpits, they brag of how they travel far and wide “converting” non-Jews in small towns in the Americas.
Can you imagine the cruelty? You have non-Jews in, say, Ecuador or Guatemala or wherever thinking “I always have wanted to be a Jew, and now I am a Jew.” But one day that misled person will come to my shul or to any of the 95% of shuls that have rabbonim (Orthodox rabbis) affiliated with the Young Israel movement or the Rabbinical Council of America or the Rabbinical Alliance of America . . . and they will find that, even as the rabbis at the shuls welcome them warmly and with smiles and kind words, they will not be called to the Torah, not even invited to open the curtain of the Ark when the davening winds down to the “Anim Zemirot” responsive hymn near the end of prayers.
If they show up early in that shul, and there are only ten men in the room when the first Mourners Kaddish recitals are chanted, the rav (Orthodox rabbi) will signal the ba’l tefilah (prayer leader) to skip the Kaddishes and to move on — because the minyan (prayer quorum of ten Jewish men) will be lacking. Perhaps these visitors will think “Hmmm. I guess one of the other guys here is not Jewish.” No one will offend the visitor by telling him: “Uh, it is you who are not Jewish.”
In a hundred years, perhaps they will have passed away, and their grandchildren or great-grandchildren will find that no one Jewish-observant will marry them. Indeed, communal rejection will not take that long, and their own children will learn soon enough that no one in the normative Orthodox community will marry them. Yes, the “Open Orthodox” will marry them. And so will the Reform. But the Reform also will marry outright self-identifying non-Jews.
The tragedy and the cruelty is that the Guatemalan or Honduran person honestly wanted to convert properly. However, before he or she gained the fuller information needed to grasp the difference between a proper Giyur (Halakhic conversion) and a “2018 Open Orthodox Conversion American-style,” the renegade rabbi got to him, failed to give the full disclosure, and now the damage is done.
It is imperative for the Israeli public to understand that conversions in America are utterly chaotic.
This one’s mother converted thirty years ago with a Conservative rabbi who immersed her in his backyard swimming pool, and that one was adopted at babyhood but never underwent any conversion, even a null one.
Mainstream normative rabbonim no longer do as fifty years ago, when we simply assumed that a self-described “Orthodox convert” is Jewish. We now all investigate further. A couple comes to me requesting that I be the rav who conducts their marriage, and I nowadays have to investigate. I never had to double-check in the good old days, but these ain’t they. The whole thing is pure and utter chaos.
I cannot begin to describe how many people have come to my colleagues and me — just in the past decade — presenting as Jewish in the purest of innocence, when it turned out they simply are not. This one’s mother converted thirty years ago with a Conservative rabbi who immersed her in his backyard swimming pool, and that one was adopted at babyhood but never underwent any conversion, even a null one. Yet both were reared to believe they were Jewish. This happens all the time. Remember: 71% of all non-Orthodox Jews marrying in America are marrying non-Jews.
Like most of my RCA colleagues, I actually am a pretty flexible liberal guy. I went to Columbia University, then to UCLA Law School. I clerked for a federal appeals court judge in Louisville, Kentucky. I have seen too many movies, watched too many wasted New York Mets seasons, seen too many “Seinfeld” reruns, gone to too many theatrical productions to pass off as insular.
And, like my colleagues, I care about all people. I have law students who are gay and non-Jewish coming to me privately for counseling when a personal crisis impacts their studies; they have heard “Go to Prof. Fischer. He’s a really understanding guy. He has helped others when they ran into problems.” So, like my colleagues, I am not going to insult a non-Jew whose “Open Orthodox” “conversion” is null and void. Instead, I will figure out some way to avoid it.
All my rabbinical colleagues are like that. But none of us will call such a guy to the Torah, none will count him in a minyan, and we even will have to be careful which wine we serve at Shabbat lunch if we invite the visitor over — because non-Jews and wine raise other issues beyond the scope of this article.
There is absolutely a need for a central agency and clearing-house to identify which rabbonim are suitable to conduct Giyur (halakhic conversions). There is no need to list the renegades who are not accepted. Because most of the renegades fail to give their prospective victims full disclosure that their “conversions” will be rejected and that future progeny of their victims will be left afloat in the Judaic lake without an oar to row back to shore, it is imperative that the public be warned.
There cannot be wildcat rabbis expecting the right to convert people outside of community sanction. Would the United States allow independent judges to run their own private court houses granting American citizenship based on unrecognized standards or authority? Emphatically — no.
No matter what one reads about the American immigration issue, it never has happened that an independent judge actually would naturalize — would grant citizenship — without proper authority or pursuant to proper statutory requirements. See, e.g., 8 U.S.C. § 1427. If they did: (i) the citizenship would have no meaning; and (ii) the “judge” would be impeached, disbarred, and probably locked up. In Judaism, too, citizenship has meaning, and there must be uniformity.
In the United States, every state has marriage laws. Famously, Utah bans polygamous marriages. In Arkansas, clergy may not conduct a marriage unless their credentials are recorded in one of the state’s counties. In Colorado, although a couple may solemnize their own marriage, friends or relatives may not do so. Meanwhile, despite “hillbilly jokes,” cousins may not marry in Arkansas but may marry in Colorado. In Hawaii, a marriage officiant first must be commissioned by the state. In Kentucky, the officiant first must be state-licensed. Massachusetts requires out-of-state clergy first to obtain a “Certificate of Authorization” from the Secretary of the Commonwealth.
Each state has its own specific marriage laws, and officiating clergy can be punished severely if they deviate. In California, where I practice as a rav and attorney, strict laws regulate even the filing of marriage documentation. A society regulates marriage for reasons pertaining to health and social order. Until the rise of political correctness, couples first had to be tested for STDs. Bigamy is illegal for a wide range of obvious reasons.
It is thoroughly reasonable for Israel, like America, to adopt and enforce its own marriage laws. The greater society has its greater social interests and concerns. It really is very simple. All civilized societies regulate marriage, circumscribe those eligible to officiate, and enforce those laws for the common weal. And so it should and must be when it comes to conversion and citizenship among the Jewish people.
It cannot be emphasized enough: It is not the Chief Rabbinate of Israel that is distinguishing between bonafide Orthodox conversion authorities and renegades. It is the American Jewish rabbinate that rejects the wildcats and that looks to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to stand with us, even as they endeavor to set order in their own house.
Thus, RCA and the Chief Rabbinate work in tandem. The Chief Rabbinate not only recognizes all conversions conducted by RCA batei din (conversion courts) but also has a system implemented by which people who converted outside that RCA system can apply for RCA to double-check on their prior non-RCA conversion and to certify its legitimacy to the Chief Rabbinate. It is a very easy system. I have done this for several people who had converted to Judaism before the RCA set up its current system with the Chief Rabbinate. It always works out easily and fine.
There must be a system and order for Jewish lineage and authenticity. People need to have a way seventy years from now (if Moshiach has not yet arrived), when today’s private converting rabbis have died and no one seven decades hence can identify those rabbis’ names from back in 2018, to know that a Year 2018 conversion met accepted halakhic standards and communal norms for its time. Otherwise, all those future progeny will find themselves in Judaic no-person-land.
The Torah commands us to love the convert, and anything less than assuring them a public registry of where to go and whom to seek for communal approbation is criminal and cruel. The Chief Rabbinate’s public listing is long overdue. If it needs a tweak, with a name or two added and a name or two deleted, that happens with all lists, but this comprehensive and thoughtful listing is the answer to an urgent need both in Israel and in the Americas.
Now the public is on notice. Even in Guatemala and Ecuador. In America and in Israel, too.
Rabbi Dov Fischer is Rav of Young Israel of Orange County, a Senior Rabbinic Fellow and West Coast Vice President of Coalition for Jewish Values, and an adjunct professor of law at two major Southern California law schools. He is Contributing Editor at The American Spectator and his opinion columns appear regularly in in Arutz Sheva. Rav Fischer has served six years on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of California, was Chief Articles Editor of UCLA Law Review, and clerked for the Hon. Danny J. Boggs in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. He is author of two books, and his opinion columns have been featured in Real Clear Politics and have appeared in The Weekly Standard, National Review, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Jerusalem Post, and American Greatness.