It is the season for seeking atonement for broken promises.
Which turns out to be convenient timing for Israel’s chief rabbinate, which stands accused of breaking a promise to America’s leading body of Orthodox rabbis — as well as violating long-accepted Jewish law concerning the welcoming of converts.
At issue is the recent decision by the rabbinate, whose decisions determine whether someone can marry or be buried in Israel as a Jew, to require further investigation into the conversions of four people who converted in America under Orthodox auspices.
This despite the fact that these converts had had their conversions investigated and stamped kosher by two leading American Orthodox rabbis: Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz of Chicago, who heads the court of the Rabbinical Council of America, and Rabbi Mordechai Willig, who teaches Talmud at Yeshiva University and is considered another one of the Rabbinical Council’s authorities in Jewish law.
In Teaneck, the Israeli government rabbinate’s refusal to trust America’s leading Orthodox rabbinic group was greeted harshly by Rabbi Shalom Baum, who leads Congregation Keter Torah — and more to the point, is serving a two-year stint as the Rabbinical Council’s president. Rabbi Baum put his name to a press release that “strongly” objected to the chief rabbinate’s action.
“We have already begun an investigation into this latest disgrace and we demand a thorough report of how this could happen,” Rabbi Baum said, in a press release issued by the RCA.
The press release continued: “This decision by the Chief Rabbinate is especially egregious because it challenges the rulings of one of the preeminent halachic authorities, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz … and because it disregards the great efforts that we have made over the years, for the benefit of converts, to work with the Chief Rabbinate.”
Central to the Rabbinical Council’s agreement to work with the chief rabbinate was the council’s 2007 decision to centralize Orthodox conversion, instituting practices and standards that passed muster with the Israeli rabbinate. These standards were hailed at the time as providing “converts with the assurance that their conversions will not be needlessly challenged in the future,” in the words of Rabbi Barry Freundel, who led the council’s adoption of the new policies. (Rabbi Freundel now is serving time in prison for spying on women showering before immersing in the mikvah as part of the conversion ritual.)
If the 2007 agreement promised to look forward by bringing American conversions up to Israeli standards, it also looked backward, by establishing a mechanism by which the Rabbinical Council would certify past conversions that met the formalized standards. (In 2009, this became an issue when the council refused to certify a conversion carried out by Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale.)
Yet as reported in Haaretz and the New York Jewish Week last week, the Israeli rabbinate explicitly refused to accept conversions that Rabbinical Council leaders had certified as meeting the new standards.
Rabbi Mark Dratch, the RCA’s executive vice president, was quoted in the RCA press release as saying “We will continue to advocate for and stand behind our converts, fully supporting the integrity of their status as Jews. We believe that the obligation of ‘ahavat ha-ger’—love and concern for all converts — is of paramount importance and we will continue to work on their behalf.”
Rabbi Baum declined to go into much further detail.
“We generally have a strong working relationship with [the rabbinate] and we are investigating and addressing what happened in these particular cases,” he wrote in an email. “Our main interest is in protecting the status and dignity of those who have converted and I am confident that this will be positively resolved.”
The RCA protest seemed partially successful. Within a few days after the press release was made public, Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau sent a letter urging a midlevel bureaucrat in the chief rabbinate to accept the RCA conversions.
Rabbi Lau “asked me to clarify to you once more that his position is to recognize the certifications given from the Beth Din of America and signed by Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, and they should be trusted in the matter of confirming [conversion] certificates received from the United States,” the chief rabbi’s assistant, Pinchas Tenenbaum, wrote to Rabbi Itamar Tubul. Rabbi Tubul, who singlehandedly decides which Jewish conversions meet the threshold for Orthodox marriage in Israel, is that midlevel bureaucrat.
In the letter Rabbi Lau sent to Rabbi Tubul on Monday, he vouched for Rabbi Schwartz and added that the rejection of his conversions violates the 2007 agreement.
Rabbi Lau’s endorsement, however, will not by itself ensure the conversions’ approval. Lau also endorsed a conversion overseen by Haskel Lookstein, a prominent New York modern Orthodox rabbi, but in July, Israel’s Chief Rabbinical Court still rejected it.
“The rabbinate is a chaotic place,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, a Yeshiva University-ordained Orthodox rabbi, who heads Itim, an Israeli organization that has challenged the chief rabbinate on issues such as conversion.
According to reports, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef is opposing Rabbi Lau’s approach.
This hard line — that all conversion would be reinvestigated by the Israeli government officials — was conveyed to Rabbi Farber in a letter from Rabbi Tubul in the end of July. That letter said explicitly that the rabbinate would not accept a certification from a rabbi who did not arrange the conversion or oversee the convert’s integration into the Jewish community.
Not long ago, the rabbinate released a list of Orthodox rabbis whose conversions it would accept, after being forced to do so by court order litigated by Rabbi Farber’s group. At the time, however, Rabbi Farber said, the rabbinate insisted that past acceptance of any rabbi’s conversions did not guarantee that it would accept new conversion done by that rabbi.
Rabbi Farber is in discussions with the rabbinate, but expects to appear before the Israeli High Court before too long. He plans to demand that the chief rabbinate adhere to transparent and binding policies.
“The rabbinate is acting in the name of Judaism in an anti-halachic way,” said Rabbi Farber, using the Hebrew word for Jewish religious law. “What makes this particularly grievous,” he said, is that Rabbi Schwartz’s court “is recognized for its fierce dedication to halacha and very rigorous standards.
“If they don’t accept this, a decision of a beit din in this area, why should they accept their divorces, why should they accept their marriage or anything?” he asked.
In other words, it seems like the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate is treating its American colleagues with the same disrespect it has shown to the non-Orthodox rabbis who represent the overwhelming majority of Jewish Americans.
“This is against halacha,” Rabbi Farber said. “Maimonides says that even if three laymen do a conversion, it is accepted. In this case, we have three Orthodox rabbis who performed each conversion, and certification from another Orthodox rabbi that this was done by our standards.”
JTA Wire Service contributed to this story