Mar 13, 2008 -- by Steven Pruzansky
Rabbi, Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey
Treasurer, Rabbinical Council of America
Member, RCA's Geirus Policies and Standards Committee
Rosh Beit Din of the Beit Din L’Giyur in Bergen County, NJ.
There is a sign hanging in my office that should be standard in the office of every Rabbi, communal leader, worker for Klal Yisrael or activist of any sort. It reads: “For every action there is an equal and opposite criticism.” And so goes the overheated, misleading, and, at times, blatantly false reaction by several of my distinguished RCA colleagues to the RCA’s recent promulgation of the Geirus Policies and Standards.
Let us sort through the myths and the facts.
Myth: The Jewish Week headlined its report with “RCA Seen as Caving in on Conversions” to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. This is a contemptible untruth. Having served from its inception on the GPS Committee that formulated the standards, the reality is that the Rabbanut never once suggested an approach to conversion in America, a change in any of our standards or the adoption of any of their standards.
Myth: The GPS calls for the re-evaluation of all conversions done in the past by RCA Rabbis. This is an especially despicable falsehood, as it serves only to make generations of converts in the Jewish community anxious about their status and acceptance in the community at large. The reality is that not one past geirus is being reviewed by the RCA or the Beth Din of America, and such was never contemplated. To even suggest otherwise is to blatantly violate the Torah’s numerous admonitions against tormenting the ger.
Myth: The RCA is shifting “to the right” (whatever that means) and has now adopted a series of harsh and restrictive regulations that will hinder the ability of non-Jews to convert. The reality is that these standards are not new, but an expression of the majority opinion in halacha as interpreted through the ages and historically applied by the overwhelming majority of RCA Rabbis involved in geirus. The proximate cause of the promulgation of the GPS was the sense – here and in Israel – that some Rabbis both inside and outside the RCA were not adhering to any reasonable benchmark by which geirus has traditionally been executed. This situation had to be rectified in order to protect the integrity of geirus in America and to facilitate a convert’s acceptance in Israel should he or she choose to make aliyah.
Myth: The Chief Rabbinate will sit in judgment of each American geirus – past, present and future. Well, there is a kernel of truth in every bushel of untruths. But this point is nothing new. Certainly, the Rabbanut has no standing (or interest) to review the geirus that occurs outside Israel until and unless there is some Israel nexus, such as when the convert makes aliya. But this has always been the case. As a pulpit Rabbi, I have provided dozens of affidavits to the Rabbanut attesting to the Jewishness of my members who were born Jews or who converted according to halacha who wished to make aliyah or marry in Israel. And this is justly the province and domain of the Chief Rabbinate, and their legal authority under Israeli law. In this instance, the GPS makes the process easier, as participating regional batei din in the network of the RCA, under the auspices of the Beth Din of America, are pre-certified to have their conversions accepted by the Rabbanut. A convert who (sadly) never contemplates aliyah or does not marry in the State of Israel will never have any contact with the Rabbanut on these matters.
Myth: The Chief Rabbinate will not recognize any conversion performed outside the GPS framework. This is also completely false. Any Rabbi – RCA or otherwise – can continue to perform conversions on his own and apply to the rabbanut for acceptance. The considerations the Rabbanut will use are theirs alone, and completely within their purview. I suspect that some conversions will be accepted, and others rejected – as it has always been.
Beyond the myths, there is a bigger picture that needs to be considered. One of the most joyous moments in the Rabbinate, for me, has occurred when I have presided over the conversion process. In a single instant, a non-Jew accepts upon himself not only the laws and customs that regulate Jewish life but also the history and destiny of our covenantal people. A conversion properly conducted and performed is fraught with solemnity, consequence and elation. It should require intense study, a steadily increasing commitment to halachic practice, and climaxing in a complete acceptance of the mitzvot while standing in the mikveh.
Nevertheless, it has long been an open secret in the United States (filtered over time to rabbinic authorities in Israel) that there were some American Rabbis – again, both members and non-members of the RCA – who officiated at conversions that lacked these prerequisites. Apparently, there were and are rabbis who took substantial sums of money for conversions, turning this sublime process into a lucrative business. There were rabbis who were forced to convert non-Jews under duress, as in the (hypothetical) shul President stating: “Convert my future daughter-in-law or find another job.”
There were rabbis who were lax in applying the appropriate halachic standards and not insisting, expecting or even contemplating that there would be kabbalat hamitzvot in any realistic way – conversions without a genuine commitment to observance of Shabbat, kashrut, taharat hamishpacha, tefila, Torah study or other staples of Jewish life. They asked questions with a wink and received the appropriate answers by those reading from a script. (And in almost every such case, the conversions were performed for the purpose of marriage. Why else would a rabbi even think of converting a non-Jew who does not wish to observe Jewish law, except for some pressing ulterior concern that itself undermines the very fabric of geirus?)
There were rabbis who were negligent even in the technical performance of the act of geirus, including a failure to observe the immersion in the mikveh. There were even rabbis who converted non-Jewish women, knowing they would marry kohanim in violation of Torah law. There were some who availed themselves of every leniency and loophole, ensuring that pro forma conversions would take place that would satisfy the needs of the member in question but not necessarily the letter or spirit of the law. (Lest the reader think there was pervasive chaos, the “rabbis” referred to above were usually the very same small number of people.)
The GPS Committee has performed a vital public service in formulating and disseminating these standards. The formation of regional batei din across the United States, and the ban on the sponsoring or teaching rabbi from serving as a dayan for someone he himself taught or guided, ensure that the individual rabbi is shielded from undue pressure to perform a conversion that is unsatisfactory and lacking in halachic substance. These dozen batei din, and the more than forty rabbanim who serve on them, as well as the many additional ones who will be certified in the months and years to come, have the full backing of the Chief Rabbinate, ensuring that converts who are potential olim receive a royal welcome home. And, I suspect, the existence of these batei din will sharply reduce the number of non-Jews who convert solely for marriage or some other inducement. Further, the GPS deals sensitively with gerim who are contemplating marriage but wish to convert sincerely, with intermarried couples who want to re-enter the community of committed Jews, and with infertile couples who wish to adopt a non-Jewish child and confer merit upon him or her under the wings of the Divine Presence.
With all due respect, I must strongly object to my colleagues’ demagoguery that serves only to alarm true and sincere converts, as well as promote these esteemed Rabbis’ own private, political agenda. The GPS Committee labored over 18 months to produce an appropriate formula that can universalize standards for geirus, but that nonetheless allows for the flexibility needed in evaluating something as subjective as another person’s commitment and sincerity. It has, perhaps, the support of 97% of the RCA membership. It is fair, honorable, sensitive, just and moral.
Its opponents, rather than talk in flowery generalities, must answer the following:
Do you require a genuine commitment to observance of Shabbat, kashrut, and other fundamental areas of Jewish law? If not, please state so openly.
Do you perform conversions in which there is willful blindness to reality in order to accommodate those whose commitment is lacking, and have you ever officiated at a conversion in which you were doubtful of the candidate's sincere commitment toTorah and mitzvot? If so, please state so openly.
Do you feel you are performing a public service in adding to the ranks of the Jewish people those who do not share our value system, our lifestyle or our destiny – thereby transforming decent non-Jews into sinning Jews ? If so, please state precisely the nature of that public service, that disservice to non-Jews, as well as the justification that underlies the unbridled attack on the sincere efforts of your colleagues.
Certainly, for every action there is an equal and opposite criticism; if only the criticism would be reasonable, measured, truthful and justified. With the GPS system in place, a stumbling block has been removed from the process of conversion and the process itself simplified, the honor of righteous converts has been redeemed, the privilege of joining the Jewish people [has been] given its proper credence and, most importantly, the Torah has been magnified and glorified.