Rabbi Michael Broyde
Rabbi Broyde is a dayan in the Beth Din of America and also a professor of Law at Emory University.
Over the last few weeks much ink has been spilled seeking to explain the recent changes announced by the Beth Din of America and the Rabbinical Council of America regarding matters of conversion. Yet we feel that there still is much confusion within both the rabbinic and lay community. The goal of this article is to explain three things: First, we will describe the historical process for conversion in America and its deficiencies; second, we will clarify how the current process will be structured; and finally, we will share our hopes for the future of conversion.
Unlike in other countries with organized Orthodox Jewish communities, historically, conversion matters in the United States have been in the hands of local synagogue rabbis, who performed conversions when, in their individual judgment, a conversion was called for. This arrangement suffered no less than five distinct failings, of which each and every rabbinical court around the world was acutely aware.
First, the lack of a unified system led to allegations of fraud, corruption and abuse, as less-than-reputable rabbis (it was alleged) would perform conversions in return for illicit payments.
Second, local rabbis would sometimes be pressured to perform conversions to “solve” problems for congregants or their children, and they would be hard-pressed to exercise proper halachic judgment given the pressing needs of an important community member, or even a wedding date.
Third, rabbis adopted halachic standards for conversion that were very diverse, and there have been some Orthodox rabbis who were prepared to perform conversions even when there was no expectation that the convert would live a life observant of halacha.
Fourth, since so many rabbis were performing conversions in the United States, it was nearly impossible even for a well-connected organization like the Beth Din of America to keep track of who was performing proper conversions (and who was not). Rabbinical courts overseas and in Israel certainly could not make such determinations successfully.
Finally and most importantly, converts themselves found that they could not make a reasonable determination of when a particular rabbi’s conversion would be generally accepted by other members of the Orthodox community. Stories of converts or even their children forced to undergo multiple conversions became common, and our community failed to treat converts and the conversion process with dignity and love, as halacha requires us. In short, the status quo ante was far from ideal.
The solution to these multiple problems was clear to us almost twenty years ago, when the RCA took its first steps at reforming the way conversions took place. The conversion process needed to become more centralized, with fewer autonomous rabbis or rabbinical courts performing conversions, and with published standards that all of these rabbinical courts would commit to following. These standards would govern not only matters of halacha, but would also set reasonable guidelines for what compensation could fairly be expected as part of a conversion process. It would also seek to ensure that converts, after their conversion, would be well integrated into the Orthodox community.
The conversion process would be overseen by a regional rabbinical court belonging to a centralized network, precisely because such a court’s (local) independence would serve as a separation between the sponsoring rabbi (a synagogue rabbi who would support the potential convert in his or her desire to become Jewish and take responsibility for the potential convert’s education) and the dayanim who actually perform the conversion, while its (national) affiliation would demand consistent standards and achieve universal recognition. This structure would provide much of the needed neutrality in order to ensure that conversions would actually adhere to common halachic standards and be free of abuse. These conversion panels would regulate the fees charged to converts, in order to ensure that no one would even appear to be buying or selling a conversion. Most significantly, other rabbis around the globe would be assured that conversions done through these centrally organized rabbinical courts would not adopting understandings of Jewish law that fall outside the range of normative accepted halacha. Finally, converts could be confident that their conversions would be universally accepted precisely because they could be certain that the halachic standards used were normative.
The Gerus (Conversion) Network organized by the Beth Din of America and the Rabbinical Council of America is the beginnings of this process. The regional rabbinical courts will all adhere to a common set of halachic principles, a common set of practices and procedures and a common set of communal policies. Furthermore, conversions performed by these panels will, we are sure, be recognized by every other rabbinical organization globally and certainly by the Israeli chief rabbinate. The virtues of such recognition are obvious – but worth repeating. Converts need not fear that their conversion will be called into question many years later. And converts who seek to marry will have no problem having their conversions recognized by other Orthodox communities.
Of course, neither rabbis nor converts are required to participate in this network and are free to perform or seek out independent conversions. But we see no real reason why any rabbi who truly expects to perform conversions with integrity and consistent with normative halacha which requires that converts actually live an Orthodox life would seek to opt out of this network. In fact, our experience in the Beth Din of America has been that requests come in regularly from many different cities to join the network of regional batei din, precisely because every rabbi and every convert benefits from conversion performed with integrity, consistent with normative halacha, and supervised by neutral dayanim.
All beginnings are complex, as our Sages observe, and change – even for the better – always encounters opposition from those who can hardly envision a future better than that which maintains the status quo. We have no doubt that over time the creation of regional rabbinical courts for conversion that are supervised by nationally recognized batei din will become the norm throughout the land, not because arms will be twisted and rabbis coerced into submission, but because this is a genuinely superior process for all the aforementioned reasons.
Certainly, some rabbis feel that their local autonomy is being diminished, and there is some truth to this – but community rabbis should support a process that works better for converts, whether or not it decreases their own autonomy. Local congregational rabbis, even if they will not officiate at the formal act of conversion, will still function as “sponsoring rabbi”s who will guide the potential convert through the entire process and maintain the regular, personal relationship with the candidate. Ultimately, the beit din’s determination of when and if to proceed with the conversion of a given candidate will be strongly informed by the “sponsoring rabbi”’s recommendation or lack of it.
This system is for the benefit of converts, in that it ensures that converts are brought into the fold in a manner consistent with mainstream Orthodox standards and thus that they will not have their conversions challenged in the future, it creates a process that helps them integrate into the general Jewish community, and it vastly reduces the possibility of corruption. It is the best interest of the convert that this approach is designed to look out for.
For those still not convinced, a historical analogy might be worth pondering. Seventy-five years ago, kashrut supervision in America was in the hands of hundreds of local rabbis, with extremely diverse standards and (sadly) differing levels of integrity. People found trusting what was really kosher to extremely difficult, and as a result many stopped keeping kosher altogether. The informal centralization of kashrut standards into a few national agencies which interact with one another, operate with integrity and adhere to normative and relatively common standards has been a great benefit to the Orthodox community.
The same, we hope, will be true for conversion. The RCA Gerus Network will oversee rabbinical courts of integrity, implement uniform standards, and facilitate heightened communication between the batei din that perform conversions nationwide. This will make the process of conversion for those converts who are sincerely committed to observing halacha what it ought to be – a sanctification of God’s name.