Orthodox vs Orthodox on the Issue of Conversion

The Forward has an interesting (not to mention aggravating) article “Slamming the Door on Converts” detailing some of the current infighting between the Ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate of Israel and the Rabbinical Council of America, which in theory is a more middle of the road Orthodox movement.

In a nutshell what seems to be going on is that, the Ultra-Orthodox (power holders) in Israel are no longer willing to accept American Orthodox conversions unless they meet specific guidelines/standards set by the Chief Rabbi of Israel. Apparently these standards are way beyond those typically (or should I say historically?) expected from a “Halachick” conversion process.

At first glance, this was no big deal (at least to me) because, after all I didn’t convert in to an Orthodox community and therefore don’t count anyways. Yup, I’m as non-Jewish, as one can be according to the Orthodox, even including the more left-wing and progressive side. So its not like this infighting really changes anything for me.

Or Does it?

As I kept reading, I began to realize what a bloody mess all of this is and that it does in fact effect me, albeit indirectly. I mean if the Chief Rabbi thinks that RAC is not up to snuff and has effectively bullied them to the point of caving into his demands, what chance to any of us (outside Orthodoxy) have? I sometimes delude myself into thinking that this “who is a Jew” thing can be worked out, if all sides are willing to stretch and compromise. But reading this I can see that I spend, a lot of time living in a state of pure fantasy. Sure maybe it’s not such a big deal here in the NA Diaspora but it’s still hurts to read this kind of stuff.

I believe in Klal Yisrael and I’m more then willing to do my part but right now I’m wondering if that will ever be good enough?

Anyhow if you check out the article, let me know what you think.

About the Author

Avi M

Avi is a Jew by choice who converted to Judaism in the spring of 2006 after two years of study and participation in Ottawa’s Jewish community. Although he began his Jewish journey as part of a Reform congregation, he now calls the Conservative movement home. Read More

5 Responses to “ Orthodox vs Orthodox on the Issue of Conversion ”

  1. Hey Avi,
    I actually think the current conversion debate in Israel is good for non-Orthodox converts, and non-Orthodox Judaism in general in the Jewish State. Here’s why:
    1) In response to rulings in relation to the Shmita year and agricultural produce, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate is being openly challenged in many areas by the Dati (National Religious… the kippah sruga guys) Rabbinical organization in Israel, including in the area of conversions. They are working to establish their own Rabbinical Courts to deal with these matters from a non-Haredi perspective, and chiefly to break the monopoly of the Haredi community in terms of dictating religious policy.
    2) Any break in this monopoly is a good one, because having two voices is a sure sign that having more than that is possible too. The Dati rabbanim will be able to rule for their community, so what about our Masorti brothers and sisters, or Reformniks? This move could pave the way for wider acceptance of non-Orthodox Judaism there as well.
    3) This whole scenario made the Chief Rabbinate look ridiculous. That is never a bad thing, and Israelis and Jews around the world saw the whole thing happen. The tighter they squeeze, the more will slip through their fingers.
    Anyway, just some thoughts. By the way, the Chief Rabbinate is actually made up of two chief rabbis – Rabbi Yonah Metzger is the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi, and Rabbi Shlomo Amar is the Chief Sephardi Rabbi. So, even in the appearance of a single authority, there are actually two, and this variation within Haredi communities in Israel demonstrates the myth of a single Torah voice.
    Great post!
    kol tuv,

  2. Hey Yair

    You bring up several valid and interesting points which I will now briefly try to address.

    As for your point number 1) I can’t really speak to it as I’m not all at informed on the subject. Using your analysis of the situation it certainly seems to have some potential for being a positive in terms of breaking the chief rabbinate’s stranglehold. However, according to the article cited in the above post, the good work you’re referring to may well be in the process of being canceled out by the capitulating (if that’s the right word) of the Rabbinical Council of America, both in terms of conversion standards and who is actually allowed to perform halachick conversions. It’s not to say that you’re wrong, simply that I don’t think were moving forward quite as rapidly as your comment suggests. Then again I’m not the most informed so what do I know.

    As for your 2) point, I agree 100% that it could pave the way for greater tolerance and religious pluralism. However (again keeping the article I mentioned in mind) it’s hard for me to take any religious change in Israel serious when even the Orthodox here are falling in line with the Israeli ultraorthodox in terms of conversion.

    As for your third point to be honest I really didn’t notice any stories in the news but then again I wasn’t paying attention to such things at the time. I do think you’re right that it’s good for people to see clearly both in Israel and the diaspora what the rabbinate is actually like, so I hope you’re right.

    Lastly, yes I did know that the Chief Rabbinate actually is made up of two chief rabbis one Sephardic and one Ashkenazi and you’re right there are technically two voices of “Torah”. However at least when it comes to the question of who is a Jew and the status of non-Orthodox/halachick conversions, I think it’s safe to say they speak with one voice.

    Bottom line is that I’m not suggesting you are wrong about what’s going on in Israel and to be honest I hope that you are right. I’m just not so optimistic about things right now for a couple of reasons, the most recent being that article in the foreword.

    Ultimately only time will tell I suppose.

  3. Shalom Avi,
    You are right about point number one in that it does not speak directly to the issue of conversion. But any challenge to Haredi hegemony in terms of rabbinical authority is a positive development. And the Shmita year issue really blew up over there, and it shows no signs of abating; my point was that if the Dati community (which roughly corresponds to Modern Orthodox here…) is able to break through in this area, their ability to take control in other areas can’t be far behind. Once there is no longer a single Chief Rabbinate, there is little political strength from which to halt the progress at two. It seems a logical step to move to giving each Jewish steam authority to chart its own course. We won’t see the change we’re hoping for tomorrow, but maybe sooner than we thought six months ago.

    I didn’t mean my comment #3 about the dual Chief Rabbis to sound insulting, i.e., like you didn’t know that. I just meant to point out that when the argument of “K’lal Yisrael” is raised to deny non-Orthodox conversions as if Judaism has a single best standard, it ignores the vast variation in the Haredi community worldwide. Hasidim or Misnagdim? Within the Hassidic world, what’s best, Bobov, Lubavitch, Bratzlav, Rizhin, Satmar, Vizhnitz, etc? Do you lay Beit Yosef, Arizal, or Velish Tefillin? Dalet knot or square knot? Do we slice Hallah or tear it? I know some of these things are minhag versus halakha, but still, the impression that a universal opinion exists about everything in Judaism is not accurate, and the Chief Rabbinate can’t be allowed to insist it is. Even some Orthodox rabbanim have argued for the acceptance of converts who have made conversion accepted by non-Orthodox movements, provided the standard requirements are met (bris/hatafat dam, beit din, tevilah) – for example, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, z”l. Anyway… this was a good post, and like you I hope things work out for greater openness.
    kol tuv!

  4. A lot of people get bowled over by Rabbis coming out of Israel simply because they come out of Israel, and this is a mistake. Let us remember and bear in mind always: Israel is a modern, secular, democratic state. The idea for it was formed and the country pioneered by modern, secular, democratic people. A hundred years ago or so, people like the Chief Rabbis of Israel, Ashkenazic and Sephardic, were violently opposed to the foundation of this modern state, as are many Haredi living there under its protection today.

    If Judaism has survived it is because of the Diaspora community. This is an important fact we need to remember and make others remember. Indeed, the continued survival of Israel itself is due in large part to the support of the Diaspora community around the world, but especially in the United States and that community is overwhelmingly Reform, Conservative, and secular. It is wrong for us to kowtow to the arbitrary and reactionary decrees of a small number or Israeli Jews merely because they are Israeli and consider themselves the heirs to Hillel and Shammai and the Sanhedrin of old. They are no such thing, and there is no need for us to go along with or play into that delusion.

    As Reform or Conservative Jews we tend on some level to defer to more “traditional” Jews merely because they seem more traditional, more authentic. This is wrong. Don’t let the black hats and beards fool you. Judaism is a living, thriving, and evolving entity. These so-called “traditional” Jews want to take the life out of that entity, cut off its oxygen, and preserve it fixed and unchanging like a bug in amber. This means death, and must be vigorously opposed by those of us who see the faith as an evolving tradition that can live and thrive in any time or condition.

    Ultimately, what these people say about what is or is not Halachic and acceptable in terms of conversion or anything else means little. They don’t make the decisions about these things. Ultimately, those decisions are made over time by K’lal Yisroel itself, first as chag and then as Halacha. So let this small group of Jews go on talking to themselves, arguing pilpul, and becoming increasingly irrelevant to the rest of us. Because we are Israel, not them, and we will still be here when they are long gone.

  5. Yankel,
    I agree with you to an extent, in that I cannot be Orthodox, because all though I do believe in Torah min Shamayim, I do not believe in Torah mi’ Sinai. On the other hand, even Conservative in the U.S., has become so politically correct, that I cannot agree with them, although I do agree with the Israeli Masorti Movement.

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