Earlier this month Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the much admired Chief Rabbi of Efrat, reopened the issue of conversion to Judaism in a piece he published in the Jerusalem Post, as well as other papers in the Anglo-Jewish media.
Rabbi Riskin is well known for his work on behalf of Jewish education, Zionism, and a more tolerant approach to Judaism. It is for this reason that his seeming out-of-the-blue screed against the non-Orthodox denominational leadership comes as a surprise.
As one who admires Rav Riskin, it is with reluctance that I must challenge, not his wisdom, but his understanding of the facts. Thus I shall present the correct information- at least as I understand it.
While Rabbi Riskin''s words are often interesting, they too often oversimplify realities. This holds true in his recent piece "A Blessing and a Curse."Riskin states, "Traditional Jewish law considers one to be Jewish only if he has either been born to a Jewish mother or has converted to Judaism before a religious court of three Orthodox rabbis. Now Riskin must know just how silly this is. A check of the Talmud, the Mishneh Torah, the Shulachan Aruch, and the various other codes will show that this statement is without basis. Indeed the codes allow for conversion by 3 lay people. If Riskin is inclined to accept only a Beit Din composed of Orthodox rabbis-fine. But to suggest that this is a part of “traditional Jewish law” is a bit much.Next he writes, "Additionally, Israel’s Law of Return, a fundamental statute of the Jewish state, grants automatic citizenship to any individual who would have been considered Jewish enough to be sent to Auschwitz under the Nazi regime: anyone who had one Jewish great-grandparent, even from a paternal line."
This, I am guessing, is just a slip up. The Law of Return applies to anyone who had one Jewish GRANDPARENT, even from a paternal line." And at that, there are exceptions(space does not allow me to go into specifics).Rav Riskin, rightly, disparages the Zealously Orthodox Rabbinate for its obfuscations. But he also sees no place for the non-Orthodox rabbis. Those to his right are too strict and those to his left lack authority. That leaves but one way - the Riskin way. Rabbi Riskin cavalierly states that the Rotem bill would "have enabled every city rabbi” to open religious courts of conversion and facilitate the marriage of the successful converts." He then asks what brought about the international storm of protest.Were his analysis about opening the doors to converts correct, the Masorti and Reform Movements may have withheld criticism. The reality is that such conversions, under the proposed Rotem Bill, would be subject to the approval of Israel''s Chief Rabbi. Had the Chief Rabbi wished to approve a more open approach, he could, and would, do so now. In addition, the wording of the law would potentially eliminate the progress made by the Masorti and Reform Movement in the area of conversion thus ensuring a true monopoly. Far better would be to privatize the official Rabbinate and allow all streams equal access. It was the very Orthodox world to which subscribes (the RCA) that entered into a deal with the Chief Rabbinate that would all but eliminate even most Orthodox rabbis in North America from having their conversions recognized by the State of Israel under the Law of Return and for religious purposes.Riskin adds "The Conservative and Reform leadership in America objected vociferously to the Rotem bill because it would place within the corpus of Israeli law the fact that conversions within the State of Israel are to be conducted under the aegis of the Chief Rabbinate."
This too is not so. It would be correct to say we object as it would place conversions under the EXCLUSIVE aegis of the Chief Rabbinate. We do not oppose conversions by the Rabbinate. Quite the opposite – we would welcome a far more open policy. For decades the Rabbinate, before its slide into an anti (or at least non) Zionist approach, had a far more tolerant approach to conversion.
I am surprised that Rabbi Riskin wants to further empower the Chief Rabbinate. This is the very Rabbinate that balked at recognizing Orthodox conversions performed in Israel''s army. This is the same Rabbinate that too often refused to register for marriage those converted by other Orthodox rabbis. It is the Rabbinate that will not move to solve the issue of Agunot. How outlandish that Rabbi Riskin would seek to further broaden the powers given over to Israel''s sad, even irrelevant, Chief Rabbinate.Rav Riskin continues to mislead by saying, "Here, however, nothing has changed; the Chief Rabbinate has been the defacto imprimatur for conversions since the founding of the state."
This too is not so. Nothing has changed except for the fact that non-Orthodox converts abroad may make Aliyah under the Law of Return - despite protestations from the official Rabbinate. Nothing has changes except for the fact that non-Jewish Israeli residents who undergo a Masorti or Reform conversion in Israel may change their registration to "Jewish" in the Interior Ministry. Indeed much has changed.Why Rabbi Riskin has chosen this time to, albeit in nice language, to disparage the motives the Jewish world''s largest Diaspora community is beyond me.But at least, in the name of Yosher, he should get the facts straight.