(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Amid a flood of complaints, Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar hinted Tuesday he would backtrack on a change in conversion policy that has aroused the rancor of rabbis all over the world.
"If Diaspora rabbinic organizations can prove they have an organizational apparatus on par with the Israeli Rabbinate, I will be willing to consider [recognizing conversions performed abroad]," Amar told The Jerusalem Post.
"The door is open," added Amar.
"Amar is feeling the pressure," estimated one Diaspora rabbinic authority, explaining Amar's about-face.
"I do not understand their anger," said Amar referring to Diaspora rabbinic leaders. "All we want to do is bring order to the conversion process and set internationally recognized standards."
Diaspora rabbis are angry about a decision, made unilaterally by Amar close to two years ago, to stop recognizing some conversions performed abroad by Orthodox rabbis, even though these rabbis are affiliated with reputable rabbinic organizations such as the Rabbinic Council of America, the largest rabbinic organization in the world.
Recent Jewish news media coverage of Amar's decision and how it has affected converts who immigrate to Israel has resulted in a wave of protest. People who have undergone Orthodox conversions abroad conducted by rabbis recognized in the past by the Israeli Rabbinate are encountering difficulties. Their cases are being delayed for further review, resulting in the immense suffering of converts who wish to marry or immigrate to Israel as Jews.
Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the RCA, said there was a severe lack of communication between the Israeli Rabbinate and his organization.
"We are concerned that this issue be properly addressed in consultation with the RCA and the Israeli Rabbinate to prevent further alienation of Diaspora Jewry from the state of Israel and the Israeli rabbinic establishment.
"We share in the goal of sharing uniform standards," added Herring. "However, it must be done in a constructive and cooperative manner that takes into consideration the realities of Diaspora Jewry."
After Shavuot, members of the RCA and perhaps members of other Diaspora rabbinic organizations in Europe are expected to arrive in Israel to meet with Amar on the issue.
One source, closely familiar with the issue of conversions performed abroad, estimated that the change of Amar's vis-a-vis the Diaspora rabbinic establishment was basically an organizational problem.
"It is tough, complex work dealing with dozens of rabbinic conversion courts all over the world," said the source. "You have to work hard to learn the subject. You have to travel a lot and meet with people in order to fully understand the complexities of Diaspora Jewry. The people working with Rabbi Amar simply lack the talent or the motivation or both to deal with it. So they are taking the easy way out by disqualifying everybody."
In essence, Amar's refusal to recognize conversions by reputable rabbis outside Israel is a blow to the 2,000 year-old rabbinic tradition according to which authority is passed from rabbi to student. This transferring of authority, called smicha, enables one rabbi to empower another rabbi to perform rabbinic duties such as conversions or divorce.
In contrast, Amar is attempting to centralize the power to provide smicha in the hands of the Israeli Rabbinate. Amar wants all rabbis not already recognized by the Israeli Rabbinate to come to Israel to be tested and interviewed by a committee of three rabbis: Chaim Rosenthal, Zion Buaron and Amram Elhadad.
Rabbi Pinchas Goldshmidt, head of foreign relations for the Conference of European Rabbis, with about 1,000 Orthodox rabbi-members, stressed the importance of standardizing conversion criteria in cooperation with the Israeli Rabbinate. He said representatives of the conference would be meeting with Amar.
"The Rabbinate definitely needs to be a player in the setting of these standards," added Goldshmidt who denied European rabbis were angry with Amar.
However, both Herring and Amar himself said they had received numerous angry complaints from rabbis all over the world.
"The conversion issue needs to be discussed and reviewed," said Herring. "Telling rabbis that they have to come running to Israel to take a test to be recognized is very problematic. We believe standardization must be done in a way that does not throw out the baby with the bathwater."