Israel needs a Chief Rabbinate. If we are going to have a Jewish country, it has to be Jewish in more than name only - or even as a culture. It has to based on the very thing that makes the Jewish people a distinct nation, the Torah. Without which we are not a distinct people at all. It is the Torah that separates us from the rest of the world and gives us the right to exist as an independent nation in the land of Israel.
We therefore have every right to be there – as a Jewish State. And defining that is key. Without a body that can interpret what does and does not make us Jewish, we may as well just give up the title ‘Jewish State’.
So when the issue of conversion to Judaism came up, I supported the idea of a central governing authority that would assure that all conversions to Judaism are legitimate. To an Orthodox Jew there is no other legitimate expression of Judaism than Orthodoxy. Which is defined as full acceptance of fundamental principles of our faith and uncompromising fealty to Halacha as interpreted by the most learned rabbis of each generation.
In furtherance of that goal the Chief Rabbinate has strengthened its control over what is and is not an acceptable conversion and has fought all non Orthodox movements attempts to have their conversions recognized. They have further coordinated their efforts with the North American rabbis in both the right wing and Centrist camp. The latter of which is represented by the RCA.
The RCA for its part tightened up its own conversions by certifying which of their conversion courts’ converts would be considered legitimate. This needed to be done. I am personally aware of wholesale conversions in the past by certain Orthodox members of the American rabbinate that by most standards were sham conversions – done to satisfy parents who could not face the fact that their child was marrying out. This move has for the most part ended that practice.
Unfortunately the Chief Rabbinate has apparently not been the honest broker that these steps should have made them. There has been more than one instance where legitimate Orthodox converts have been rejected by them. In some cases there was some back-pedaling where those that had been rejected had later been deemed legitimate after all.
But that problem has not been solved. I don’t know what it is, but I suspect that there is a lot of incompetence in the rabbinate. Because in my view the unthinkable happened. If the story in Ha’aretz as reported in the Forward is true, one of America’s most Torah knowledgeable and ethical elder rabbis has been dishonored. Not just any rabbi, but the sitting head of the RCA Beis Din, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz:
The haredi Orthodox-dominated rabbinate rejected the conversions approved by Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, according to documents obtained by Haaretz…
Itamar Tubul, who heads the rabbinate’s conversion department, rejected three conversions approved by Schwartz. He accepted a fourth, but it was turned down by the rabbinate.Ultimately, the four converts in question were not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate, according to Ha'aretz.
All of the converts had approval letters signed by Schwartz, according to Itim, an organization that helps Israelis navigate religious bureaucracy.
I could not agree more with the reaction of the RCA:
Rabbi Shalom Bau, president of the RCA, said, “We have already begun an investigation into this latest disgrace and we demand a thorough report of how this could happen.”
To call this a disgrace is an understatement. In my view this casts the entire current enterprise of the Chief Rabbinate into question. They either have no clue what they are doing, or have let power go to their heads. Or both. I have been defending them albeit with some reservation because I believed they were acting in the best interests of the Jewish people. Even when they made some mistakes – which they clearly did. Some of which were corrected. Mistakes happen and as long as there is a good faith effort to correct them, I stood behind them. But this goes too far.
I hate to admit it, but all of the critics of the Rabbinate as currently constructed and empowered seem to have been right all along! If this is not corrected… if their decision is not reversed with a public apology to Rav Schwartz, they have lost all legitimacy in my eyes.
That said, I am still a strong believer in the need for a Chief Rabbinate for the reasons I mentioned above. But not this one. They are an embarrassment to the Jewish people! If they don’t change their ways, I call upon them to disband and be replaced by a new Chief Rabbinate - or at the very least I call for the resignation of those in leadership positions responsible for this kind of behavior to be replaced by rabbis that have a lot more integrity than they appear to have.