US Orthodox rabbinical association: Chief Rabbinate behavior ‘a disgrace’

Normative Jewish law states that if after converting a convert subsequently fails to fulfill all the religious commandments he nevertheless remains Jewish.

A man wears a kippa embroidered with US and Israeli flags (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man wears a kippa embroidered with US and Israeli flags
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Rabbinical Council of America, the most prominent association of Orthodox rabbis in the US, has branded the Chief Rabbinate’s behavior in a conversion case “a disgrace” due to its rejection of conversions approved by the most senior rabbinical judge of the Orthodox Beth Din (religious court) of America, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz.
The emergence of this issue follows the refusal by Israel’s Supreme Rabbinical Court to recognize a conversion performed by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a prominent and respected Orthodox rabbi in the US.
The Jerusalem Post has reported on previous rejections of Schwartz’s conversion approvals, while there are another three outstanding cases in which the senior rabbinical judge’s certification has been questioned by the Chief Rabbinate.
The rabbinate’s rejection of conversions approved by Schwartz has come to light due to a recent case of conversion verification, which came before officials at the Chief Rabbinate and the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court in 2015.
The man in question had converted to Judaism in the US over 20 years ago and subsequently emigrated to Israel. In April 2015, he approached ITIM, a religious services advisory organization, concerned that the Chief Rabbinate would not recognize him as Jewish for the purposes of burial in a Jewish cemetery.
ITIM submitted the man’s conversion certificate to Rabbi Itamar Tubul, who runs the Marriage and Conversion Department of the Chief Rabbinate, and he replied that the rabbi involved with the conversion of the man in question was not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate.
ITIM subsequently requested a formal approval of the conversion by Schwartz, whose conversion approvals are supposed to be accepted by the rabbinate under the terms of a deal worked out between the RCA, with which the Beth Din of America is affiliated, and the Chief Rabbinate in 2008.
Schwartz did approve the conversion and issued an approval certificate, but Tubul rejected this conversion approval as well.
In July, Tubul wrote, “a conversion approval by a third party who did not himself conduct the conversion and was not himself part of preparing the conversion, and similarly who is not [involved] in the inspection of the integration [of the convert] into Jewish community life and in general requires clarification.”
When the case came before the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court, it, too, refused to recognize the conversion and demanded that the man undergo what is known as “conversion for the purpose of stringency,” whereby the individual concerned repeats the central requirements of Jewish conversion.
The man was already circumcised, since he had converted more than 20 years earlier, so he was required to have a small drop of blood drawn from his penis, as part of this “conversion for stringency” process.
In addition, he had to repeat his commitment to fulfilling the religious commandments and immerse himself in a mikve, after which the rabbinical court finally declared him to be Jewish.
The RCA said it “strongly objects” to the Chief Rabbinate’s decision, and in reference to the 2008 agreement said that it has “worked assiduously with the rabbinate in the past to assure the integrity of converts.”
“We have already begun an investigation into this latest disgrace, and we demand a thorough report of how this could happen,” RCA president Rabbi Shalom Baum said.
The RCA statement said: “This decision by the Chief Rabbinate is especially egregious, because it challenges the rulings of one of the preeminent halachic authorities, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, who serves as the president of the Beth Din of America, and because it disregards the great efforts that we have made over the years, for the benefit of converts, to work with the Chief Rabbinate.”
ITIM director Rabbi Seth Farber praised the RCA for its strong stance and said it highlighted “a growing shift between the rabbinate and the halachic community around the world.” He called on the chief rabbinate to immediately recognize all the certifications of Rabbi Schwartz as well as to create a new policy that will be as inclusive as possible to all converts.
“While the rabbinate pretends to speak in the name of the integrity of halacha, it, in fact, is completely disregarding basic principles – especially those of loving the convert,” Farber said. “The Jewish community is meant to be sensitive to the vulnerability of converts. Instead, the rabbinate has chosen to abuse them.”
Farber also took issue with another policy that emerged from Tubul’s statement, regarding the original case, in which he spoke of the lack of “inspection” of converts’ integration into Jewish life by rabbis, like Schwartz, issuing conversion approvals.
Normative Jewish law states that if after converting a convert subsequently fails to fulfill all the religious commandments, he nevertheless remains Jewish, but stringencies applied by haredi rabbinical authorities in recent years have challenged this approach.
“The rabbinate’s new requirement that a certifying rabbi has to be following the involvement of the convert in the Jewish community over an unspecified amount of time is absurd,” Farber said. “The rabbinate seems to completely disrespect the authority of the American rabbinical courts and imposes arbitrary and non-halachic regulations upon respected rabbis. This requirement is antithetical to basic Jewish principles that protect the convert and demand from the Jewish community to love those who join our faith.”
In response, the rabbinate said: “There are no all-inclusive approvals or rejections, every case is examined on its own merits.”
Sources in the rabbinate have indicated that this opposition is being spearheaded by Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who does not wish to give authority to approve conversions for life-cycle purposes in Israel to any rabbi in the US, even if the case pertains to conversions and other matters originally conducted in the US.