Rabbinate: Conversion conflict not over

Many US Orthodox converts are still considered gentiles due to court dispute.

amar 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
amar 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Officials in the Chief Rabbinate Sunday denied claims it has reached a major breakthrough with the Rabbinical Council of America over conversion policy. "We still have not agreed on the list of rabbinical courts in the US that are authorized by the Rabbinate to perform conversions," said Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, an aide to Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar who is responsible for liaison with Diaspora rabbis. Peretz was responding to an announcement made over the weekend by the RCA, one of the largest rabbinic organization in the Diaspora, claiming that it had reached an agreement on the issue with the Chief Rabbinate. The announcement came ahead of a major three-day RCA annual convention in New York City. In a Rabbinical Council press release, Amar is quoted as saying, "I am most pleased by this agreement, one which I fully anticipate will be a model for Jewish communities all over the world." Rabbi Barry Freundel, chairman of the joint Geirut [Conversion] Policies and Standards Committee was quoted as saying, "This historic and long-overdue agreement is a major milestone, not just for future converts to Judaism and their descendants, but for the entire Jewish people, in North America, Israel and around the world. "By thus standardizing conversion procedures and standards, many individuals, families, rabbis and Jewish communities will be able to avoid many of the problems heretofore experienced." But Peretz and other sources in the Chief Rabbinate said that no agreement had been reached. One source said that of about a dozen US rabbinic conversion courts approved by the RCA, "several" were still not recognized by the Rabbinate. This means that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people approved by these rabbinic courts who thought they joined the Jewish people according to Orthodox standards are still considered gentiles by the Rabbinate. Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, said in a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post that the differences between the RCA and the Rabbinate were "matters of detail." "As far as everyone is concerned the deal is completed," said Herring, who admitted that he might not have announced the agreement, which has yet to be committed to paper, if the RCA convention were "in three weeks time." For now, these converts may be considered Jews for the purpose of immigration to Israel, but if they attempt to marry via Israel's Rabbinate they will be forced to either prove that their conversion was valid by showing a commitment to an Orthodox lifestyle or undergo another conversion that is kosher according to the rabbinate's more stringent standards. However, dissent between the RCA and the Israeli rabbinate is not limited to the list of certified US rabbinic conversion courts. To the RCA's chagrin, Israel's Chief Rabbinate refuses to recognize any new conversion court judges unless they come to Jerusalem for a test and a personal interview before a special tribunal. Peretz said this was Amar's personal demand. But Herring denied that this requirement was part of the agreement between the RCA and the Chief Rabbinate. Sources close to the Rabbinate said Amar's demand contradicted an age-old rabbinic tradition that older rabbis, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, with wisdom and righteousness could bestow rabbinic authority to perform conversions on their students. Throughout centuries of exile since the destruction of the Second Temple and the subsequent demise of the Sanhedrin, this authority has remained decentralized. Respected rabbis have been relied upon to give ordination to each of their students. "Amar did not consult any of the great rabbinic sages regarding this issue," said one haredi rabbi who doubted that Amar would "prevent truly great Halachic scholars" in the Diaspora from entrusting their students with the duty to perform conversions. Tension between the Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinical Council of America over conversion policy came to a head a year ago when Amar made it known in several public appearances that he had decided to standardize conversions performed abroad. Over the past year the two organizations have tried to reach an agreement over precisely how to go about that standardization.