A worthy compromise for the sake of converts

Though we cannot solve all their conflicts at once, there is a good solution that allows both sides to climb off their tall trees and reach a compromise.

Tallit (prayer shawl) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Tallit (prayer shawl)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Since MK Elazar Stern’s conversion reform bill passed its first reading, tensions have been rising between proponents and opponents of the proposed law. The most succinct example of these tensions is that chief rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday that the Chief Rabbinate would not recognize conversions performed by municipal chief rabbis under the terms of the proposed legislation.
Rabbi David Stav, in turn, heavily criticized the chief rabbis, adding that, “The person running the chief rabbinate today is Arye Deri. He decides who is a Jew and who is not, who is a rabbi and who is not.” Stav further threatened that the bill could pass and new conversion courts could effectively operate without the chief rabbis’ cooperation. This may be his strongest attack on the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to date; it is an outright declaration of war.
We are at an impasse.
Though we cannot solve all their conflicts at once, there is a good solution that allows both sides to climb off their tall trees and reach a compromise: the conversion courts model of the Rabbinical Council of America, the Geirus Policies and Standards network (GPS).
Though much maligned at this very moment by its opponents, who are piggy-backing on the brewing scandal of grave allegations against Rabbi Barry Freundel, who was one of the architects of the GPS, the way the scandal has been handled and how people who converted under that regime were quickly confirmed and defended against any attacks shows that the system works.
Freundel, who had been chairman of the GPS committee until 2013 and who headed a GPS conversion court in Washington, DC, was arrested a fortnight ago, allegedly having installed a spy camera in the women’s mikve and even convinced prospective converts to do what he called “practice dunks,” a practice never heard of before, but that would enable him to film the women nude.
The investigation is ongoing, but the RCA, after immediately suspending Freundel, quickly confirmed the legitimacy of all past conversions, even those officiated by him in person, and also formed a committee to study where in the conversion process there is potential for abuse, so as to implement additional protections. It also announced the appointment of an ombudswoman whom conversion candidates can turn to.
For the debate surrounding the Stern bill, the scandal and its aftermath matter little; it is an American story. But the speed with which the RCA could come to the aid of worried converts, and with which the Chief Rabbinate then accepted the RCA’s Beth Din of America’s determination of past conversions’ validity matter greatly. It shows that it is possible to delegate authority to other bodies while maintaining quality standards.
How does the GPS do it? By instituting uniform minimum standards that are broadly accepted, management requirements and reporting requirements. The uniform minimum standards guarantee that all network conversion courts adhere to sufficiently high halachic standards, so that the converts will be accepted by all leading rabbinates. The management standards ensure that the service quality level will be uniform, and also prevent certain types of abuse. For example, GPS courts may not charge exorbitant fees. Finally, the reporting requirements allow for checks and balances to ascertain that courts actually follow the standards and do not just pretend to.
Notably, the GPS standards also include the possibility of accepting leniencies in exceptional cases, but subjects exceptions to a set of standards, so that converts granted an exceptional leniency will still receive the quality of service and the recognition the GPS brings.
In Israel, a GPS-like standard can allow the Chief Rabbinate to maintain halachic control and institute checks and balances, while delegating to local rabbis the operational authority needed to create conversion courts closer to the public. Conversion under such a system will not be any easier or more lenient, but it will be more humane, as bureaucratic cruft is removed.
Candidates may even find rabbis they personally know, and more importantly, who know them personally, serving on, presiding over the court or playing another important auxiliary role in it, giving them more confidence and greater peace of mind as the court probes into their commitment to Judaism.
Because such a system would be created by an act of the Knesset, checks and balances could be backed by the full force of the law, that could even more effectively prevent violations of standards by local conversion judges. When a GPS-approved court veers from the standards, the RCA has recourse only to limited sanctions against offending rabbis. In Israel, however, the law could provide for stiff penalties in the case of renegade courts.
Last July, the RCA, in a resolution, called for a GPS-like system for Israel.
It would satisfy both the Chief Rabbinate’s demands of halachic integrity and Tzohar’s demands of greater proximity to the convert and increased capacity of conversion courts.
The author is a member of the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and of the Standing Committee of the Conference of European Rabbis, but this article is his own private expert opinion.