A response to Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabbi Mark Angel

An Orthodox rabbinic organization cannot offer automatic recognition and certification to every conversion by its members.

Newly-Jewish Peruvians take lessons of Hebrew language in Alon Shvut, July 21, 2002. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Newly-Jewish Peruvians take lessons of Hebrew language in Alon Shvut, July 21, 2002.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the April 22, 2014, edition of The Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabbi Marc Angel critiqued the Rabbinical Council of America, alleging that the RCA’s GPS conversion program has undermined its members’ rabbinic independence, and given righteous converts good reason to fear that the RCA will at some point invalidate their conversion.
As one of the architects of GPS, which was formed during my tenure as the executive vice president of the RCA, I would like to respond, albeit in my personal capacity, and not on behalf of the RCA.
Rabbis Weiss and Angel allege that the RCA has violated its pledge that “any conversions performed previous to GPS that met its standard then, would continue to be recognized,” by failing to recognize all heretofore acceptable conversions. But the allegation is without any merit. Long before GPS the RCA did not automatically recognize member conversions. For instance, on October 4, 1989, members were informed that because the RCA had recently established regional RCA Batei Din for conversion “those conversions which will not be authorized by the regional batei din will not be registered at the national office; consequently if an inquiry will be made by Israeli or other recognized Batei Din or rabbonim, the national office will refuse to respond positively regarding the status of the conversion.”
That is, GPS was not the first time the RCA centralized conversions, nor was it the first time that all local rabbis’ conversions were not certified by the organization. So much then for Rabbis Weiss and Angel’s assertion that “prior to the GPS system, when conversions were questioned, the RCA would vouch for its members who were in good standing.”
Rabbis Weiss and Angel also allege that with the advent of GPS the criteria by which earlier conversions are evaluated have changed. This is simply not true. Firstly, the standards have not changed materially since the 1989 Guidelines. Secondly, it is the same highly respected head of the Beth Din of America, Rav Gedaliah Dov Schwartz, who in the past decades issued RCA certifications when requested, who continues to do so entirely at his discretion.
Moreover it is difficult to believe that Rabbis Weiss and Angel are not aware of this history. In 1989 when those policies were adopted Rabbi Angel was himself the first vice president of the RCA, and less than a year later became president of the RCA when these policies were implemented.
Rabbis Weiss and Angel write that “because of the centralization of the GPS standards, the Chief Rabbinate’s office now turns to the Beth Din of America for guidance.” In fact Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, like many other central rabbinates, has always consulted with the Beth Din of America in such matters. Indeed congregational rabbis and heads of schools also turn to the RCA and the Beth Din for help when personal status questions arise. Who else should they turn to? In fact thanks to GPS its converts have overwhelmingly been spared many problems in gaining acceptance in their new communities.
Ironically, as stated in their by-line, Rabbis Weiss and Angel are the “co-founders of the International Rabbinic Forum.” Now it is interesting that the very rabbinic organization that they founded has formally adopted the following policy: “As a service to our members, the IRF has appointed a va’ad giyyur [a committee on conversion] comprised of accomplished halachic scholars as well as seasoned pulpit rabbis. ...[T]he va’ad will have its own teudat giyyur (certificate of conversion.) It is our hope that the certificate will facilitate an easy reception of the convert in the various communities of which he or she may want to be a part, especially if there is a possible interest in aliya to Israel. To receive this certificate, the conversion must follow the vaad giyyur’s ‘Conversion Standards’ policy.”
In other words the IRF itself understands very well that an Orthodox rabbinic organization cannot offer automatic recognition and certification to every conversion by its members, any more than it can automatically endorse their kashrut policies, even though they are all ordained rabbis. To do otherwise is to make a mockery of halachic standards and process, especially in so sensitive an area as the determination of personal and family status that could impact untold numbers of other families for generations to come. How sad that in their zeal to undermine GPS Rabbis Weiss and Angel demand of the RCA what their own colleagues in the International Rabbinic Forum are not prepared to accede to.
There is certainly room for respectful argument and debate in discussing GPS and the way in which it has to date brought over 1,000 righteous converts into the Jewish fold, with many more on the way. Yet in doing so, I would hope that Rabbis Weiss and Angel would respect the facts and accomplishments of GPS in its current and future impact on rabbis, synagogues, schools and communities, but most importantly on the converts themselves and their future progeny, without misleading concerned Jews of every stripe and conviction.
The author is a rabbi.