U.S. Rabbis Stand Up To Chief Rabbinate

Orthodox rabbinical group here forms joint commission with Chief Rabbinate, which backs down from former demands.

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) last week established a joint commission to set uniform conversion standards, including a commitment from the Rabbinate to automatically recognize all past, current and future conversions approved by the RCA and the Beit Din of America (BDA).

According to a statement released by the RCA, which has more than 1,000 member rabbis in North America, the meetings held here by representatives of the two rabbinic authorities resulted in several “reciprocal understandings and agreements.”

The agreements apply only to conversions performed by RCA member rabbis who registered the conversions with the RCA and BDA.

After it was learned several weeks ago that Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar’s policy was to accept only conversions performed by Chief Rabbinate-approved diaspora rabbis, as first reported in these pages, American rabbis were upset. But now, as one observer noted, the Israeli and U.S. rabbis have ‘kissed and made up.’

Moreover, the American rabbis, who were caught off guard by a flap that seemed to question their credentials, appeared to gain a more equal footing through the agreement on a joint commission.

The Chief Rabbinate, while still insisting on uniform standards, has backed away from its position calling for diaspora rabbis to come to Israel for an exam before being deemed acceptable to perform conversions.

The Americans viewed such a demand as totally unrealistic and even insulting, since it did not seem to recognize the tradition and authority of the RCA.

“This agreement, hopefully, will standardize” the positions between the two rabbinic groups, “and marks a real improvement,” noted Rabbi Kenneth Hain, rabbi of Beth Sholom in Lawrence, New York and a former president of the RCA.

The joint commission, made up of representatives from both rabbinical bodies, is expected to submit its recommendations to the Chief Rabbinate no later than Sept. 11.

Specifically, the agreement calls on the parties to immediately establish a commission to examine, “in light of halacha, current standards and procedures in the realm of conversion and personal status to achieve clarity and consistency whenever possible.”

Each party will prepare a list of who it considers to be “approved Beit Din (rabbinical court) rabbis and rabbis (not working within the Beit Din framework) in North America” who already deal with personal status issues like conversion and divorce.

“From time to time,” the announcement says, “the composition of the lists will be appropriately reviewed in light of new realities and circumstances.”

In the future, any rabbi who wants to be involved in personal status matters — officiating at a conversion, marriage, divorce — that he wishes to have recognized in Israel “will need to comply with the standards thus agreed to by the Chief Rabbinate and the RCA,” according to a statement released after the meetings.

Arguably the most important part of the decision relates to the automatic recognition of RCA-approved conversions.

In reality, some RCA-stamped conversions (as well as conversions from other well-known rabbinical bodies) have not been automatically approved by the Chief Rabbinate for the past year or two, since Rabbi Amar quietly ordered clerks dealing with conversion and other personal status matters to scrutinize all Orthodox conversions performed overseas.

But Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the RCA, insisted in a Jewish Week interview that “there’s an absolute agreement on the part of the Rabbinate, effective immediately, that any convert who comes with the ishur, or proper authorization, of the RCA/BDA will be automatically recognized.”

He added that “the problems RCA-approved converts have encountered in the past year are a thing of the past” and “they won’t receive the run-around.”

This may not be the case for converts whose RCA- affiliated rabbis did not seek approval from the BDA, the rabbi acknowledged.

“They may still encounter the same problems,” he noted.

But the overwhelming number of conversions performed by RCA rabbis are registered with the RCA and BDA, according to Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, rabbi of Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan.

Others suggested that there may be ‘more than a few wildcat rabbis’ who perform conversions without registering them with the BDA, not to mention conversions performed by non-RCA rabbis – even haredi Orthodox – whose conversions presumably would not be acceptable to the Chief Rabbinate unless they were on a list of approved rabbis.

Several RCA rabbis noted that while the Chief Rabbinate created an unnecessary controversy initially, reflecting a lack of understanding of the American Jewish community and rabbinate, in the end the situation is, as Rabbi Dale Polakoff of the Great Neck Synagogue put it, “a win-win for all concerned.”

He said that is especially true for the converts, and the agreement “should open the lines of communication between the RCA and the Chief Rabbinate and lessen the confusion.”

Rabbi Herring said the RCA would insist that the Chief Rabbinate conversions adhere to the same high standards it is demanding from rabbis abroad.

“People who convert in Israel – some people go to Israel from other countries to convert, including from the U.S. – will have to go through conversions that conform to the same standards that will apply in the United States if they wish to be recognized in North America as Jews,” he said.

“Just as the Israeli Rabbinate has full jurisdiction [in Israel], so does the American rabbinate retain full jurisdiction here,” he continued.

The issue of standards could be problematic, though.

Rabbi Nachum Eisenstein, the chairman of the Va’ad HaRabbonim Haolami Leinyonei Giyur, a fervently religious organization that sets rabbinical standards and examines the credentials of individual rabbis at the request of the Chief Rabbinate and other authorities, believes that American rabbinical standards are sometimes slack.

While acknowledging that some European and Israeli rabbis do not live up to his organization’s standards for conversions and divorce, Rabbi Eisenstein said “the problems in America are even worse. There is no control over what a rabbi does. He can do whatever he wants. The registrations aren’t done properly.”

Rabbi Eisenstein said that “only the leading rabbis of this generation” can set the standards that should be adopted by the Chief Rabbinate and the RCA. He cited Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashev, a fervently Orthodox rabbi with a huge following in Israel, as one such leader.

An Orthodox rabbi who was a member of the RCA prior to making aliyah several years ago, and who requested anonymity because he deals with the Chief Rabbinate, expressed concern that the Rabbinate’s standards do not take into account how Jewish communities abroad work. In particular, he said, Israeli rabbis find it “anathema”? that American Orthodox rabbis sometimes work closely with non-Orthodox clergy.

“If the Chief Rabbinate decides to impose standards like this on the Orthodox rabbinate abroad, we could be back at square one,”? he said.

Said one New York rabbi: “It’s just that kind of lack of understanding of the American rabbinate that set off this whole tinderbox in the first place.”

Editor Gary Rosenblatt contributed to this report.