How the RCA Squandered its Own Credibility, and How it Can Earn it Back

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“דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד – זו היא כל התורה כולה, ואידך – פירושה הוא, זיל גמור”

“What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.” (B. Shabbat 31a)

In the aftermath of the R. Freundel voyeurism scandal, the Orthodox Jewish community has been relentless in its criticism of its current religious establishments. Some have focused their attention on the vulnerability of converts, many of which received a reprieve when the Israeli rabbinate ultimately decided to uphold R. Freundel’s conversions. Others advocated for changes in how a mikvah is operated with Rabbanit Henkin arguing for giving women keys to the mikvah and R. Seth Farber insisting on modifying Jewish conversion law to prohibit men from witnessing a female convert’s immersion. 1 Still others targeting the Rabbinic establishment, epitomized in this case by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). 2 Rabbi Marc Angel pointed to the moral deficiencies of Judaism’s gatekeepers and Dr. Erica Brown criticized the lack of rabbinic accountability. 3

Naturally, certain members in the very same Rabbinic establishment aggressively defended the status-quo in the face of media “misrepresentations” and activists “hijacking” the scandal to further their own agendas. I have no doubt others perceive the defamation of their institutions to be the result of an unfair generalization, where the entire system is disparaged due to criminal acts of one lone individual.

My concern today is not the propriety of these critical generalizations, but rather the predictability of them occuring after a major scandal. Not only have Jews long engaged in generalized delegitimizations, but this traditional rhetorical stratagem has been repeatedly employed by the current Rabbinic establishment, including, ironically enough, the RCA’s own approach to conversion.


In order to fully appreciate the current conversion landscape, a quick review of the origins and impetus for the RCA’s innovative “Geirus Policies and Standards” (GPS) is in order. Before the creation of the GPS, local Rabbis were responsible for conversion in their own respective communities. However, in 2006 the Israeli Rabbinate’s announced that it would not automatically accept conversions from American Orthodox Rabbis, even those who had been vetted and accepted by the RCA for membership in the organization. As a partial response to this decision, in 2007 the RCA created its own nationalized imprimatur with the understanding that conversions done under these auspices would not be questioned by the Israeli Rabbinate. 4

While some at the time described this drastic change in national policy as “caving” to the Israeli Rabbinate, the creators of the GPS downplayed the input of the Rabbanut, 5 and instead focused on what they considered to be preexisting problems with American Orthodox conversions at that time. For just one example, R. Freundel in his capacity as GPS chairman explained as follows:

There had long been discussion among those performing conversions that there was a need for greater uniformity of standards and a more centralized process. Many rabbis were doing conversions across North America and the standards were often so varied that the potential for abuse was very real. 6 Some conversions were reputedly being done for financial reward and some occurred when rabbis were pressured by important members of their congregations to “take care of” the problem of their child who was dating a non-Jew. Some were being done sincerely, but outside the bounds of normative Orthodox halacha.

This description, follows the “wild west” narrative which was recently echoed by R. Efrem Goldberg, a current Vice-President of the RCA, in his call for tempering criticism with:

The Gemora tells us and the Shulchan Aruch quotes: “rov metzuyin eitzel shechita kesheirim heim.” There is a chazaka, an established assumption, that the majority of those that engage in shechita, ritual slaughter, are trustworthy, honorable and faithful. For centuries, the shochet of the community had the confidence of the community. The butcher shop didn’t have supervision or a mashgiach. The butcher unlocked and locked the shop. He wasn’t suspected and his integrity was not challenged.

But that changed. Enough scandals and too many violations caused the global Jewish community to require supervision, checks, balances and oversight. Did the butcher lose his chezkas kashrus, his assumption of trustworthiness? Do we now assume that all butchers are liars and thieves such that we must vigilantly supervise them? No. Their intrinsic and assumed trustworthiness remains, but circumstances require us to take precautions and institute reasonable safeguards in order to eliminate and protect the community from the rare individuals who seek to perpetrate fraud.

Neither R. Freundel nor R. Goldberg provide specific information as to their generalized allegations. No evidence is provided to support accusations of malfeasance, no halakhic sources or argumentation is offered to demonstrate blatant violations of Jewish law, 7 and neither provide any metrics indicating just how widespread problems were beyond R. Freundel’s use of “some” and R. Goldberg’s “enough.” In an ostensible attempt to salvage the American Rabbinate’s reputation, GPS committee member R. Steven Pruzansky followed his own echoing of R. Freundel’s allegations with a remarkable admission.

Nevertheless, it has long been an open secret in the United States (filtered over time to rabbinic authorities in Israel) that there were some American Rabbis – again, both members and non-members of the RCA – who officiated at conversions that lacked these prerequisites. Apparently, there were and are rabbis who took substantial sums of money for conversions, turning this sublime process into a lucrative business. There were rabbis who were forced to convert non-Jews under duress, as in the (hypothetical) shul President stating: “Convert my future daughter-in-law or find another job.”

There were rabbis who were lax in applying the appropriate halachic standards and not insisting, expecting or even contemplating that there would be kabbalat hamitzvot in any realistic way – conversions without a genuine commitment to observance of Shabbat, kashrut, taharat hamishpacha, tefila, Torah study or other staples of Jewish life. They asked questions with a wink and received the appropriate answers by those reading from a script. (And in almost every such case, the conversions were performed for the purpose of marriage. Why else would a rabbi even think of converting a non-Jew who does not wish to observe Jewish law, except for some pressing ulterior concern that itself undermines the very fabric of geirus?)

There were rabbis who were negligent even in the technical performance of the act of geirus, including a failure to observe the immersion in the mikveh. There were even rabbis who converted non-Jewish women, knowing they would marry kohanim in violation of Torah law. There were some who availed themselves of every leniency and loophole, ensuring that pro forma conversions would take place that would satisfy the needs of the member in question but not necessarily the letter or spirit of the law. (Lest the reader think there was pervasive chaos, the “rabbis” referred to above were usually the very same small number of people.) [Emphasis added]

Ignoring for a moment the veracity of these allegations, R. Pruzansky indicates that the problems were not in fact widespread, but were limited to specific, known individuals. If these Rabbis were known and identifiable and their offenses so egregious, it would seem that RCA ought to have been able to bring specific charges against these Rabbis and discredit them. While the RCA cannot regulate non-members, had any of these Rabbis been members of the RCA then its own internal mechanisms should have sufficed to suspend, expel, or at least blacklist the miscreants through due process instead of delegitimizing the integrity and competency of its entire membership.

Consider the practical and halakhic ramifications of the GPS. Since its inception, one of the GPS’ most vocal critics has been R. Marc Angel who warned in 2008 that the GPS threatened the very role of the congregational rabbi.

Not only is the convert’s status questioned here, but the respected position of the local rabbi is also at stake. The policy sends a clear message that rabbis who have Orthodox ordination and are not among the chosen 40 do not have sufficient knowledge, judgment and wisdom to perform conversions — and they never have.

The GPS itself officially took an agnostic position regarding conversions done outside of its system. Section 2.b of the GPS originally stated that, “Rabbis and lay people who carry out conversions outside of this framework should know that the RCA/BDA will not be able to endorse them, or comment in any way as to their validity.” This was later revised to state, “Rabbis and lay people who carry out conversions outside of this framework should know that they cannot be assured of recognition by the RCA/BDA with respect to such conversions.” However, following R. Goldberg’s correct assumption that according to halakhah the default status of an Orthodox Rabbi’s conversions – or at least those having been vetted by the RCA itself – are valid, then the GPS would be obligated to accept and endorse its members’ conversions as a matter of Jewish law. 8

To summarize, in 2006 the Chief Rabbinate of Israel issued a blanket halakhic policy regarding conversions done outside of Israel in which the default position is that even vetted Orthodox Rabbis cannot be assumed to follow Jewish Law. Instead of contesting this sweeping generalization, either in terms of substance or scope, the RCA perpetuated it by rejecting the halakhically mandated assumption that its Rabbis and their conversions are valid unless evidence is provided to the contrary. Even drastically limiting the number of Rabbis whom the RCA would have to manage, did not lead to any improvement in accountability. RCA Executive Vice President R. Mark Dratch admitted, “Because they are scattered throughout the country, we don’t have a lot of hands-on oversight.”

The RCA provided no data as to exactly how widespread the problem of pre-GPS conversions was, and yet it further discredited rather than defended its own constituency to the Israeli Rabbinate. Between these criminal allegations about R. Freundel and last year’s revelations that R. Michael Broyde engaged in fraudulent behavior, the GPS has now seen two out of its eleven regional courts tarnished by member Rabbis demonstrably conducting themselves in ways which halakhically disqualify them from serving in a judicial capacity. 9 Based solely on the scandals made public so far, this equates to a corruption rate of approximately 18%, which based on the RCA’s own precedent for generalized delegitmization, validates the current criticism as, at the very least, a proportionate response.


Based on all the comments I have been seeing, my conjecture is that the majority of the vitriol currently being levied against the RCA is coming from the same communities whom leaders of the RCA have been delegitimizing as of late. Earlier this year, the RCA promoted on the front page of their website a responsa which among other things denied local pulpit rabbis halakhic authority over their communities, following the presumptions supporting the GPS. Those who identify with R. Avi Weiss’ “Open Orthodox” approach to Jewish law have been repeated targets of RCA rabbis as well. Just this past summer, R. Freundel discredited Open Orthodoxy as not having any “guiding principles.”

Prominent among such indicators is the rise of Open Orthodoxy, which I oppose—despite taking permissive positions on women’s prayer groups and the possibility of women to serve as synagogue presidents, and despite having published the first article in an Orthodox venue to speak of the dignity of homosexuals. In each of these cases, I came to my conclusions after much reflection and careful consideration of authoritative texts. By contrast, being both “open” and Orthodox sounds to me, unfortunately, like an excuse for anything goes, so long as it can be given a veneer of legitimacy through a bit of superficial talmudic casuistry. 10 I have asked leaders of this stream what its limits are, and have never received an answer. It is, therefore, no surprise that some of its leading younger lights have repudiated both the divine authorship of the Torah and belief in the messiah, and taken other theological and halakhic positions that go far beyond the historical limits of Orthodoxy.[sup]Again, note the use of “some” to delegitimize an entire affiliation.[/ref]

And why not? Open Orthodoxy seems to have no guiding principles to limit its innovations. So what will happen when the inclusion of women and homosexuals is no longer trendy, when the other innovations have run their course, and when the movement on the ground looks increasingly guided by the Reform principle of individual autonomy or the moral/halakhic balancing act of Conservative Judaism? And when the larger society’s ideological pendulum swings from today’s extreme cultural liberalism to a more socially conservative outlook, what then? It is all too likely that, as has happened before, the exciting and trendy will have served as another gateway out of Judaism.

As I wrote back in 2011, the rabbinic establishment is less forgiving of innovations advocated by those on the perceived “Left” than it is of demonstrable halakhic transgressions done by its own members or those on the “Right;” the latter are excused or treated as isolated anomalies or mistakes, while the former are branded as beyond the pale. There is no way ascertain how much of the RCA’s critics are merely enjoying their adversary receiving their comeuppance, but their methodology of delegitimization seems to be following the rhetorical playbook so frequently employed by the RCA.

I referenced above that the politics of exclusion have a long history in Jewish rehtoric, and the conversion controversies are only one recent example, but little is mentioned of the toxic implications on the Jewish community. Aside from the obvious schisms, debates over Jewish law or halakhic policy regress to juvenile name-calling and “gotcha politics.” When exclusion and delegitimization is the primary message of religion (if not the only one), people no longer need to cite sources, provide evidence, justify reasoning, or even offer any viable alternative other than ostracizing the opposition. All you need to do is self-aggrandize at the expense of others. 11

I have little doubt that the generalized criticisms against the RCA pain the organization as a whole, especially those who do work hard to do what is right and proper in the eyes of halakhah. 12 I can also understand that one way of offsetting these criticisms is simply to dismiss the critics as promoting their own agenda, not realizing that doing so only perpetuates the core problem of fostering a divisive toxic rhetorical environment in the Jewish community.

A cynic might cite Proverbs 1:31, and conclude that the RCA is merely reaping what it has sown, but doing so would only sustain the rhetoric of recriminations. Instead I would like to suggest a solution, which if employed consistently, may help temper the needless divisiveness within the Jewish community. I say “needless” knowing that while disagreements and criticisms are inevitable (and sometimes justified) the rhetoric of delegitimization serves less to convince than it does to coerce.

My suggestion is that if the RCA wishes to avoid future discomfort of over-generalized defamations, then it would be best served by leading by example in terms of setting the tone and rhetoric for religous discussions, ideally treating others – even those with whom they disagree – with the same respect and professionalism as they would like to be addressed. Recall Hillel’s often-cited formulation of the Golden Rule as presented to a prospective proselyte.

On another occasion it happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, ‘Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.’ Thereupon he repulsed him with the builder’s cubit which was in his hand. When he went before Hillel, he said to him, ‘What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.’ (B. Shabbat 31a)

Hillel issued this statement in spite of having numerous disputes with his colleague Shammai, and it was his tradition of respectful disagreement which contributed to his halakhic become normative (B. Eiruvin 13b). Mindful disagreements may not carry the same influence in the age of the internet, but true halakhic leadership requires setting the tone to which one expects others to follow. 13 If the RCA can adjust its rhetoric and how it views and treats those with whom it disagrees, both externally and internally, or even if it employs different criteria for appointing its representatives and spokespeople, then perhaps when the next major rabbinic scandal breaks – and this is only a matter of when – the Jewish world will be closer to following Hillel’s model, one of the original prerequisites for living an authentically Jewish life.

Notes:

  1. In Farber’s words, “The facts are that while we must meet halachic requirements, we also cannot allow a situation to continue where men are in the mikveh when women are immersing.” The problem however is that Jewish not only does not prohibit men from witnessing this immersion, it most likely requires it. B. Yevamot 47b describes the procedure for converting women as having women assist the convert in the water while the male witnesses stand at a safe distance outside of the mikvah waters. Rambam in Hilkhot Issurei Biah 14:6 adds that the men should turn their faces away so as not to see the naked woman exiting the water, which not only is an affirmation of modesty, but reinforces the obligation for the act of immersion to be witnessed by the men. Even if argues that men need not personally observe the dunking, claiming that men must not be present requires a demonstrating that Biblical or Rabbinic Law is being violated, which necessitates citing chapter and verse of the specific violation. It is only through Rabbinic legislation that specific interpretations be mandated on the entire Jewish population or new prohibitions be innovated. See my series on The Halakhic Process for a more detailed exposition on the system of Jewish Law.
  2. Disclosure: I am currently a member of the RCA, though I hold no position on its board or any of its committees. All opinions expressed here are my own and are not intended to reflect the views of the RCA or any of its members.
  3. This is only a small sample of quotes, articles, and op-eds published in public venues. My Facebook wall was inundated with countless more comments regarding these positions and many more.
  4. The importance of recognition by the Israeli Rabbinate has less to do with Jewish law than it does with internal Israeli politics. According to Israel’s Law of Return, all Jews are guaranteed automatic citizenship, bypassing any bureaucratic time or naturalization requirements, regardless if they were born Jewish or if they converted. However, if the Israeli Rabbinate rejects the validity of the conversion, such that the government does not recognize the individual as Jewish, then the person in question would be denied the automatic citizenship guaranteed by the Law of Return.
  5. The original GPS document (PDF) states that the standards were created “in accordance with the Agreement Arrived at with The Chief Rabbinate of Israel,” which would indicate some sort of input if not cooperation. The revised version from the official GPS website omits all references to the Israeli Rabbinate.
  6. #Irony.
  7. As opposed to differences of opinions.
  8. R. Angel described the entire conversion debate as little more than a “power grab.”

    This policy had little to do with religion, and much to do with power grabbing. In one fell swoop, the Rabbanut of Israel cast aspersions on the credentials of many hundreds of Orthodox rabbis throughout the world; cast doubt on the conversions of thousands of people and their families; created painful obstacles to those Orthodox converts who wished to make aliyah.

    This policy was not only insulting and cruel. It also was anti-halakha. According to halakha, all Orthodox converts are 100% Jewish—in the eyes of halakha, and in the eyes of God. And yet, the Rabbanut declared that it would not accept these people as Jews, and that the State of Israel could not accept them as Jews. Religion had clearly slipped into power politics.

    Given the lack of halakhic due process, it is hard to argue to the contrary.

  9. Certainly to a greater extent than the unsubstantiated ambiguous allegations levied at anonymous rabbis. I am also not equating the severity of the offences, but the halakhic consequence of being disqualified as a judge is identical for this purpose, since Jewish law requires judges must be “men of truth” (Exodus 18:21).
  10. In my class on Partnership Minyanim I demonstrated that R. Freundel sometimes engages in his own form of “casuistry.” In a 2011 Tradition article R. Freundel states that, “The weight of universal contemporary Jewish practice carries the day as the halakhic reality.” But when presented with the argument that Orthodox women do in fact participate in partnership minyanim, R. Freundel apoplectically responds with an appeal to authority stating, “I am not at all sure I understand the import of this sentence. Is there a responsa or posek who has validated this practice?” The complete source sheet and audio discussion are available here: http://www.joshyuter.com/2013/06/12/podcasts/current-jewish-questions/ep-111-current-jewish-questions-29-partnership-minyanim/
  11. See Y. Hagigah 2:1 77c, Rambam Hilkhot De’ot 6:3
  12. In my own capacity as a community Rabbi in New York, converts through the local GPS system shared with me positive and negative experiences. Given the hundreds of conversions the New York GPS Beit Din oversees, there are bound to be satisfied and unhappy customers. I personally found the New York GPS Rabbis with whom I did happen to work to be entirely reasonable and professional.
  13. See Reish Lakish’s statement in B. Sanhedrin 18a and R. Zereika’s definition of a rasha’ ‘arum in B. Sotah 21b