Measuring Conversions

The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and the Bet Din of America (BDA) recently announced an overhaul in its policies regarding Jewish conversions by drafting the Geirus Policies and Standards (GPS). This move was largely to placate the Israeli Rabbinate (Rabbanut) which last year openly challenged the halakhic validity of RCA/BDA conversions. These new guidelines were developed in conjunction with the Rabbanut, presumably with the understanding that any conversion which follows the RCA/BDA polices will be readily accepted in Israel as well.

Though instigated by the Israeli Rabbinate, the GPS will drastically reshape how conversions are processed in America. In addition to some guidelines for the conversions themselves, the most significant innovation of the RCA/BDA is the organizational consolidation of regional Batei Din with the intent of establishing objective standards throughout the nation. But as is the case with many “solutions,” the new RCA/BDA policies solve some problems while creating others.


The Good
Assuming the Rabbanut actually commits to the agreement, then converts who make aliyah will hopefully have fewer complications with the Israeli government. As anyone who has made aliyah will attest, this benefit cannot be understated.

We previously argued that ideally the RCA/BDA should defend the actual halakhot of accepting converts, instead of capitulating to ego-driven politics. However, the unfortunate reality is that such a stance would be impossible. Even if the RCA/BDA had the will, it lacks the power and mandate to influence the Rabbanut’s machine. The RCA/BDA is not so much an ideological organization1 as it is a trade union whose stated mission is “to advance the cause and the voice of Torah and the rabbinic tradition by promoting the welfare, interests, and professionalism of Orthodox rabbis all around the world.” Protracted political confrontations are of little value to the Rabbinate as a profession, especially when dealing with a powerful entrenched machine such as the Rabbanut.2
What is important to remember here is that regardless of any ulterior social or political motives by the RCA/BDA, the real losers in a power struggle would be the converts themselves. Regardless of halakhic implications, the RCA/BDA’s compromise with the Rabbanut is in the immediate interests of the gerim.

On the domestic front, the new policies and unified organization will improve the conversion process and benefit both the Rabbis and converts in several ways. First, having a halakhicconsensus provides Rabbis guidelines for educating potential converts, and appraises prospective converts of what is expected of them. Perhaps even more importantly, the GPS calls for greater transparency:

Working with the Regional Batei Din, the RCA/BDA will create informational brochures for rabbis to use when meeting with potential converts. These brochures will assist the rabbi by conveying the standardized procedures and requirements to converts and those associated with them. For similar reasons, the RCA/BDA may establish a website with public access.(2)

By publicizing and distributing the standards, the GPS should not only preempt confusion but allows potential converts to explore on their own even before formally approaching a Bet Din.
Secondly, with unified standards Rabbis can easily verify the legitimacy of a conversion. As the RCA statement notes:

While it has been the practice for many years in numerous communities for local rabbis to perform giyyur independently, this practice has led to claims of inconsistent standards and concern regarding the validity of many conversions, a result undesirable both to well-meaning community rabbis as well as many earnest applicants for conversion.(1)

Investigating the legitimacy of a conversion can be a difficult and time-consuming process and having a national organization will undoubtedly make things easier. For their part, gerim can be assured that if they complete an RCA conversion that their conversion will be accepted by the vast majority of Orthodox Jewish communities.
But perhaps the most significant innovation is establishment of a network of regional Batei Din. In addition to ensuring the implementation of the policies, a national network creates distributions of Rabbis which not only will be able assume cases from overloaded Batei Din, but they also provide more accessible options for potential converts.

The Questionable

Despite the theoretical improvements, the actual benefits of the GPS will depend on how the RCA/BDA implements the policies. The GPS is light on the specifics, but there is a clear requirement that the RCA/BDA has final approval over most geirut decisions. This is understandable considering that the RCA/BDA is trying to standardize the conversion process, but it also creates the potential for further politicizing conversions.

In order for a Rabbi to join a regional Bet Din, he must first meet RCA/BDA approval:

Every Dayyan must be an Orthodox rabbi, with a semicha acceptable to the RCA. Although he need not be a member of the RCA, he must currently function at least part-time as one of the following klei kodesh; communal rabbi, chazzan, mechanech, mohel, shochet, chaplain, kiruv professional, or other recognized rabbinic position. Prior to his serving as a Dayyan for conversion, the RCA/BDA will need to approve him, based upon his knowledge of, and experience with, the laws of geirut. Initially, then, each regional Beit Din will submit a list of proposed dayyanim, whose eligibility to serve will be ratified by the RCA/BDA. Over time, additional names may be submitted for approval, as well.(Sec. 3.d.i-ii, 3)

The first point of concern is what is considered “a semicha acceptable to the RCA.” Specifically, would students of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah be eligible for the Bet Din even if they are not approved to be members of the RCA? This is a crucial question given that YCT graduates are currently placing in pulpits all over the country and will soon likely have a greater geographic distribution than their colleagues.

The second point concern in this paragraph is that requirement that the Bet Din must approve the individual Rabbi “upon his knowledge of, and experience with, the laws of geirut.” On one hand this is a completely reasonable request since it should weed out the incompetents. However it also carries the potential for abuse if the approval committee has a religious or personal bias. By the same token, the GPS requires an annual review for the regional Bet Din which means that the regional Batei Din to ensure compliance. This means that as the religious and political dynamics of the RCA/BDA changes, the regional Batei Din will be forced to adapt or lose their authorization.

On a more abstract level, the halakhic components of the GPS compel submission to the RCA/BDA which intentionally undermines the halakhic authority of the local Rabbis. The GPS specifically notes that for virtually all matters of discretion regional Batei Din must consult with and follow the RCA/BDA. This of course is the whole point of “standards” to avoid potential conflicts. On the other hand, it also means that ordained Rabbis with the authority to convert3 must defer to those who may not be as sensitive to an individual’s circumstance or who may not share the same general outlook on conversions. Therefore, depending on the ethics and hashkafa of the RCA/BDA, this situation may either be a positive or a negative which we’ll have to revisit in time.

What’s Missing

Regardless of the potential benefits and risks of the GPS, there is one glaring omission. With all the obligations of the Rabbis to the BDA/RCA or the potential converts to the regional Bet Din, there is little discussion as to the responsibilities of the Rabbis to the potential converts. The closest I found in the GPS is this comment:

The regional Beit Din structure recognizes that each person is an individual and that each prospective convert comes with a history and a set of circumstances that are unique. The system presented here, while it has been developed to standardize geirut procedures, also will make every effort to respect and work with the individual candidate “ba’asher hu sham” (8.a.i, 9)

The concluding Hebrew idiom from Bereishit 21:17 refers to the Midrash on Yishmael which states that people are only judged in their current state as opposed to what they will become (or what we would like them to become) in the future. The implication here is that judges should treat each individual separately based on his or her specific needs. However there is no call for treating potential converts with basic etiquette and respect as people.

This may seem overly harsh, but I have had too many conversations with converts who were either neglected or mistreated by the converting Rabbis. This includes Rabbis who have misled candidates or were not forthcoming as to their intentions or requirements. In one case a conversion had to be pushed off repeatedly due to avoidable bureaucratic issues. When the GPS says that “all three members of the Beit Din must be physically present at all of their required meetings with the candidate and relevant other parties (6.c.vi, 8),” my first concern is for the logistics that all three Rabbis will be able to coordinate and keep their appointments.
If a potential convert is neglected or mistreated he or she has little recourse of appeal nor the option of finding another Rabbi:

To prevent a candidate from shopping around for a more amenable Beit Din, all regional Batei Din will tell the BDA, and one another, the names of candidates who have been rejected, and the reasons for that (3.f.ii, 3)

A regional Bet Din could conceivably blacklist a candidate for any reason, real or imagined, thus effectively terminating any possibility of an accepted conversion. This extreme example is all too plausible even with the Batei Din currently operate.

While the GPS’s emphasis on halakha is understandable, it is disturbing that the respect of the convert is largely ignored. Conversion is a complicated life changing process for an individual who must change his or her practices, relationships, and identity. One should be able to assume that Rabbis who are in charge of the conversion process would be sensitive to these aspects of converting and to realize that they have an inordinate control over someone’s life. That no mention of this is made in a reorganization of conversion policies is simply inexcusable.

Conclusions

My initial assessment for the GPS is that there are simply too many questions yet to be answered. In addition to what was already mentioned, here are a few other issues which will need to be addressed:

  • According to the GPS, if someone converts outside of the RCA/BDA system, the RCA/BDA “will not be able to endorse them or comment in any way as to their validity” (2.b, 1). Does this mean that they will also not reject conversions? While ineligible for the official RCA/BDA approval, what will the communal status be of conversions which meet the halakhic standards?
  • How will the Bet Din or local RCA Rabbis ensure that their converts are accepted into their respective Jewish communities?
  • The GPS requires that for converting children the parents must “commit to 12 years of Orthodox day school education for that child. The Bet Din should set criteria for what it considers to be schools in which the child will receive a serious Orthodox day school education” (5.b.ii, 5). What would happen if the Orthodox schools available are not appropriate for the child? If the parent were to switch schools, how would that affect the conversion retroactively?4 Finally, how would the RCA/BDA handle conflicts of interest between Rabbis with connections to specific schools?
  • Although R. Michael Azose is on the GPS “Task Force,” what will be the availability and acceptability of Sephardi conversions?
  • Will the RCA/BDA be forced to change its policies based on future decisions made by the Rabbanut?

As written, the GPS has the potential to revolutionize the conversion process nationwide. In the best case scenario, Rabbis will work together nationwide to provide support to each other and improve the overall experience for the potential converts. On the other hand, the RCA/BDA could be overrun by religious and political maneuvering which would not only worsen the conversion situation, but ironically recreate the Rabbinic hegemony currently found in Israel.

If nothing else, the GPS represents an important change in Orthodox practice and leadership. The conversion system in certain locales – New York especially – has been an unregulated mess for some time now and the GPS certianly offers an improvement and a chance to work. Hopefully the RCA/BDA is aware of the risks and will respond appropriately.


1. The RCA’s policy statements are more pedestrian than provocative, such as their call to end the Darfur genocide, banning tobacco, and promoting aliyah among others.
2. For the record, the RCA constitution (PDF) states as one of its purposes, “to be ever on guard against any distortion or misinterpretation of Torah-true Judaism by individuals or groups within and without the House of Israel and to clarify through the written and spoken word the true teachings of the Torah.” Make of that what you will.
3. The YU smikha klaf specifically includes “hilkhot giyur.”
4. Thanks to Tzippy Schneebalg for suggesting this question.

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