The Rabbinical Council of America, the most prominent association of Orthodox rabbis in the US, has branded the Chief Rabbinate’s behavior in a conversion case “a disgrace,” owing to its policy rejecting conversions approved by the most senior rabbinical judge of the Beth Din of America, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz.
The emergence of this policy comes in the wake of the refusal by the Supreme Rabbinical Court to recognize a conversion performed by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a prominent and respected Orthodox rabbi in the US.
The policy of the chief rabbinate rejecting conversions approved by Schwartz has come to light due to a recent case of conversion verification which came before officials at the chief rabbinate and the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court in 2015.
The man in question had converted to Judaism in the US over twenty years ago and subsequently emigrated to Israel. In April 2015 he approached ITIM, a religious services advisory organization, concerned that the chief rabbinate would not recognize him as Jewish for the purposes of burial in a Jewish cemetery.
ITIM submitted the man’s conversion certificate to the Rabbi Itamar Tubul who runs the Marriage and Conversion Department of the Chief Rabbinate, who replied that the conversions of the rabbi who converted the man in question, were not recognized by the chief rabbinate.
ITIM subsequently requested a formal approval of the conversion by Schwartz, whose conversion approvals are supposed to be accepted by the chief rabbinate under the terms of a deal worked out between the RCA, with which the Beth Din of America is affiliated, and the chief rabbinate in 2008.
Schwartz did approve the conversion and issued an approval certificate, but Tubul rejected this conversion approval as well.
Tubul wrote in July this year “a conversion approval by a third party who did not himself conduct the conversion and was not himself part of preparing the conversion, and similarly who is not [involved] in the inspection of the integration [of the convert] into Jewish community life and in general requires clarification.”
When the case came before the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court, it too refused to recognize the conversion and demanded that the man undergo what is known as “conversion for the purpose of stringency,” whereby the individual concerned repeats the central requirements of Jewish conversion.
The man was already circumcised, since he had converted more than 20 years earlier, so he was required to have a small drop of blood drawn from his penis, as part of this “conversion for stringency process.
In addition he had to repeat his commitment to fulfilling the religious commandments and immerse in a mikva after which the rabbinical court finally declared him to be Jewish.
The RCA said it “strongly objects” to the chief rabbinate’s decision and noted in reference to the 2008 agreement that it has “worked assiduously with the Rabbinate in the past to assure the integrity of converts.”
Rabbi Shalom Baum, president of the RCA, said, “We have already begun an investigation into this latest disgrace and we demand a thorough report of how this could happen.”
“This decision by the Chief Rabbinate is especially egregious because it challenges the rulings of one of the preeminent halachic authorities, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, who serves as the Av Beit Din of the Beth Din of America and because it disregards the great efforts that we have made over the years, for the benefit of converts, to work with the Chief Rabbinate,” said the RCA in its statement.
ITIM director Rabbi Seth Farber praised the RCA for its strong stance, and said it highlighted “a growing shift between the rabbinate and the halachic community around the world,” and called on the chief rabbinate to immediately recognize all the certifications of Rabbi Schwartz as well as create a new policy that will be as embracing as possible to all converts.
“While the rabbinate pretends to speak in the name of the integrity of halacha, it , in fact, is completely disregarding basic principles – especially those of loving the convert. The Jewish community is meant to be sensitive to the vulnerability of converts. Instead the rabbinate has chosen to abuse them.”
Farber also took issue with another policy that emerged from Tubul’s statement regarding the original case, in which he spoke of the lack of “inspection” of converts’ integration into Jewish life by rabbis, like Schwartz, issuing conversion approvals.
Normative Jewish law states that if after converting a convert subsequently fails to fulfill all the religious commandments he nevertheless remains Jewish, but stringencies applied by haredi rabbinical authorities in recent years have challenged this approach.
“The rabbinate’s new requirement that a certifying rabbi has to be following the involvement of the convert in the Jewish community over an unspecified amount of time is absurd,” said Farber.
“The rabbinate seems to completely disrespect the authority of the American rabbinical courts and imposes arbitrary and non-Halachic regulations upon respected rabbis. This requirement is antithetical to basic Jewish principles that protect the convert and demand from the Jewish community to love those who join our faith.”