The Jewish Week recently created a stir when it reported that "the Chief Rabbinate in Israel is refusing to accept conversions performed by several leading Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) rabbis," a revelation which many in the Orthodox world found unsettling. In addition to challenging foreign Rabbinic authority, this policy aversely affects hundreds if not thousands of converts who have trained and studied under Orthodox auspices. The RCA itself was tentative in its initial response, leading some to claim that R. Herring was selling out his constituency. Having discussed the issue more thoroughly at their recent convention, the RCA responded saying that the Israeli Rabbinate was not singling out or delegitimizing the RCA conversions, but generally reevaluating their methods for accepting conversions worldwide.
SIW correctly notes, "While the Chief Rabbinate may not have specifically 'rejected a conversion authorized by the Beth Din of America,' it seems by all accounts certainly to be rejecting those authorizations." This analysis is supported by other quotes in the original article:
The difference is that since Rabbi Amar assumed his position in 2003, he said, "we have been operating according to a list of approved rabbis."
The list, obtained by The Jewish Week, has fewer than 50 names on it, including some rabbis who are deceased.
"A member of the RCA is not automatically recognized," Rabbi Krispel said.
The ramifications of such a policy are extensive. Since Israel lacks the clear division of Church and State, the religious decisions made by the Israeli Rabbinate affect many areas of social policy. For example, the halakhic rulings of Who is a Jew will determine if one can get married in Israel, or if one may be included under the Law of Return for citizenship.
The purpose of having the Rabbinate wielding such authority is ostensibly to ensure that Jewish law is being followed properly. However, in light of their decisions to reevaluate its accepting of certain conversions, we should question if the standards being drafted are entirely in line with the standards mandated by halakha.
Generally speaking, Orthodox converts are put through a crucible of sorts in order to "prove" their sincerity and commitment. Some Rabbis are intentionally evasive, forcing the convert to actively pursue the Rabbi for months to arrange simple meetings or even to begin the conversion process. The content of these programs vary depending on the Rabbi or supervising Rabbinic organization. While most conversion programs cover basics of Jewish Law, there is no uniform syllabus or criteria for what a convert actually has to know, nor is there a consensus as to what defines adequate Jewish literacy. If a Rabbinic body defines its standards by such criteria, then it will inevitably be faced with the question of accepting the conversions of those organizations whose standards are not quite as rigorous.
For a Shomer Torah the answer to such a question ought to be simple. While Batei Din have certain rights to add additional criteria for their own conversions, there is still a uniform set of conversion standards defined by halakha.
Although convention has been to be strict in the accepting of converts, B. Yevamot 47a-b defines a significantly more lenient protocol for conducting conversions. There is no official set of rules one must learn,1 nor to the Sages insist on complete literacy, rather simply "accepting the yoke [authority] of the commandments." Understandably, in order to be a practicing Jew, one must be knowledgeable enough to know and perform the laws, but the lack of such knowledge does not necessarily invalidate the conversion itself.
The cited gemara mentions that three talmidei hachamim [learned men] are to be present at the conversion, but does not elaborate as to who qualifies, or if the lack of a talmid hacham is enough to invalidate or impugn the conversion itself. Indeed, according to Rambam Issurei Biah 13:17, Shulhan Aruch Y.D. 268:3, and Aruch Hashulchan, the only requirement is that the conversion be done in the present of "k'sheirim" - which we'll define for now as "observant Jews in good standing." R. Moshe Feinstein suggests that even for those who insisted on having talmidei hachamim, the requirement was for a minimum of one of the three, to ensure that the procedure was done correctly, but he himself appears to assume the more lenient position (Iggrot Moshe Y.D. 1:159). In general, the criteria for a halakhically valid conversion is significantly less demanding than is currently practiced.
Practically, however, conversions are affected by rampant skepticism directed at both the converts and the rabbis. Not every person who comes to convert does so out of sincerity, which may not invalidate the conversion after the fact, but will disqualify the convert from proceeding. Others may be sorting out personal or psychological issues and see Judaism as a way to "fix" something else wrong in their lives. As such, the good conversion programs have some form of initial interview to gauge whether or not the potential convert is an appropriate candidate.
There are also significant questions concerning the appropriateness of the Rabbis themselves. The increase of denominationalism, even within Orthodoxy, can create confusion as to whom can legitimately be considered a valid officiant. Furthermore, not all Orthodox Rabbis who oversee conversions do so with integrity; I am aware of one Rabbi who performs quickly conversions with minimal training, but a not insignificant fee. It is not uncommon for converts to seek out these Rabbis who perform conversions with the least possible requirements just to speed up the process. However, it is apparent that many of these Rabbis do not meet even the most minimal standards of "kesheirim."
Still, even with these realities, there are both halakhic and common sense guidelines for assuming officiating Rabbis performed a legitimate conversion. Ordination from a recognized institution and/or membership in a known Rabbinic body should be enough for a hazaka that the Rabbi, even if not a talmid hacham, should at least be considered kosher in terms of overseeing the process.2 As such, we can assume (or even ask) that there was a tevillah, milah (if necessary), and some accepting of the commandments and rewards and punishment which would be a completely valid conversion according to Torah.3
The temptation to be strict in such matters, is understandable. Considering the obvious impact on the Jewish people, we would want definitive proof that the conversion was done in accordance with Jewish Law. But consider some potential consequences of stringencies when inappropriately applied to a halakhically valid conversion. First, as the case in the original Jewish Week article, refusing to recognize a halakhically valid conversion delays the convert from performing the mitzvah of being married.4 Secondly, if the Rabbanut is doubtful as to the convert's religious status, then how would it prescibe the convert to act on Shabbat? If the conversion is valid, then Shabbat must be observed. If it is not valid, then the convert is not technically Jewish, and thus halakhically prohibited from keeping Shabbat. Finally, there is at least a safek d'oraita involving the biblical prohibition against mistreating geirim (Ex. 22:20).
Batei Din do have some leeway in creating their own additional expectations for conversion. Most of these requirements are fully logical since they will not convert someone to Judaism if they will be unable to perform the laws or integrate into Jewish society. However, while these subjective standards may be applied l'chatchilla, their neglect would not necessarilly invalidate the conversion.
The problem as I see it is the disregard of halakha as its own standard, with its own rules of what is and is not required. Even the R. Herring seems to downplay the halakhic significance compared with the accepted conventions:
I can tell you that the Beit Din of America, together with the RCA, in this as in many other areas, are reviewing policies...this, too, is under review...indeed, as with many things in the RCA over the past three years there have been significant changes here...and a good part of that is awareness of the need to be constantly reviewing and changing standards.
Such standards may be appropriate for accepting new converts, but it is not for the Beit Din of America or the Israeli Rabbanut to "Accept" or "Reject" certain conversions based on their own preferences, but on the standards of the Jewish Law which they claim to defend and to which they hold the converts themselves.
1. While the gemara does specify some halakhot, notably some agrarian laws and ma'aser 'ani, these are understood to be examples of laws taught, not requirements.
2. I should note that YU's smikha document does include a heter hora'ah for geirut.
3. The person's lifestyle and practice post-conversion would be irrelevant. As long as the conversion itself was done in accordance with Jewish law, then the conversion is valid and in the words of the Rambam, "even though he sins, he is still a Jew.
4. Yes, according to Rambam and only for men. However, even cultural conventions impose some obligation on everyone to get married and have kids as soon as possible.