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July 22, 2016 3:25 am

Conversion Confusion

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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A synagogue celebration. Photo: Karel Valansi.

A synagogue celebration. Photo: Karel Valansi.

We know well enough by now that the status of conversions to Judaism is an unholy, inconsistent, politicized and often corrupt mess. As a people and as a religion we are just as confused, inconsistent and illogical as any other. I am referring to the chaos that reigns within what is confusingly and illogically called Orthodoxy.

According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Israel’s highest rabbinical court recently rejected a conversion performed by prominent American Modern Orthodox rabbi Haskel Lookstein, upholding the decision of a lower rabbinical court. The Supreme Rabbinical Court had held two appeal hearings on the rejection of the woman’s conversion by the Petach Tikvah Rabbinical Court, where she had applied for marriage registration with her Israeli fiancé.

Naturally this case has attracted extra publicity, because Lookstein was the rabbi who arranged for Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, to receive an Orthodox conversion so that she could marry Jared Kushner. It would look very bad, just as the Republican National Convention appoints Trump as their candidate, for rabbis to suddenly cast aspersions on his daughter’s conversion. Yet it does raise the issue of what the criteria for an Orthodox conversion are.

The episode illustrates the political tensions that exist in Israel between local rabbinic courts, the Supreme Rabbinic Court and the Chief Rabbinate, each vying for power, and each believing it has the right to decide. So a conversion recognized in one area might not be in another. There is nothing new about this; local courts and authorities often refuse to recognize other decisions in the same country, let alone other nations. In Israel it has been particularly prevalent, because nationalist rabbis are too Zionist for haredi rabbis, who are too fundamentalist and anti-Zionist for Modern Orthodox rabbis. Both agree that Conservative and Reform rabbis are not “real” rabbis.

In 2013, the Chief Rabbinate rejected, then later accepted, a conversion by New York rabbi Avi Weiss, who founded the liberal Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Last year it threatened to revoke the appointment of American-born rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who advocates progressive Orthodox policies as Chief Rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Efrat. This is all too typical of religious political infighting, using theology as a smokescreen for power politics.

Conversion has been a problem ever since — 2,000 years ago — Hillel took a lenient and inclusive attitude, and Shammai preferred to be strict and exclusive. It did not help when Christianity and Islam both made converting to Judaism a capital offense. But what distinguishes Judaism from the others is that it sees no point in trying to evangelize, so long as other peoples and religions are living ethical lives. Don’t convert if you don’t want to keep all the rules. Stay as you are. The criterion the Talmud laid down, and the one that remains imbedded in Jewish law, is that the only basis for conversion is that one wishes to join the Jewish people and live a life according to the Torah. Naturally each denomination defines Torah in its own way.

To this day we have two distinct attitudes even within Orthodoxy: the lenient and the strict. Most of my rabbinic life was spent in the UK, where the authorities took a strict line and would refuse to accept any conversion for ulterior motives, such as to get married. They refused to accept conversions from Israel, South Africa, and the US, where they thought the rabbis were too lenient. You could be Orthodox in Johannesburg, but not able to join an Orthodox synagogue in London.

I was amazed to discover cases in the UK where an Orthodox conversion could be arranged if you were very rich and well-connected. I was shocked to discover how easy it was to get converted in different parts of the US under different officially Orthodox rabbis, where there was no centralized authority. And I was scandalized to discover that in Israel there were rabbinic courts that would convert very easily, particularly if you crossed their palms with silver. There are still too many cowboys on both sides of the Atlantic. The situation is a mess wherever you are, and almost whoever you are, and I feel so sorry for innocent people who are misled by rabbis who do not tell them the truth about their status. Even in Hassidic circles what is allowed in one court may be refused in another.

Yet in one way the chaos is good. At least there are options, possibilities, alternatives and the chance of finding someone in authority who might come down on your side. The advantage of one all-powerful authority is that, like the Pope, you have infallibility. The disadvantage is that if they come down against you, that is the end of the road. There are not too many Orthodox rabbis whom I know, in whom I would have the confidence, or about whom I would be happy to see have the power to decide for us all. It is not their scholarship I worry about, so much as their ability to foreswear politics and power. So I am glad that there are other options.

You have two contrasting models in Judaism today: the centralized Israeli state religious model, and the laissez-faire, uncontrolled American model. It is indeed tightening up now that pressure has been brought to bear. But there are still cowboys! Neither system is perfect. Many of the conflicts in Israel arise because one model seeks to impose its view on the other. This is always going to be a political battle. But in such situations, you do find good men and women working hard to resolve the conflicts — like Rabbi Seth Farber, founder of ITIM, an organization that helps Israelis navigate Israeli religious bureaucracy. Or Tzohar, a movement of moderate, tolerant Orthodox rabbis within the state system. Or Rav Aaron Leibowitz of Hashgaca Pratit. They do a magnificent job that goes some way to redress the ethical balance.

You might say this all gives the Orthodox establishment a bad name. Orthodoxy will reply that it doesn’t care. It has its principles. Besides, “what have the Romans ever done for us?” But if, as the Torah says, we are supposed to be an example to the world of an ethical, moral system that brings us recognition for our sensitivity and spirituality, we really need to see the damage that is being done by not having a clear policy, one way or another. Meanwhile, if Ivanka keeps Shabbat, I am definitely on her side!

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