July 21, 2016

Conversion Confusion

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. Last week the Chief Rabbinate (countermanding) said it recognizes Rabbi Lookstein’s conversions, as it always has.

Naturally this case has attracted extra publicity, because Rabbi Haskel 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, even in Israel, recognized in one area might not be in another. There is nothing new about this; local courts and authorities often refuse to recognize others in the same country, let alone others. In Israel it has been particularly prevalent, because nationalist rabbis are too Zionist for Charedi rabbis, who are too fundamentalist and anti-Zionist for Modern Orthodox rabbis. While 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, two thousand 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 one of theirs 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 USA, 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 USA under different officially Orthodox rabbis where there was no centralized authority. And 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.

For those of us who would like some consistency and humanity, this is depressing and even immoral. To others there have been so many suspect, dishonest, and baseless conversions, often abandoned the minute the ring is on the finger, that the whole issue of conversion is a farce anyway. Some never accept conversions for the sake of marriage. And yet the first Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Rav Benzion Meir Hai Uzziel although he disapproved in principle strongly urged tolerance and accepting such converts.Others, like the Syrian community in New York, simply refuse to accept any conversions at all.

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 that I know, that I would have the confidence in that I ‘d be happy to see them 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 HASHGACHA 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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