Mar 12, 2009



RCA Backtracks On Conversion Policy
Rabbi Avi Weiss, Special To The NY Jewish Week

A year ago, in a Jewish Week dialogue of Opinion pieces, I criticized the Rabbinical Council of America's (RCA) new conversion standards as it "scrutinizes" conversions performed before their new system was put into place.

Writing in defense of the RCA, the chairman of its Geirus (Conversion), Policies and Standards (GPS) committee, strenuously objected to my position, stating that "it is important to emphasize that nothing in this system is designed to change anyone's previous status as a convert" (The Chief Rabbinate - RCA Deal: Two Views," March 7, 2008).

I know now firsthand that I was, unfortunately, correct, as the RCA has refused to affirm a conversion that I, together with two other rabbis, performed. To make matters worse, the RCA made its ruling without notifying or consulting me or any other member of the converting Beit Din (Rabbinic Tribunal).

The case involved a young woman who attended my synagogue's supplementary Jewish Youth Encounter Program (JYEP). This is not an unusual case as, over the years, the JYEP has had a profound impact on the religious lives of hundreds of young men and women. Subsequent to the conversion, this woman fell in love with a man whose rabbi turned to the RCA to validate her conversion. The RCA refused to do so, insisting that for its validation, the young women needs to convert once again. This refusal to validate without reconversion is being interpreted by the community, in the current climate (created by the GPS), as an invalidation of this convert's Jewish status.

The RCA based its ruling on the fact that one of the converting rabbis was a convert himself. This concern is unjustified. A convert may serve on a Beit Din when the judgment is regarding another convert (Talmud Yebamot 102a, Yoreh Deah 269:11 and Hoshen Mishpat 7:1). Additionally, a convert may be a judge on a non-coercive Beit Din, i.e. one to which the person appearing before the court has willfully submitted him or herself (Shakh CM 7:1; Sema CM 7:4 and Shakh YD 269:15). A convert serving on a Beit Din of conversion should thus be valid for both of these reasons.

It is harsh enough for the RCA to declare that henceforth, from the time of the new RCA standards, that a rabbi who has converted cannot be on the Beit Din. It is, however, unacceptable for the RCA to refuse to validate previous conversions that were performed before its new system was set into place as there are solid and bonafide opinions that accept these conversions.

To make matters worse, I cannot understand the RCA's inconsistency when applying these "standards." While the RCA has now refused to uphold all conversions in which this rabbi-convert co-officiated, there are many other conversions done by another rabbi-convert that have been reviewed and upheld.

This particular case, like many others, involved a complicated family situation. Halacha is, of course, a system of law. But it is a system that takes into account fragile and sensitive conditions, ones that can be known only by a local rabbi who has served the family and has had a relationship with them. How could a central body like the RCA come to its conclusions from afar without learning more about the case from the rabbis who had religiously mentored this young woman and knew the family best?

What pains me most is the personal hurt that the invalidated conversion has caused the convert's family. In a letter to me, the mother of this young woman wrote, "It distresses me that this has happened, in light of your assurances [that my daughter will always be considered Jewish]. Why did this happen, and will she be dogged for the rest of her life, as she meets new rabbis?"

In addition, and perhaps even more frighteningly, not only has the RCA delegitimized past conversions in these limited cases (where the rabbi is a convert), but they have even begun to re-evaluate conversions on a much larger scale.

Thus, the RCA's position from last year that the new system would not jeopardize any previous conversions is simply false.

After the RCA instituted its new standards, parents of children whom I converted many years ago came to me, fearful that unless the conversion was ratified by the RCA, it would not be universally accepted. Additionally, adult converts in my community came forward with the same concern.

Rather than assuring such people that it stands by the conversions performed by its own members, the RCA required testimony confirming the convert's religious commitments after the conversion. This sent the message that the convert's Jewish status was in jeopardy, and dependent on his or her ongoing and current level of observance.

Beyond the personal pain that this has caused, this position is unacceptable halachically, for, according to Jewish law, once one converts, his or her Jewishness is final, regardless of future observance (Yebamot 47b).

The idea that an RCA tribunal can unilaterally undo a conversion by another RCA member in good standing is intolerable. It not only creates an untenable environment for the rabbi, as it de-legitimizes his professional integrity, but, more egregiously, it creates an atmosphere of fear for the convert that the Jewish life he/she has been living for years will be seen, someday, by some official rabbinic body, as a lie.

Rabbi Avraham (Avi) Weiss is the senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and a longtime member of the RCA. He is also co-founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship.