Thursday, December 31, 2015

Conversion Standards, and the Debate about Private Conversion Courts in Israel Today

Over the past several months, the media in Israel has made a great deal of noise about the private conversion court convened by Rav Nachum RabinovitchIt seems clear to me that there's a great misconception about how gerut takes place here, and the standards for conversion. Truth be told, I myself did not really understand the full picture until I heard a talk from Rav Yisrael Rosen of Tzomet during a Yom Iyyun at my son's yeshiva. Rav Rosen has been intimately involved in the Rabbanut Conversion Courts for many years.

Rav Rosen speaking at the Yom Iyyun in Ma'aleh Adumim
First we must ask ourselves: why is there such a thing as a conversion court at all? Why not just go to the regular Beit Din? With the first waves of aliyah from the former Soviet Union, it became clear that the normal batei din were not equipped or willing to handle the kinds of cases that were coming before them. Applying the regularly accepted (and rather stringent) standards that are common in Chutz L'aretz made the process impossible, and a dayyan who wished to be lenient would be criticized by his colleagues. Ask a dayyan today from the "regular" battei din - from any stripe - RZ, Chareidi, etc - about the giyyurim and they'll immediately say: "I don't have anything to do with giyyur." These battei din are a separate entity, not related to the Beit Din structure. The only official connection that they have is that they require the Chief Rabbi's signature to be acceptable in the secular context of the State of Israel.

Rav Rosen explained that in the early 90's, Rav Bakshi Doron approached a number of leading RZ rabbis asking them to deal with the giyyur issue. They established a beit din system as well as a framework of machonei giyyur - essentially giyyur seminaries - aimed at training potential candidates for conversion. These rabbis explicitly view these conversions not only in a halachic framework, but also in an ideological framework, hand in hand with the Religious Zionist view of the State itself. He quoted one explanation that the אובדים מארץ מצרים would be non-Jews who were lost to their ancestry over time, and would one day return the Land.

For this reason, these Batei Din do not see their role as adversarial to the potential convert. They never ask any "gotcha" questions, and see themselves as guides, looking to help people who wish to join the Jewish nation. A very high percentage - well over 90 percent - of the candidates who apply to convert are in fact converted in the framework of the conversion courts. He explained that they're not looking to "catch" anyone, and if someone declares the intention to keep the mitzvot, then they take them at their word. 

This is the basis for most of the conversions taking place in the framework of the rabbinate. The situation is even more "lenient" (for lack of a better word) in the IDF, where candidates in the Netiv program study a three-month program about Judiasm before conversion. It is common knowledge that a very significant percentage of these converts do not keep Shabbat or kashrut in any normative manner. This is not to say that they don't keep mitzvot. But we would not consider them Orthodox. Rav Rosen actually lamented that not enough people convert in Netiv, where they're easy to target as candidates for giyyur, as they're stuck in the army anyway.

Let me be clear: the current standards already in place for decades are far, far below the standards of any Beit Din in the United States that I am familiar with - and intentionally so. The entire network of Batei Din for giyyur was created specifically to encourage as many Russians as possible to convert. This also explains the entirely legitimate criticism of Rav Sherman (from the regular battei din) and many of his chareidi and non-chareidi colleagues, who disagree entirely with the methodology and ideology that created the batei din l'giyyur, and question their validity. The only reason these many thousands of conversions are accepted today is because Rav Ovadya Yosef accepted them and was willing to sign the conversion certificates.

The new conversion court in session
When Rav Rabinovitch ruled that in his opinion a beit din can convert a minor child despite the fact that his mother is not a Jew nor converting herself, he wasn't deviating from accepted halachic norms in the Beit Din system. The issue isn't that controversial, ironically. Even Rav Moshe allowed the practice. (In an interesting twist, Rav Kook explicitly forbade such conversions.) But Rav Rabinovitch is deviating from the Rabbanut policy, one that Rav Yitzchak Yosef doesn't accept. Rav Rosen and Rav Druckman actually agree halachically with Rav Rabinovitch's psak. They just don't think that he should attempt to implement it with a private Beit Din because of the legal ramifications here in Israel. Essentially they're afraid that if the Israeli Supreme Court allows Rav Rabinovitch's (and Rav Riskin's) unlicensed conversions, what's to stop a Conservative Beit Din from doing its own conversions that would then have to be accepted by the State? (Good question. Answer: nothing.) 

To sum up: The new private Beit Din isn't a geirut of a different standard than the current rabbinate standard. That ship sailed long ago. It's a political fight about power and control (as is almost always the case), with the current Chief Rabbi (Rav Yosef) unwilling to sign on giyyurim that Rav Rabinovitch feel's are a critical and relatively simple tool - giyyur kattan - for addressing an ongoing demographic problem in the Jewish State.