by Gary Rosenblatt
Editor and Publisher
Each of the rabbis — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — on a panel probing the Who is a Jew controversy claimed that his or her movement’s policy on conversion standards was consistent with tradition. Yet they also acknowledged that the divide among them was deep.
Two of the panelists, one Orthodox and one Reform, at last Thursday evening’s community forum, sponsored by The Jewish Week and the JCC in Manhattan, expressed concern that if compromises were not made soon, the strand that holds American Jewish religious life together may be frayed beyond repair.
Rabbi Robert Levine of the Reform Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan warned the full house of 250 people at the JCC: “We’re coming very close to the level of sinat chinam”
“The key issues here are trust and urgency,” agreed Seth Farber, who received his rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University and is founder and director of an Israeli organization called ITIM: The Jewish Life Information Center, which helps Israelis navigate the bureaucracy of the Chief Rabbinate on matters of personal status, including marriage, divorce, conversion and burial.
Rabbi Farber cited the writings of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, a prominent Orthodox rosh yeshiva in Israel, as suggesting that Orthodox authorities are paying too high a price by adhering to strict standards in defining Jewish status if their position threatens Jewish unity.
Staking a claim that Conservative Judaism meets traditional standards on conversion, Rabbi Judith Hauptman, professor of Talmud and rabbinic culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary, cited Talmudic passages regarding how one should treat a potential convert. She said each requirement is met by Conservative religious courts.
Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox), trod lightly on specifics in questioning whether non-Orthodox rabbis demand that a convert live a fully observant life.
He said that adherence to the mitzvot of the Torah has sustained Jewish life over the centuries and will continue to do so. Trust is important, he said, but added that it is equally important to be truthful, asserting that the Orthodox community has best weathered the storms of assimilation and intermarriage by maintaining halachic standards.
The most serious dispute among the panelists was between the two Orthodox rabbis, with Rabbi Farber charging that Rabbi Herring’s RCA has made conversion more strict and difficult in the last two years, through an agreement the group reached with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.
“Admit you’re changing the standards,” he said to Rabbi Herring noting: “The new RCA standards exclude a significant number of Orthodox converts who could have converted five or 10 years ago.”
Rabbi Herring insisted that it was “a canard, false and untrue to say that RCA standards are more severe” than in the past. He said the group’s guidelines in the early 1990s were more strict, and that what the RCA has done now is take the existing guidelines and standardize them so as to increase conversions. He said there were more conversions in the last year and a half (150) than any previous 18-month period, and that another 200 conversions “are in the pipeline.”
Moderator Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist of American Jewry, wisely prevented the program from becoming a narrow debate, and defused several tense moments during the evening with displays of humor.
But all agreed the topic is critical and has an impact on the very notion of Jewish unity.
Though the RCA has been taken to task by some for complying with the Chief Rabbinate’s demands,
Rabbi Herring had strong words of criticism for the institution, widely blamed for resisting rather than embracing potential converts and raising the bar on religious standards. He said the Chief Rabbinate “has failed” in making observant life welcoming. “They have succeeded in alienating many,” and their actions are “not the North American model we can or should implement.”
After hearing Rabbi Levine speak of how Reform conversions are carried out with an emphasis on Torah learning and a commitment to ethical behavior, within a framework of choice, Rabbi Herring said he was “astounded” to hear that the Reform movement “requires acceptance of the commandments.”
He said he had been led to believe that Reform requirements did not include a commitment to keep the mitzvot.
“We have to be truthful and frank,” he said.
The gray area of the discussion was on the definition of what it means to “accept the yoke of the commandments,” as cited in the Talmud; some Orthodox rabbis insist on a convert’s commitment to keep all of the mitzvot, and the more liberal branches require an assurance to lead an ethical life based on Torah values, but not necessarily each commandment.
Rabbi Levine noted that his Reform movement was responsible for most American conversions, and he offered an impassioned explanation of why basing a child’s Jewishness on patrilineal descent, the Reform standard, is consistent with Jewish history. He said that if Rabbi Herring’s standards were required, “we would be a vestigial people,” adding that when “you tell the vast majority [of potential converts] ‘you’re not up to our standards,’ the next generation won’t give a damn.”
Rabbi Hauptman, who at one point during the program mock-complained that she felt “left out” as the only panelist “not under attack,” offered an analogy between conversion standards and Passover cuisine.
She said her family preferred a specific commercial brand of matzah while others only ate shmurah matzah.
“Shmurah is fine, but that doesn’t mean my brand isn’t up to standards,” she insisted, noting that “if the Orthodox want to add additional restrictions” to conversion, “let them fight it out, but I am walking the path of Jewish law.”
At the close of the evening, the panelists sounded a call for action, recognizing, as Rabbi Herring said, that the key question was how to solve denominational differences “in a way that does not diminish us — how do we live with our differences and not compromise our beliefs” since “we all need each other desperately.”
Rabbi Hauptman posed the notion of all girls going to the mikveh before bat mitzvah and all couples doing the same before marriage so as to level the standards of Jewish practice in a non-judgmental way.
She said that if rabbis across the religious spectrum sought to “hammer out common standards, we can do something about it, like we did sitting on this panel tonight.”
She is right, of course, but such efforts have been attempted before, most notably in Denver several decades ago when rabbis of each denomination formed a bet din, or religious court, together and sought uniform standards. It performed 750 conversions between 1978 and 1983, but came to an end when the Reform movement approved patrilineal descent, breaking with longstanding tradition and increasing the divide.
Other similar efforts, including the 1997 Neeman Committee proposal in Israel, have failed as the result of pressure from the right on Orthodox rabbis not to participate.
Will the threat of a permanent fissure within a shrinking Jewish community compel the leaders of the different denominations to try again, putting unity above ideology? Based on past experience, it’s difficult to be optimistic. But the looming alternative to such action is a fractured and increasingly alienated group that can no longer even call itself a community.
We can only urge our religious leaders to solve this crisis, or in one last act of togetherness, suffer the consequences.
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