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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

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Conversion centralization promotes unity, not disunity

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There is great irony regarding last week’s CJN editorial (“The nightmare risk of schism,” Jan. 14) in light of the Perspectives piece by Rabbi Marc D. Angel in the same issue on the opposite page (“Return conversion to local rabbis”).

The editorial calls for Jewish unity, but Rabbi Angel calls for disunity.

But the editorial’s call for unity has been responded to already in the development in North America of the regional beit din system of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). The oft-repeated canard that this system was created as a reaction to the demands of the haredi Chief Rabbinate in Israel is simply wrong.

I was a member of the committee that developed this centralized system. It was a response to the anarchy that existed in North American conversions. North American rabbis were frustrated by the wide range of conversion standards among Orthodox rabbis. And, just as the editorial called for unity, the rabbinic organization also responded with a call for unity. It developed a transparent, organized, professional system for conversions. The protocols are outlined on the RCA’s website at rabbis.org.

The Beth Din of America, which supervises this system, is in contact with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s office and has had and continues to develop open dialogue with that office concerning conversion. The chief rabbi meets regularly with RCA representatives to maintain this dialogue. Situations may occasionally come up with the Israeli rabbinate, but with this open communication, these issues can be dealt with.

What Rabbi Angel objects to is that the standards of this beit din system are too stringent and that they preclude rabbinic autonomy. He has a right to that opinion.

But whenever there is centralization, there will be limits. The Food and Drug Administration in the United States only approves certain drugs. Some doctors may want to use drugs that were rejected. If we prefer autonomy, we would let them prescribe them. If we prefer the benefits of a central authority, we would not. The RCA chose – after much deliberation at the committee level, after soliciting input from the membership and from our modern Orthodox rabbinic leadership, and after approval of its executive – to implement a centralized system. We feel it is a vote for unity.

Rabbi Angel wants rabbis to have the autonomy to do conversions in which candidates aren’t required to keep Shabbat and all the mitzvot. But there is a severe price to pay for that autonomy. For just as he calls for autonomy of rabbis to do conversions according to their own standards, he must also affirm other rabbis’ autonomy to reject those conversions if they feel they don’t meet halachic criteria. So the autonomy to do lenient conversions will be met with the autonomy to reject them. I don’t think this is good for the Jews.

I don’t deny there are issues that must be dealt with in the area of conversion, and that these issues have arisen as a result of a changing Jewish world. The North American Orthodox world has had enormous success with the quality of its education system and in the numbers of deeply committed Orthodox Jews. As well, the haredi community, both in Israel and North America, has also enjoyed tremendous success in its commitment to education and a haredi way of life. The number of people in the haredi community is growing rapidly.

The haredi approach is different than the modern Orthodox one. How to manage that and how to manage the toxic mix of power and religion in Israel is thorny. However, our tolerance of religious views should not be reserved only for those on the left. It needs to be exercised with respect for those on the right as well.

Tolerance of haredi positions seems to have disappeared, and all civil discourse seems to have disappeared with it. The language and views that are tolerated in venomous attacks on haredi positions would never be tolerated toward any other Jewish group. This pains me greatly.

So I think the CJN editorial’s call for unity has already been heard and responded to. And I think Rabbi Angel’s position is a radical call for disunity.

But having said all that, as much as I feel that unity is a wonderful thing to pursue, there are far bigger challenges to the future of the Jewish People, as our members are disappearing through apathy and abysmal Jewish illiteracy.

How about a call from the heart about that?

Rabbi Reuven Tradburks is the former spiritual leader of Kehilat Shaarei Torah in Toronto. He lives in Jerusalem.

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