Analysis: Orthodox Jews Should Support the Chief Rabbinate’s Conversion Criteria Committee


By Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer

In a a recent article expressing skepticism about the announcement of the Chief Rabbinate’s formation of a conversion criteria committee to evaluate and set standards for the acceptance of overseas conversions, my old friend, Rabbi Reuven Spolter, who serves as the Overseas Rabbinic Liaison for Irgun Rabbanei Tzohar, introduces the topic from his perspective and quotes some salient points about the committee’s mandate:

To those who have hailed this move as an important step forward towards transparency and openness on the part of the Chief Rabbinate, I would caution a great deal of skepticism. From the details of the draft document that have been reported, the Chief Rabbinate seems poised to officially adopt its longstanding practices…

[Chief Rabbi David] Lau suggested that rabbis approved by the Chief Rabbinate must work where there are “established and organized rabbinical courts that work in accordance with the principles of Jewish law and whose status is accepted by the community rabbis.” He cited the rabbinical courts in London and Paris as examples.

In addition, Lau said rabbis who operate under the authority of rabbinical associations and rabbinical courts that are approved by such associations would be another criteria, citing organizations such as the Rabbinical Council of America; the US Agudath Harabonim and the Conference of European Rabbis.

Finally, the chief rabbi suggested that in instances where there is no “organized rabbinate,” the individual rabbis and their “path in Jewish law” must be examined by the Chief Rabbinate’s department with the rabbis of the community in question, along with an examination of the rabbi’s ordination and his decision making in Jewish law.

Rabbi Spolter then remarks:

In other words, no individual rabbis’ conversions would be recognized automatically, and these conversions would be examined and scrutinized by the Chief Rabbinate. Meaning, the Rabbinate will continue to do what it has been doing until now, only in an official capacity. This means that the conversions of the London Beit Din, or the Beit Din of America (or South Africa or Detroit) will be accepted without question, but any other conversion will be examined on a case by case basis. Any other rabbi similar to Rabbi Lookstein would be examined and evaluated, as well as his “ordination and his decision making in Jewish law.” That’s a pretty broad definition of scrutiny.

In America, this will mean that a rabbi who performs a conversion outside the RCA’s GPS system or another recognized Beit Din will not automatically be recognized, but will be evaluated individually. There will be no list of individual rabbis. Such a list is legally impossible to defend, ends up growing outdated (leaving many deceased rabbis approved to perform conversions), and generally smacks of favoritism and nepotism.

What does this mean for the thousands of converts who were converted by ad hoc batei din before the GPS system? For those that have been “approved” by the Beth Din of America and its poskim — and there are many — one hopes that the Rabbanut will have the good sense to automatically accept those conversions. On the other hand, I do not believe that conversions performed by individual rabbis who established their own Batei Din will enjoy automatic approval and acceptance by the Rabbanut…

I had to read the above remarks several times, as I am at a loss to understand the concern. In other words, looking at matters through the lens of Halacha, with the hope and expectation that standards will be carefully maintained, I fail to appreciate why methodically vetting the standards and assessing the practices and training of rabbis who perform overseas conversions is so objectionable; on the contrary, it should be welcomed and encouraged.

Were the Chief Rabbinate tasked to address possible administrative problems, such as cumbersome bureaucracy, poor management, inadequate communication, abuse of the system, or other processing concerns, that would be one thing. But to investigate the standards of rabbis who perform conversions and not give anyone a free pass — isn’t that something that we should seek and something that owe ourselves, as people committed to Halacha and wary of, God forbid, its breach in so weighty an area as conversion/Jewish status?

The reason that the RCA/Beth Din of America set up its “GPS” (Geirus Policies and Standards) program, and the reason that established rabbinic organizations throughout the globe similarly put into place uniform conversion standards, was the challenge posed by the prevalence of a “Wild West” conversion landscape, in which each rabbi did as he saw fit, resulting in systemic inconsistency, instability and insecurity, as well as awful personal tragedies. Please carefully read this article and this article, written by RCA leaders who were key in developing and implementing GPS. The emergence of GPS and similar systems (the latter of which existed much earlier in many communities) ushered in an era of objective standards, accountability and transparency. While no system may be perfect, the improvement is striking.

As Orthodox Jews, we are committed to upholding the Torah’s standards. Would we seek for a kosher agency to fail to properly assess the kosher status of a food product before certifying it? Would we fail to carefully make sure that our food bears reliable kosher certification before eating it? And as people who care about the well-being of others and of ourselves, would we approve of a hospital hiring a doctor or administering a drug before a comprehensive evaluation of competence and quality? Would we seek treatment from a doctor or take a drug that has not been thoroughly evaluated and vetted? Why should conversion not be held to the same high standards of scrutiny?

This article first appeared at Times of Israel and appears on with the permission of the author.




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