A Conversion Critique From Within
03/05/08
Staff Writer
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, spiritual leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and recently retired head of the Ramaz Jewish day schools on the Upper East Side, is one of Modern Orthodoxy’s elder statesmen. He will soon celebrate the 50th anniversary of his ordination, but rather than reflecting on his accomplishments with unfettered joy — which include helping between 300 and 400 people convert to Judaism — he is feeling deeply pained about the direction the Orthodox rabbinate is taking when it comes to conversions, and conflicted about his own role in the system. Rabbi Lookstein was part of the Rabbinical Council of America committee that drafted new guidelines for conversion, which are being called the GPS system, for Geirus [conversion] Policies and Standards. Though unhappy with the direction of the discussions, he was unable to sway other committee members, he says, and now abhors the resulting policy. He is also one of the 36 Orthodox rabbis currently on the list of clerics who may serve on the religious courts that finalize conversions to Judaism under the GPS system, with the promise that their decisions will be accepted by Israel’s chief rabbinate. (Twelve of the 36 are in the New York area, according to Rabbi Basil Herring, the RCA’s executive vice president, though the full list has not been made public.) Yet Rabbi Lookstein may remove himself from the list. “I oppose the system,” said the rabbi, in an interview from Jerusalem, where he was visiting. “I am very much afraid of this system. “The RCA is making it more difficult for people to convert just as the Chief Rabbinate has made it more difficult for people to convert in Israel. We are replicating their mistakes,” he said. The new process was developed over the past two years by the RCA and last week ratified by the head of Israel’s rabbinical court system, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, though Rabbi Herring says the plan was developed by his organization alone. It standardizes and centralizes a process that has traditionally been in the hands of individual rabbis, who shepherded along candidates for conversion and presided over the final step, the actual conversion. Individual rabbis will still mentor and educate potential converts, but a regional religious court — there are currently 15 in the network and more on the way, according to RCA officials — will complete the process, examining the applicant and approving or denying their effort to join the Jewish people. If they are approved through a GPS-accepted court and judges, then the Israeli chief rabbinate will also accept their conversion, according to the deal between the RCA and Israel. There were abuses and inconsistencies in U.S. conversions, said RCA leaders. They noted that some Orthodox rabbis felt pressured by congregants to do quickie conversions for gentiles whom their adult children wanted to marry, and there were enough inconsistencies that rabbis felt they could not always trust colleagues’ conversions. What’s more, the vast majority of the RCA’s membership approved of the agreement, believing that it would be of real benefit to converts, knowing that their status as Jews would be fully accepted should they or their descendants settle in Israel. In a letter to The Jewish Week (see page 6), two former RCA presidents, Rabbi Kenneth Hain of Lawrence, L.I., and Rabbi Heshie Billet of Woodmere, L.I., note the new agreement is “a responsible halachic plan with clear and flexible guidelines within the framework of halacha for the sole purpose of protecting diaspora converts who wish to move to Israel.” And they question how critics could help converts “avoid the agony of rejection in Israel” without dealing with the Chief Rabbinate’s concerns. Israel’s chief rabbinate has become increasingly strict in its requirements of someone who wants to convert in the Jewish state, now insisting on a fervently Orthodox level of commitment. If someone wants to marry, he or she must prove that his or her mother’s or grandmother’s Orthodox conversion in the U.S. was kosher, sometimes decades after the fact, leading to burdens so onerous — like finding old documents — that people are often not able to meet them. The new conversion standards in this country are designed to obviate the domestic and Chief Rabbinate’s challenges, said Rabbi Herring. Among other things, they require that parents converting an adopted child commit to 12 years of Orthodox day school education for that child, something Rabbi Lookstein finds too strict. “The consideration seems to be to make sure that nobody enters the Jewish people unless we are absolutely certain of their present and future adherence to the full range of halacha [Jewish law],” says Rabbi Lookstein. “While I am absolutely in favor of strict standards for conversion, I feel the emphasis ought to be to help people convert and not to put up barriers. I am convinced that the new system is going to create barriers.” Another rabbi involved with the committee process, who noted that the issue of converting children was the most difficult to hammer out, said that in practical terms the rabbinic judges will show leniency if they see a sincere commitment to raise the child in an active Jewish home. Rabbi Lookstein also expressed concern that the rabbinic judges could be looking to find reasons to reject a prospective convert rather than welcome her. “People will have to go before a panel of dayanim [rabbinic judges] who they have never met, in the interest of objectivity, whereas I think the people who do the conversion should be people who are genuinely interested in helping the convert complete the process. “I don’t consider that to be a lack of objectivity. I consider it to be a manifestation of love and concern. Because the system is being set up in a way like it is in Israel, it will make it more difficult for people to convert in an Orthodox bet din. That’s bad for the conversion candidates, and I think it’s bad for the Jewish people.” There are cities in the U.S. with several hundred thousand Jews where Orthodox conversions have been centralized for the past few years and despite the size of the populations, fewer than five people become Jewish each year, he said. The regional religious courts “make it too hard,” said Rabbi Lookstein. “This shows how intimidating the whole process is.” He worries that the new approach is depersonalizing a spiritually and emotionally complex process. “I want to be sure that any candidate I want to present for conversion will come before three rabbis who will be welcoming to that candidate rather than challenging, and right now I’m not sure that I can,” he said. Rabbis in Manhattan have always convened their own panels of judges, he said. There has never before been a regional bet din, “and I’m not sure how that is going to work,” he said. He hesitates to withdraw from the new system because of the impact it could have on the hundreds of people he has already converted and their descendants. If he is considered a critic of the establishment, past conversions could be challenged.  “Somebody in Jerusalem might say ‘Lookstein that liberal, that renegade, we can’t rely on his judgment.’ That’s the next step.” Rabbi Herring said in an interview that only Rabbis Marc Angel and Avi Weiss have spoken out against the accord. “We’ve not heard any dissent from our members, which are over 950. It’s amazing that anything in Jewish life should get this kind of almost unanimous support. When in Jewish life do you have this kind of majority acclamation?” But according to Rabbi Lookstein, there is a larger group that has not felt comfortable speaking out. Last year, after sharing his perspective on this issue at an RCA conference, “colleagues came over to encourage me in that point of view but they’re not making any noise,” he said. “There are other rabbis in the RCA who don’t think this is a good idea. They’re just not as vocal as Rabbi Angel and Rabbi Weiss.” Overall, says Rabbi Lookstein, the new system makes unnecessary demands on potential converts, and discourages them from joining the Jewish people. “Suddenly we’re worried about all these imperfect converts joining the Jewish people. I’d venture a guess that the most imperfect convert an Orthodox rabbi will convert would probably be far more observant and religious than 90 percent of American Jews. So what are we really afraid of? That we’re watering down the Jewish people?” n See Opinion (page 28) for an essay by Rabbi Barry Freundel in favor of the RCA-Chief Rabbinate agreement, and by Rabbis Marc Angel and Avi Weiss in opposition.
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