New standards possible for Orthodox conversions
By PAUL LUNGEN
Rabbi Reuven Tradburks
The Orthodox rabbinate in Toronto has put conversions on hold as it ponders whether to change the standards required of those wishing to join the Jewish fold.
The beit din, the rabbinical court that approves conversions, will likely not determine its course of action until the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), an umbrella organization that represents 1,000 rabbis, makes its own determination, said Rabbi Reuven Tradburks, secretary to the Toronto beit din. The beit din, he said, “is not bound by everything the RCA decides, but it certainly wants to be consistent with it.”
At the heart of the issue is the desire by many in the Orthodox community to set a single universal standard for conversion that would be accepted by rabbis the world over. Currently, the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel has set a more stringent standard, while rabbinical courts elsewhere have set less strict requirements. The result has been an unwillingness by some communities to recognize as valid conversions by others. Some Jews, turned away by one court because of a refusal to agree to strict lifestyle requirements, have gone elsewhere to find a more lenient court, Tradburks stated.
The changes, should they come, would have the greatest impact on families seeking to convert adopted children, he acknowledged. The beit din converts between 20 and 25 such children each year, as well as a further 20 to 25 adults (past bar mitzvah age).
The last child conversion under the old standards took place before the summer.
Under those criteria, parents were required to agree to send their child to a Jewish day school, keep kosher and maintain a sense of the Shabbat and other Jewish holidays.
Now being considered are the additional requirements that the families be Sabbath observant and follow all mitzvot commandments, including prayer and wearing tfillin every day.
Rabbi Tradburks, who is responsible for intake and management of conversions for the beit din, said Israel has been applying the more stringent standards and North American batei din are considering conforming to them. To date, however, the beit din in Toronto has been following a “more lenient” line.
“Even though that’s been the standard, there’s been a certain degree of discomfort with that…To be frank, the reason this more demanding standard has not been used was rachmonis [sympathy],” prompted by the realization that families seeking to convert youngsters had already experienced the pain of infertility and the difficulties of adoption. “You have good people who have gone through a lot,” Rabbi Tradburks said.
Part of the discussion now underway in Toronto is what to do when families already have one child converted under the old standard and wish to convert another child. Also being considered is protecting the status of previous conversions.
Though no final decision has been made on earlier conversions, “I don’t believe there will be changes for child conversions that have already been done,” Rabbi Tradburks said.
He acknowledged that tightening the criteria for conversion could push some parents to other streams of Judaism, such as Conservative and Reform, with the implication that those children will not be universally considered Jewish. Certain Orthodox day schools would likely not admit such students, though the mainstream community day schools likely would, he suggested.
One Toronto rabbi, who wished to remain anonymous, said the proposed changes are “another manifestation of Toronto Orthodoxy making an extreme right turn. This movement to the right is not in keeping with the concept of ahavat Yisrael (love of the Jewish people) which we should try to promote.
“This will drive many people away from Orthodoxy rather than bring them closer,” the rabbi added.
A second rabbi, who also did not wish his name used, said, “Combined with the recent controversy over whether Orthodox Jews can accept evolution, the cancellation of a conference on the agunah [women who are not given a religious divorce by their husbands] problem and the refusal of the Chief Rabbinate [of Israel] to accept conversions under the RCA over the summer, this is an attempt to marginalize modern Orthodoxy and remake Orthodoxy in the haredi image.”
Rabbi Tradburks stressed that conversion under Halachah is part of the “legal structure” of Judaism and “you have to meet the legal requirements.”
Even though the rabbinate is sympathetic to couples who have experienced the stresses of infertility and wish to adopt a child, “compassion cannot trump the legal structure.”
He acknowledged that ironies could arise, such as the prospective adopting couple being more observant and connected to the Jewish people than non-observant Jews whose status is not questioned.
Conversion of infants is part of a larger issue, Rabbi Tradburks maintained – “a looming crisis of Jewish status within the broader North American Jewish community.”
With the prevalence of conversions by other branches of Judaism, mixed marriages and the acceptance of patrilineal descent by Reform Jewry, “there are tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people within the Jewish community who are assumed to be Jews who are not Jewish,” he said.
“In the United States, where conversions have been done in large numbers for years, the day will come when it will be hard to assume someone who says they are Jewish really are [Jewish],” by traditional halachic standards.
“The numbers are not insignificant,” he added.
In Israel, meanwhile, controversy has percolated over the Jewish status of some Orthodox converts who have wished to move to the Jewish state and who wish to marry there. Personal status issues, such as marriage, divorce and burial, are governed by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, but there has not been a universally accepted conversion “gold standard.”
Rabbi Saul Emanuel, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Montreal (Vaad Ha’ir), said infant conversions in that city will proceed only if both parents are observant. They must demonstrate “a commitment to Shabbat and festival observance and to Torah Judaism in all spheres,” he said.
“There has been a lot of discussion” on these standards, he said, “and this is becoming the norm based on the views of leading Torah authorities.”
Rabbi Emanuel said Israel’s Chief Rabbinate as well as leading batei din around the world are adopting that standard, though he acknowledged “it may not be that all people will agree.”
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, a rabbi affiliated with the RCA beit din in Montreal, said their alternative rabbinic court has been performing conversions for 18 months, during which they have converted about half a dozen adopted infants.
He said disagreements within the Orthodox movement over child conversions dates back to an 1864 case when two German rabbis, Zvi Hirsch Kalischer and Azriel Hildesheimer, debated the standards to be applied. Responding to a query from a rabbi in New Orleans, Rabbi Kalischer argued that if the child was brought up in a home where there was potential for him to grow in observance – even where the mother was gentile – the conversion should be approved. Rabbi Hildesheimer believed conversions should not be approved unless the parents were observant.
Modern Orthodox rabbis have adopted a perspective similar to Rabbi Kalischer in that “we are open to any case with potential for growth, with some major modifications, to be sure,” Rabbi Steinmetz stated.
“Now, because of the worldwide upheaval regarding conversion, with the haredim in Israel putting enormous pressure on the Chief Rabbinate and on the Orthodox world, the RCA is reviewing the issue,” Rabbi Steinmetz, who identifies himself as a moderate, said.
Rabbi Steinmetz said that approving conversions is “very contextual” and while the issue is being debated in black and white terms – whether more stress should be placed on observance or Jewish identity – moderates “take a mixed perspective” and look not just for current observance but for the potential for growth in observance.
Rabbi Reuven Bulka of Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa said the beit din there has not had requests recently for child conversions but he would recommend parents wait until the RCA decision.
“The rabbis in Israel are weighing down heavily as they have instances of people coming to them who didn’t measure up and they see the problem due to standards that are not universal,” Rabbi Bulka stated.
“I am of the opnion that once halachic dictates have been met, our general philosophy should be one of welcoming rather than throwing away,” he added.
He expects people unwilling to agree to the new, more stringent standards will go elsewhere.
In Toronto, meanwhile, Rabbi Tradburks explained that the criteria for child conversions were set in the Talmud, on the assumption they would be a “merit to the child” – that the child would grow up and observe the mitzvot. “That’s the crux of it.” If a converted child falls short of his Jewish obligations, he would not be considered a good Jew though he or she might otherwise have been “a very meritorious non-Jew,” Rabbi Tradburks said.
In making its decision whether to convert a youngster, the beit din might act in disagreement with the parents’ conception of the best interest of the child. “What is meritorious has to be seen within the structure of the Halachah,” he said.
Rabbi Tradburks said the conversion issue has been the subject of disagreement between two eminent scholars. The late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, “one of the great poskim (halachic decisors),” addressed the issue and set the criteria that have been applied by the Toronto beit din until recently. He believed that “surrounded by the influence of a day school, there was a good chance that when [the child] grew up, he’d retain [the practice of Judaism] and more.”
In the years since the late rabbi advanced that view, the influence of a day school education may have been eroded and the perspective of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik has gained currency. Rabbi Soloveitchik took a stricter line, arguing one couldn’t assume that a day school education will have the greatest influence on a child. He felt it was important for the child to grow up in a fully observant home and only that would ensure he or she would become an observant adult Jew, Rabbi Tradburks said.
Asked whether the stricter standards – if adopted – would prompt some families to look to other streams of Judaism, Rabbi Tradburks said, “My gut tells me that people will probably not be willing to conform” if they have not been living an observant lifestyle.
But, he continued, rabbis in other cities tell him parents are willing to do whatever it takes to convert their child under Orthodox auspices.
With files from The CJN’s David Lazarus in Montreal