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” [hatred among Jews] that brought about the destruction of the Temple. “Many Orthodox rabbis won’t walk into my shul, and that pains me,” he said, noting that the level of trust among rabbis of different denominations has deteriorated in recent years.
“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.” [...]