Thursday, April 30, 2009

Conversion - ecumenical panel discussion

Jewish Week

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.” [...]


  1. RAL's father-in-law was right about avoiding ecumenical discussion on religious-internal matters (kelapei fnim). There is no way the Jewish Week (despite Gary Rosenblatt's personally being Orthodox) or the non-O rabbis could possibly hear the point as RAL meant it. Exactly as described in "Confrontation":

    Second, the logos, the word, in which the multifarious religious experience is expressed does not lend itself to standardization or universalization. The word of faith reflects the intimate, the private, the paradoxically inexpressible cravings of the individual for and his linking up with his Maker. It reflects the numinous character and the strangeness of the act of faith of a particular community which is totally incomprehensible to the man of a different faith community. Hence, it is important that the religious or theological logos should not be employed as the medium of communication between two faith communities whose modes of expression are as unique as their apocalyptic experiences. The confrontation should occur not at a theological but at a mundane human level. There, all of us speak the universal language of modern man. As a matter of fact our common interests lie in the realm of faith, but in that of the secular orders.[8] There, we all face a powerful antagonist, we all have to contend with a considerable number of matters of great concern. The relationship between two communities must be outer-directed and related to the secular orders with which men of faith come face to face. In the secular sphere, we may discuss positions to be taken, ideas to be evolved, and plans to be formulated. In these matters, religious communities may together recommend action to be developed and may seize the initiative to be implemented later by general society. However, our joint engagement in this kind of enterprise must not dull our sense of identity as a faith community. We must always remember that our singular commitment to God and our hope and indomitable will for survival are non-negotiable and non-rationalizable and are not subject to debate and argumentation. The great encounter between God and man is a wholly personal private affair incomprehensible to the outsider - even to a brother of the same faith community. The divine message is incommunicable since it defies all standardized media of information and all objective categories. If the powerful community of the many feels like remedying an embarrassing human situation or redressing an historic wrong, it should do so at the human ethical level. However, if the debate should revolve around matters of faith, then one of the confronters will be impelled to avail himself of the language of his opponent. This in itself would mean surrender of individuality and distinctiveness.IMHO, RAL would have done well to head RYBS's words.


  2. It was O rabbi Seth Farber who cited RAL, not one of the heterodox rabbis. Since RAL was not present, unless the context in which he made his statement was itself ecumenical, he is innocent of violating RYBS' restrictions. Rabbis Farber and Herring should be the ones called to task if anyone should be.

  3. Any meeting of so called Orthodox Rabbis with the non Rabbis or the other false denominations is an abomination. There is no hope that they could come anywhere near the Torah's intent and including the falsifiers in the discussion demeans the Torah.

    Why report on this useless travesty?

  4. the Monsey TzadikMay 4, 2009 at 7:54 AM

    If someone actually read the Confrontation article he would then realized the the article is about encounters between Judaism and Christianity and not between Modern Orthodox and ultra Orthodox, Misnogdim and chosidim, or Orthodox and Reform.

  5. The point is that the Orthodox movement is not welcoming to potential converts at all. It makes it impossible for a potential ger to convert and you all know that that is a fact nowdays. Why dont they come up with a different method to train a potential convert? Judaism is the most beutiful way of life since it was given by Hashem. If a person is willing to join us, they should be prepared to live a Jewish life according to halacha. I know a friend who is converting and some of the things that the rabbis she's worked with have made her do had nothing to do with Judaism or halacha. Orthodox Rabbis play with people's lives as though they were pieces of chess. The psychological pressure is rather emotionally draining and I think is very sickening and malicious. What would people say about our nation that's supposed to a light unto the nations? Judaism is not a club nor an institution that plays psychological games on people. I think that the way Orthodox rabbis or the RCA are conducting this "business" (conversions) is very saddistic in nature. I know some sincere gerim and they feel devastated when their conversions are questioned. Who are we to judge our fellow Jews, questioning their actions as though we were their G-d? We cannot play G-d since we all are full of flaws. I think people have truly forgotten that there is Hashem in the world and that He is in control of everything. The Orthodox conversion method should be changed end of the story the end. I believe it should be more organized, more welcoming and less emotionally painful to potential converts.


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