An interesting quote published today from a leading RCA figure lends some credence to the idea that the RCA is not telling the whole truth about its conversion deal with Israel's chief rabbinate.
…Basil Herring is quoted by the Jewish Standard this way:
"Going back 20 years, the Rabbinical Council of America recognized the many benefits of centralized, consistent standards so that all communities and rabbis in every country could have a way of accepting converts," said Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the RCA, the rabbinical organization representing centrist Orthodoxy.
"We set out guidelines and standards adopted by many RCA rabbis, but some RCA rabbis continued to perform conversions that did not meet those standards," Herring continued.
"Then, about two years ago, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel decided they wanted a more reliable way to judge the status converts who came to [live or get married in] Israel, so we launched a process to formulate standards and to set up regional, standing batei din [rabbinical courts] with a formal structure and administrator, proper standardized documents, and judges approved up front by the RCA."
This raises two simple points:
1. If the problem really was "some RCA rabbis" who continued to perform conversions that "did not meet" RCA standards, the RCA should have disciplined those rabbis. But it did not.
2. This raises the question of why the RCA did not discipline those wayward rabbis. Was it because the RCA has no mechanism to do so? But it has such a mechanism. So why no discipline?
I think the answer to that question is as follows. The RCA hardliners did not have support within the RCA to enforce stricter, more haredi conversion standards.
The reason for this lack of support for stricter standards, I think, is that halakha (Jewish law) does not support stricter standards applied in a blanket fashion. In most cases, halakha would not support stricter standards at all.
But when Israel's chief rabbis decided they wanted to delegitimize the RCA by refusing to automatically recognize any RCA-approved conversion (at the instigation, it seems, of Rabbi Nochum Eisenstein, a close confidant of haredi leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and a fierce foe of the RCA), the RCA hardliners saw this as an opportunity to get their way. And so they did.
As Israel's Sefardic chief rabbi Shlomo Amar became more comfortable with the haredi-like elements within the RCA, a deal was reached. This deal gave Amar everything he asked for short of one thing – mandatory conversion judge training supervised by him in Jerusalem for every RCA rabbi who would sit as a conversion judge.
Instead, Amar got the two most strict RCA rabbis, YU's Schachter and Willig, to form a three man panel to approve all conversion judges. The third man on that panel? Amar's personal representative, flown in from Israel.
The RCA sold this agreement to its members by saying, in effect, we have to do this. If we do not, our converts and their descendants will suffer at the hands of the Israeli rabbinate. But the truth, I think, is far murkier.
The RCA's hardliners want this agreement in part to marginalize or force out entirely rabbis like Marc Angel and Avi Weiss. They want to force out of the RCA any rabbis who have shown support for YU's fledgling competition, Yeshavt Chovvevei Torah.
Increasingly, synagogues are opting to hire Chovvevei graduates rather than YU graduates, in large part because YU's semicha program has moved too far to the religious right.
So, to stem the tide, it has created a system that forces Chovvevei rabbis to bring potential converts to YU-RCA hardliners for approval. This will force Chovvevei rabbis to bow to YU-RCA hardliners' demands, not only on conversion, but on other issues, as well.
In other words, just as haredim tried to use the conversion issue to neuter or completely destroy the RCA, the RCA and YU are using the conversion issue to destroy Chovvevei Torah and the moderate faction with the RCA.
This so-called conversion crisis has never been about questionable converts or uniform standards – it has been about power and control, about who really is a rabbi and about what Orthodox Judaism really is.
It is the real dirty fight between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, the fight that cost lives, that maimed, that injured, that crippled Judaism for many centuries to come, until today. (See the Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 1:4 for the details.)
Just like then, Beit Shammai won, not through force of argument or democratic vote, but by dirty tricks and by force.
The Jerusalem Talmud calls the decisive battle that illegally and immorally gave victory to Beit Shammai the darkest day for the Jewish people since the making of the golden calf.
And so, too, I'm afraid, is the day YU and RCA hardliners sold the soul of moderate Orthodox Judaism to the forces of haredi darkness.