Mar 19, 2009
Last week, there was a public attack
, authored by our chaver Rabbi Avi Weiss, on the RCA's GPS Gerus Network in the pages of the Jewish Week. The RCA's response
, from RCA president Rabbi Shlomo Hochberg and GPS Chairman, Rabbi Barry Freundel, has been published in the Jewish Week and is reproduced below:
In his recent column in this paper, Rabbi Avi Weiss focused on the emotional pain that is inherent in any discussion of a convert’s Jewish identity. Indeed, the Torah instructs us to be especially sensitive to the emotional needs of converts, because their situation is particularly precarious. We must do our utmost to help sincere converts feel welcome, and avoid the anguish of rejection.
Since its inception in 2007, the Rabbinical Council of America's Gerus Policies and Standards /GPS system of rabbinic courts has served many converts with dignity and sensitivity, and is widely viewed in a positive light by those who have had dealings with its courts. Its consistent standards provide converts with the assurance that their conversions will not be needlessly challenged in the future. More than 150 people have converted under GPS, and another 150 are currently studying for conversion.
So why is Rabbi Weiss upset with the RCA? Evidently, Rabbi Weiss feels that when the GPS system was instituted, it came with the promise that any conversion performed previously by a member of the RCA would automatically be endorsed. Since that has not occurred, he alleges that the RCA is guilty of misleading the Jewish world, and of undertaking a wholesale reevaluation of previously performed conversions.
The story of the creation of the GPS system needs to be told, in order to dispel Rabbi Weiss's accusations.
Prior to the institution of GPS, there was no standardized system for rabbinical courts. One need not have a vivid imagination to appreciate the difficulties presented by such a non-system. With no official standards or requirements, confusion reigned. Rabbis in one geographic area had no way to verify if the standards of other rabbis were acceptable to them. And rabbis were forced to personally investigate the circumstances of any convert who turned to them for rabbinic services. The difficulty for the rabbi and the anguish for the converts cannot adequately be portrayed.
Given this state of affairs, which the GPS system set out to rectify, the RCA as an organization never automatically certified conversions performed by its members. The RCA would upon request, ratify conversions performed under the auspices of individual rabbis if such conversions met its standards. In issuing such ratifications, the RCA has never based its decision on a convert's "ongoing and current level of observance." What is of significance to the RCA is the halachic requirement that a convert sincerely accept the fundamentals of Jewish belief and observance at the time of conversion itself. This is best evidenced by his or her behavior in the period immediately following the conversion.
Of course it would not be reasonable to expect that adoption of a new, more centralized system would come with a promise to recognize all previous conversions. The RCA never made such a promise. What it did say was that any conversions performed previously that met its standards then, would continue to be recognized. That policy has been firmly upheld.
Rabbi Weiss would have us believe that the RCA's failure to endorse a particular conversion indicates that the RCA is planning to reevaluate the status of all previous converts. How anyone would get such a notion is beyond us, and promulgating that view does a great disservice to many upstanding converts who may now worry that their Jewishness is in question.
The notion that the RCA was at fault in a case wherein a convert served as one of the rabbis on a conversion court, creates a potentially harmful misunderstanding. The issue of whether a convert may serve on a rabbinical court for conversion is complex, and disputed by halachic authorities. Given the range of opinion on this topic, and with the best interest of converts in mind, the RCA and its affiliated Beth Din of America after much careful deliberation, concluded that a convert should not serve in this capacity. This view was accepted - not to insult anyone - but to ensure that there would never be any reason to question the legitimacy of our converts.
In practical terms, when faced with a case where a member of the court was himself a convert, the RCA’s recommendation is for the convert to undergo a pro forma act of conversion where possible. That act (performed without a bracha) serves to resolve in advance any potential issues for the convert, as well as for future progeny. Contrary to Rabbi Weiss’s claim, this position has been consistently articulated by the RCA regarding all conversions performed under such circumstances.
Rabbi Weiss has spoken in support of many good causes over the years. Is it too much to hope that he will recognize the value of the GPS system, thus ensuring the wellbeing – both emotional and halachic - of so many current and future righteous converts?
Rabbi Barry Freundel, Chairman, RCA Gerus Policies and Standards Committee
Rabbi Shlomo Hochberg, President, Rabbinical Council of America