The Jewish Press spoke last week with Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi since 2003, on the contentious issue of conversion to Judaism.
Jewish Press: Your attempt to impose conversion regulations in the U.S. that would be acceptable to Israel’s Chief Rabbinate garnered a lot of attention and created not a little controversy. Are there any new developments in that area?
Rabbi Amar: I should make it clear that I was referring only to new conversions. I did not touch or alter any actions of my predecessors – or any rabbi or rabbinate abroad recognized by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate before I came into office. My concern was with new rabbis or rabbinates that started issuing conversion certificates after I became chief rabbi. I feel that before they can have any involvement in the matter of conversion, they need to be checked and tested in order to determine whether they are indeed qualified to carry out conversions.
At least initially, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) seemed to take rather strong issue with your position.
In the beginning, the RCA voiced concern with my stance and there was a furor in some of the Jewish papers that made it seem as if I didn’t want to recognize the RCA’s conversions. The RCA sent a delegation to Israel and I clarified to them what my reservations were. They understood and agreed with me. It took a year until we formulated a modus operandi and then I came to New York to meet with RCA leaders.
How did your intervention affect the way conversions are handled?
Until then, the procedure was that any rabbi could engage in conversions. I asked that they set up a system of regional batei din with three recognized rabbis and that if new rabbis were to be added they first must be tested. I suggested that any new rabbi come to us in Israel for testing, but they objected to that. So we decided the test would be carried out by two of their rabbis, Rabbis Hershel Schachter and Mordechai Willig, and I would send a third rabbi or judge from the Chief Rabbinate in Israel to join them and he would bring any questions from Israel.
How is the arrangement working out?
They set up several batei din and sent me names of new rabbis they want to add. While I rely on Rabbis Schachter and Willig, I will not automatically accept a new name without checking up on him first. So far, though, no tests have been carried out as I’ve been inundated with work that has prevented me from putting more time into the project.
So while it’s common knowledge that the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize Conservative or Reform conversions, the fact is you don’t recognize Orthodox conversions carte blanche either.
Yes, that’s right. There are a lot of new rabbis who call themselves Orthodox but whom we have not yet verified in terms of their qualifications to perform conversions. We can’t stop them from doing anything, but we can refuse to recognize their conversions. So if someone comes along with a conversion certificate not issued by any of the batei din approved by us, we won’t automatically accept it.
Now, there are cases where we’ve disqualified Orthodox rabbis whom we had recognized in the past. We did so after having received complaints about those rabbis, but not until we verified the matter thoroughly. When someone comes to us accusing a rabbi of not performing as per halacha, we ask the complainant to describe in writing what fault he found and to sign his name. I then send the letter to the rabbi in question in order for him to respond.
What is your reaction to the recent decision by the Court of Appeal in London that ongoing personal acts of faith, rather than birth or conversion, defines a Jew?
Unfortunately, we can refer to the courts in Israel that are gravitating in the same direction. Not too long ago the courts here ruled that non-Orthodox groups in Israel should be funded and be able to continue their non-halachic activities.
As long as the Who is a Jew law is not amended, the courts will allow Reform, Conservative and every other non-halachic group to make inroads and destroy the character of the state. If, God forbid, they will begin to validate Reform and Conservative marriages and conversions in Israel, the nation will be divided.
This gives me no rest, as it is forbidden to tear this nation in half. Having various political parties who disagree on ideology is not threatening – that can occur in the best of families – but once you stop marrying each other, that’s a real split and it is forbidden that this should occur.
What is your message to American Jewry, to American rabbis?
I think my proposal to set up recognized batei din was a good start, but another vital step that must be taken is that there must be uniform registration in every country. I explained this to the RCA leaders when I met with them. For instance, all rabbinates should print up identical forms and when a couple registers to marry they will get a copy of the form, the rabbi will get one and a third one will be filed away in a central database where one will be able to see which rabbi performed the marriage. Likewise, when a person converts anywhere in the U.S., every rabbi will be able to know who performed the conversion since it will be filed away in this central database. The same with regard to divorces.
But won’t that create arguments among rabbis and rabbinates over who should control this database?
I suggest that each rabbinate or rabbinic organization set up its own database – the RCA would have its database, the Agudas Harabonim would have its database, etc. – and they can all cooperate and coordinate. I agree it might cause friction, but first start organizing it and then worry about the arguments later. Certainly we can come to some kind of meeting of minds.
I’m sure there were many arguments and disagreements when they formed the Chief Rabbinate in Israel many years ago but today, thank God, even though there are many private batei din in all parts of the country, there is an orderly arrangement and everything is registered with the central body – the Chief Rabbinate.