By HaRav Yisrael Rosen
Dean of the Zomet Institute
“This is what G-d commands to the daughters of Tzelofchad, saying: Let them marry those who are best in their eyes, but they should choose to marry within the family of their father’s tribe” [Bamidbar 36:6].
To Rabbi Yechezkel Lookstein, in New York, Shalom to you from the mountains of Etzion:
I do not know if you recognize me personally or if you are familiar with the Zomet Institute, of which I am the Dean and Director. I am familiar with you and appreciate your public standing as a veteran rabbi and as one of the leaders of the Rabbinical Council of America. Many years ago we met during one of my rare visits to New York. The Yeshurun Congregation in Manhattan is very well-known among the Orthodox community, as is the Ramaz Yeshiva, which was founded by your late father, Rabbi Yosef Lookstein, and which you now head.
I write to you as one who has been personally involved in the realm of conversions to Judaism within Israel for the last twenty years, from the time that I was the first director of the government-sponsored Conversion Authority in Israel in 5755 (1995), under the auspices of the Sephardi Chief Rabbi at the time, Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron. I am turning to you now in the wake of the High Rabbinical Court in Israel, in connection with the case of N., a woman who was converted in your court and who wants to get married in Israel. Headlines in the press are contradictory. One shouts,“The Chief Rabbinate has decided not to recognize conversions by Rabbi Lookstein.” Another one denies this by writing, “After discussing the matter, the Rabbinate has allowed N. to marry the man of her choice.” Both you and I know very well that the press is not as interested in N. as compared to another woman whom you had the privilege of converting, and who is now a member of your congregation: Ivanka Trump, the famous daughter...
I have read a long interview with you, where you wonder “how it can be that the Rabbinate in one country does not respect the rabbis in another one.” There have been news stories about demonstrations against the Israeli High Rabbinical Court, and many other reactions to this affair by organizations in Israel and around the world, orthodox and liberal alike.
I want to let you in on a little secret: We are “fellow sufferers,” but my complaint is at a higher level than yours. I served as a conversion court judge in Israel for fifteen years, as a member of a court established by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. When I retired from this job, I and another veteran conversion judge with similar experience established our own private court for conversions. And then, all of a sudden, men and women (about 90% in our case) who have been converted by us, and the mikveh in Alon Shevut, are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate! We did not change our opinions or our behavior and we did not make any changes in the criteria for conversion, as we both practiced for fifteen years. And suddenly we find that we are tossed out of the game and “not recognized!” What do our converts do? They get married in a private ceremony, in Israel or abroad, and the “rabbinical world” in the Diaspora accepts them as Jews. That is what Ivanka did, and she is accepted as Jewish together with her children (the grandchildren of the famous Presidential candidate).
And now we come to the “surprising” gist of my message to you: I think that everybody involved in this matter is right, including the Chief Rabbinate of Israel! In spite of the fact that I am directly involved in this issue, I hereby declare that the State of Israel cannot grant automatic recognition by private conversion courts, because Reform groups, which you know so well, are waiting on the sidelines to turn to the Israeli Supreme Court in order to demand an equal legitimate status . And that, in essence, is the whole point! I can also add “off the record” that the same is true for other orthodox rabbis from the liberal wing. Even the conversions of the Chareidi rabbinical court led by Rabbi Karlitz from Bnei Berak, which is accepted all over the world, are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate, and their converts cannot be officially married in Israel, for the same reason. And this is as it should be.
My understanding is that you do not maintain a permanent conversion court but that you perform conversions only in specific cases that crop up within your community. The same is true of other colleagues of yours from among the orthodox rabbis. The Israeli Chief Rabbinate does recognize a number of organized rabbinical courts all over the world (of course there are always disputes about which ones to accept), and your organization the RCA has also issued a list of United States rabbinical courts which are recognized in Israel. However , community rabbis who perform conversions in their own congregations without establishing a formal rabbinical court, no matter how ultra-religious they are, will not be able to achieve formal recognition, because of fears of the Supreme Court in Israel...
The Solution: Approving the Conversion
How can we fix this situation? My proposal (which I have sent to the Chief Rabbis) is similar to what happened in the end to N., “your” convert. But this can be organized in a formal way. Private conversions will receive approval in an Israeli rabbinical court for the purposes of marriage in a way similar to the approval of Jewish-born status for Olim from around the world. An individual judge will meet the convert and will obtain information about the head of the conversion court – that is, about people like you and me. And that will be all that is needed! The fact that N. herself was not sent to repeat her immersion shows that in essenceyour original conversion was accepted, but not automatically. And here is the essence of my proposal: The rabbinical judge who grants approval of a conversion must be a permanent national judge (not somebody who has some personal ax to grind) with a solid affinity for conversion according to the norms of the conversion courts of the Chief Rabbinate.
Thank you for reading this letter, I sincerely hope that I have been able to contribute to an “arbitration” of the gaps.
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This week’s Torah portion ends with the dilemma of “transfer of a heritage” from one tribe to another. The verse quoted above, “Let them marry those who are best in their eyes, but they should choose to marry within the family of their father’s tribe,” contains an internal contradiction. According to the traditions of our sages, the daughters of Tzelofchad agreed to a process of arbitration. In principle, they could choose those “who were best in their eyes.” But the arbitrator would recommend “the family of their father’s tribe... And they married their cousins” [Bamidbar 36:11].