Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz, Av Beis Din of the RCA
Of course since there are many different streams of Judaism – even within Orthodoxy - it is difficult to say which stream should have the authority to decide which conduct most closely follows that Book. In a democracy all should be given equal authority. But Judaism is not a democracy. And although Israel is a democracy, it is also a Jewish State.
As an Orthodox Jew, I of course favor Orthodoxy. I strongly believe that it should be Orthodox rabbis that determine what the legitimate parameters of a Jewish state should be. The question remains - which group within Orthodoxy should be given that mandate? Charedim? Modern Orthodox? Religious Zionists? For me the authority should be given to those rabbis that understand and are sympathetic to all Orthodox segments. (This does not mean we can't respect heterodox rabbis. But it does mean we can't give them any authority. How to accomplish one without the other is beyond the scope of this post.)
In theory the rabbinate is supposed to be as rule as leniently as possible so that all segments can participate. This is in fact how they have always operated. Those who wish to be more stringent in their observance may in fact do so by turning to their own Poskim. Which is what they do. In this way the Jewish State encompasses the broadest base possible and still remain Halachic. Which for me is what makes Israel Jewish by definition.
While it’s true that the state was founded by non religious Jews, they were wise to consider an Orthodox rabbinate to be the arbiter of what is and isn’t Jewish. And it is a tribute to their heirs that they have perpetuated the system that way. While it is true that many secular Israeli Jews observe Halacha in the breach - they understand what they are breaching.
But something has changed about the rabbinate in recent years. Most notably in the area of conversions to Judaism. Religious Zionist rabbis - In an attempt to convert masses of mostly Russian immigrants that were technically not Jewish nor observant - used leniencies that involved conversions without the requiring full observance of Halacha. This method is rejected by most Poskim. The Charedi rabbinate struck back and prevailed upon the Chief Rabbinate to invalidate all those conversions.
One can debate the merit of the Charedi intrusion into a rabbinate. They prevailed upon the rabbinate to standardize all conversions. I happen to support that decision since it standardizes a process that was not long ago terribly abused. It is a decision that the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) has accepted as well. And that means the Israeli rabbinate accepts all RCA conversions. The problem of so may unconverted Israeli immigrants still remains. But that does not detract from my support of standardizing a process that needed it badly.
There was however a report this morning that was quite disturbing. From VIN:
New York Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that the Petah Tikva rabbinate’s rejection of one of his conversions involving an American woman who moved to Israel was, in his view, cruel.
“I’ve been serving as a modern Orthodox Rabbi and this woman happens to be a very observant woman and there is no question she is as Jewish as I am or as my colleagues here who helped me convert her.”
The couple went to register for marriage in the Petah Tikva rabbinate but the woman was referred to the Petah Tikva rabbinical court to confirm that her conversion was recognized.
The rabbinical court sent a request for clarification to the chief rabbinate’s department for matrimony and conversions, but in an unusual step also asked the head of Israel’s conversion authority Rabbi Rafi Peretz for his opinion.
The chief rabbinate’s office said Lookstein’s conversions were indeed acceptable, but Peretz said he had not come across converts through Lookstein and therefore said the rabbinical court should not recognize the conversion of the woman in question, which is what was ultimately decided…
In one similar incident last year reported by the Post, a conversion that was certified by a rabbinical court presided over by the head of the Beth Din of America, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, was rejected by the chief rabbinate’s department for matrimony and conversions.
It is one thing to standardize conversions. But when a court gets so arrogant that it refuses to honor a conversion by the Av Beis Din of the RCA, a body that they whose conversions they have claimed to accept, there is something terribly wrong. Which in my view casts a pall on the entire Israeli rabbinate. If they are going to make arbitrary decisions like these, they should be disbanded and replaced with a rabbinate that honors its commitments.