Chief Rabbinate's Decision on Overseas Conversions Riles American Rabbis

NEW YORK - "This is deliberate harassing of the modern Orthodoxy that was conceived and born in the United States," one New York rabbi said yesterday in response to the decision by Israel's Chief Rabbinate not to recognize conversions by Orthodox rabbis abroad.

The rabbi, who does not serve in an official rabbinic capacity but is viewed by colleagues and the religious-Zionist public in the U.S. as a model modern Orthodox rabbi, said he had trouble choosing between two labels for the Rabbinate's decision: "horrific" or "folly."

By contrast, Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) downplayed the impression of a crisis in relations with the Rabbinate in Israel. "The report in Haaretz was too sweeping," Herring said. "It isn't a matter of not recognizing all Orthodox conversions, but rather not recognizing them automatically."

Herring, whose organization is home to some 1,000 rabbis across the U.S., said he had no problem with someone in Israel saying that new standards for conversions needed to be put in place, but "you don't do that without consulting us and without informing us in advance." Herring said that following yesterday's report in Haaretz, he had been flooded by calls from European rabbis demanding explanations of the Rabbinate decision and from reporters seeking comments.

American Orthodox rabbis interviewed on yesterday commonly expressed shock and feelings of frustration and anger. The differences in style and degree depended only on the extent of the speaker's dependence on the Orthodox rabbinic establishment and their obligations as rabbis of congregations. Rabbis affiliated with the Orthodox establishment made a concerted effort to show restraint and temper their displeasure with a measure of hope that the issue of recognizing overseas Orthodox conversions will be resolved through mutual debate. Rabbis active outside the Orthodox mainstream were more outspoken, though some asked to remain anonymous.

Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, former president of Yeshiva University and a prominent figure in modern Orthodoxy, told Haaretz on yesterday that the approach of Orthodox rabbis in the U.S. was always to accept the will of the Rabbinate in Israel. "Now that the Chief Rabbinate is taking a step that indicates it does not recognize us as authorized rabbis, we will have to review and reassess our relations with the Rabbinate in Israel," he said.

Rabbi Shraga Schoenfeld, a former president of the RCA, also expressed dismay at the Rabbinate's decision. "I don't understand what happened," he said. "We always recognized the Chief Rabbinate as a halakhic authority and suddenly they decided they would not accept American Orthodox conversion unless it has the official seal of the Chief Rabbinate. Something went wrong there in Jerusalem."

Sephardic Chief Rabbi and president of the Supreme Rabbinic Court, Shlomo Amar, categorically rejected the wave of protest from U.S. rabbis. According to Amar, "the rabbis and dayanim (religious arbitrators) overseas who were recognized until now continue to be recognized. We are saying only that new rabbis and dayanim who wish to perform conversion or rule on divorce matters will have to take an exam."

Amar said that a body of three dayanim was appointed to administer the exams. "I instructed them to conduct a special and easy exam," he emphasized, but acknowledged the inconvenience of taking the exam in Israel. "I am prepared to consider an orderly proposal to administer the exams for rabbis in America," he said. "But I do not promise to accept it."