Conversion to Judaism: A dangerous monopoly
December 30, 2009
Rabbi Leib Tropper’s sudden resignation as head of Eternal Jewish Family, a fervently Orthodox outreach organization, continues to shock us as the lurid allegations of his repeated abuses of confidence and power emerge. We learned that a man who nullified a woman’s conversion for leaving her house “immodestly” wearing pants could use conversion as leverage to coerce other women into providing sexual favors to himself and his cohorts. We learned that someone who vigorously advocated stringent “universal standards” for conversion to Judaism apparently maintained very few standards of his own.
From the Gothic novels of the 1800s to Dan Brown novels and contemporary headlines, there is something compelling about stories of clerics in black, secretive protocols and networks, abuses of power, and massive organizational cover-ups. As the salacious story develops, it is easy to place Tropper alongside any number of similarly disgraced Catholic priests or evangelical preachers.
Beyond the universal storyline, though, the Tropper incident refocused the Jewish community’s attention toward the dangerous hegemony, without oversight or accountability, that the haredi (fervently Orthodox) establishment owns over questions of conversion and Jewish status, both in Israel and the Diaspora.
The Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist communities have largely ignored the inner workings and policy aims of the haredi sectors. As the Religious Zionist movement migrated — both physically and ideologically — to the settlements and as American Orthodoxy matured into suburbia, both continued to maintain the assumption that all the haredi camp ever wanted were exemptions from army service and funding for its yeshivot.
Quietly, though, the haredi leadership aimed its own political focus toward merging its own religious infrastructure with Israel’s State Rabbinate and religious court system. To be married or divorced in Israel, where civil marriage does not exist, or to make aliya under the Law of Return, a Jew by choice must prove his or her Jewish status. By setting the standards for that Jewish status, especially in terms of conversions, the haredi establishment can effectively delegitimize any interpretations — or interpreters — of Judaism or Halacha other than its own. Scarier, the non-involvement by other groups left a vacuum easily exploited by extremist and sometime corrupt elements.
In 2006, a number of haredi activists, Tropper among them, lobbied Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar, promoting suspicion of the Modern Orthodox rabbinate and its conversion standards. The Chief Rabbinate re-evaluated Israel’s policy of accepting Orthodox conversions from the United States. Amar concluded, drastically, that conversions performed by nearly all 1,000 members of the Rabbinical Council of America, the nation’s main body of Modern Orthodox rabbis, would no longer be considered legitimate in Israel. Following tense negotiations with the Chief Rabbinate, the RCA restructured its own conversion policy, limiting conversions to a much smaller number of rabbis working within an approved centralized system.
Last year, a three-judge panel in Israel’s Great Rabbinical Court retroactively nullified thousands of conversions officiated by Rabbi Chaim Druckman, a leader within the Religious Zionist movement who had been working extensively with the waves of Russian immigrants to Israel following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Bitter controversy erupted. The unprecedented decision was a “shock-and-awe” demonstration of the full power of the haredi leadership, backed by Israel’s government bureaucracy. The situation has yet to be fully resolved, leaving literally thousands of Israeli citizens in limbo.
And so, even as Israel has emerged as the center of innovative Jewish philosophy and creative thought, the most sensitive question of all — Who is a Jew? — is, astoundingly, being dictated by a segment that does not accept the religious legitimacy of Zionism and its adherents to begin with. Now, when we most need successful communication between our camps to mutually resolve these crucial issues, we find ourselves facing counterparts who seem foreign and inaccessible. After years of ignoring the driving forces within the haredi world, we are frustrated that it is closed and almost incomprehensible to us.
Eternal Jewish Family’s website contains a statement on its home page stating that EJF is continuing its full slate of international programs, although its rabbinic leadership is being restructured. If we take anything away from the Leib Tropper allegations, it is that the inner workings of EJF and similar organizations at the heart of the conversion controversy cannot continue to be internal haredi concerns.
The system breaking down under our watch would have been embarrassing enough. That it happened while we were looking the other way is simply dumbfounding.