If Only Rav Kook would be the Chief Rabbi... /Rabbi Yisrael Rosen Dean of the Zomet Institute
Let me declare right at the beginning: In the dispute about alternate routes for conversion that has been taking place latelyI see myself as being on the lenient side of the scale – as one who pleasantly accepts all those who want to convert to Judaism. I also support the concept of converting children even if their mothers do not convert, basing my opinion on lenient halachic rulings, as will be explained below. With this as a background, I want to review the facts and analyze them as well as I can. I feel that I am qualified to do so, since I established the Conversion Authority twenty years ago (in 1995) and managed it for four years. Since then I have been a member of conversion courts, and I consider myself a lobbyist and one who has been "dedicated" to this subject for the last eleven years. From the time that I reached the formal age of retirement, I have been active in a private conversion court in Gush Etzion.
(1) This dispute is not between "Chareidi" and "National-Religious" elements, and it is not between the Chief Rabbinate which is becoming ever more stringent and religious Zionists. Rather, it is a dispute within the national religious community – between a relatively liberal faction ("Modern Orthodox") and the more conservative wing. The arguments between these factions exist with respect to other issues too, such as feminism, culture, and more. I note that as far as I can tell the "Modern Orthodox" are a minority among the national-religious Torah community. (However, I do not have any way to characterize these two factions, and it goes without saying that I do not have any actual numbers to back up this feeling.)
(2) The Chief Rabbinate itself is not directly involved in this issue. It is fashionable to attack the Rabbinate and claim that it is becoming more and more Chareidi, but this entire issue is the personal responsibility of the President of the Beit Din, who by definition is the head of the community and who is responsible for conversion, without any direct link to the Council of the Chief Rabbinate. Today the one who holds this position of responsibility is Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, and he is no more Chareidi than others who preceded him, such as Rabbis Amar, Yisrael Meir Lau, and Bakshi-Doron, and the late Rabbis Mordechai Eliyahu and Ovadia Yosef. And if Rabbi Stav had been elected as the current Chief Rabbi, he would have no say in this matter but only whoever would have been elected Sephardi Chief Rabbi (who is automatically appointed Chief Judge of the Beit Din).
(3) Here is food for thought for anybody who is aware of the halachic approach of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook: Would he also have been attacked by the liberal-religious wing as being "Charidi?" We can assume that the answer is yes! And what if Rabbi Soloveitchik had been appointed head of the Batei Din, would he have been condemned as "Chareidi," because of his attitude towards conversion, as is clear in his treatise, "This is Sinai"?
(4) The following is the "gallery" of judges sitting in conversion courts who wear knitted kippot with pride, and who are now accused of "becoming more Chareidi." (The list is in alphabetical order, and I apologize if I have left anybody out.) Here is my list: Rabbi Eliezer Altshuler, the rabbi of Sussia; Rabbi David Assulin, the rabbi of Kibbutz Saad; Rabbi Yehuda Amichai, head of the Torah V'Aretz Institute; Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, head of the "Amiel" Project in Efrat (connected to Or Torah); Rabbi David Bass, Neve Michael; Rabbi Benayahu Brenner, head of the religious-Zionist center in Tzefat; Rabbi Nissim Cohen, head of the Kollel in Pesagot; Rabbi Shlomo Krispin, from the Garin Torani in Pardes Chana; Rabbi Yitzchak Elkayam, rabbi of Chatzor and on the staff of the Hesder Yeshiva in Kiryat Shemona; Rabbi Moshe Erenreich, head of the "Eretz Chemda" Kollel (founded by Rabbi Yisraeli); Rabbi Tzvi Lifshitz, a graduate of Merkaz Harav and the head of a religious-Zionist Kollel; Rabbi Yeshayahu Meitlis, the rabbi of Nahariya; Rabbi Shlomo Shushan, head of the Hesder Yeshiva in Beit She'an; Rabbi Tzvi Tzorfati, from Rechovot; Rabbi Yisrael Weiss, past Chief Chaplain of the IDF; Rabbi Yaacov Varhaftig, rabbi of a religious-Zionist community in Jerusalem; and Rabbi Mordechai Zamir, the rabbi of Sedei Yaacov.
To this list add five more "knitted kippot" who have reached retirement age (Rabbi Yosef Avior from Merkaz Shapiro; Rabbi Chaim Drukman, Rabbi Tzefania Drory; Rabbi Gideon Perl from Alon Shevut; and me). And there are several more with "black kippot" who have made their way into this illustrious group of "knitted kippot." This is the "Chareidi" mix which is being used as a punching bag by the very outspoken "Modern Orthodox" group.
(5) With respect to the issue of converting children without their mothers, which is being touted as a national project by the respected Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinowitz: The heart of the matter is a halachic question about whether a minor who is converted "by order of a Beit Din" but may well not live a religious life has suffered an injustice or has been given a privilege. I will be pleasantly surprised if anybody can give me a definite answer to this question! I sent the Sephardi Chief Rabbi a summary table (which can be seen on the Hebrew website of Zomet) of existing responsa on this question. Here are the results: The stringent ones who refuse to accept such conversion are Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector, Zeicher Yitzchak, Chavatzelet Hasharon, Seridei Esh, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, and Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli. Those who are lenient (at least after the fact) are: Beit Yitzchak, Mateh Levi, Achiezer, Igrot Moshe (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein), Rabbi Shai Elyashiv, and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. As noted above, Rabbi Rabinowitz and others like him (including me) are willing to enter this narrow opening in spite of the existing dispute. But does this mean that anybody who disagrees is worthy of being condemned?
(6) In the end, the truth is that there is no movement among the "Russian Olim" (newcomers) who are clamoring and crying out, "Convert us!" I send my best wishes to anybody who is convinced that these people will flow to alternative conversions because of their great love for "Modern Orthodoxy" in spite of the opposition of many rabbis who are part of the greater consensus. What is my conclusion about all of this? The only real solution is to work towards a method of converting children under the leadership of the Chief Rabbinate, and to convince the children to join. This is something that can be made to work!