‘Our converts are as kosher as yours’

A conversion taking place. Photo: Edwardshtern/Dreamstime.

THOSE in the position of authority must represent their constituents in accordance with applicable legal and ethical requirements. If that is not happening questions have to be asked and solutions have to be found.

A religious authority, specifically a local Beth Din (rabbinic court), is beholden to a commandment from the Torah to govern “the people with righteous judgement” (Deut 16:18). There is no commandment, however, that says that there is only one body or one Beth Din who has the halachic authority to preside over religious rulings.

For centuries, there have been examples of divergence, even conflict, between halachic authorities. From Moshe and Aharon through talmudic times and throughout the Mishnah and Gemara, there are a range of viewpoints with regard to what constitutes something being “kosher”.

Today there are similar examples of divergent approaches to halachah with each “side” being viewed as having equal authority as long as it is within halachah. In Melbourne, there are two kashrut authorities; Kosher Australia and Adass Israel Kosher Certification Authority which do not agree entirely with each other, but are not in conflict.

Around the world there are a number of Batei Din that have been established to govern Orthodox communities. The Melbourne Beth Din (MBD) has established itself as a leader in a range of matters to do with our Orthodox community. However, as with matters throughout history, it offers a voice of halachic guidance, not the voice. The rulings of the MBD are, of course, within the bounds of halachah; however, they are binding only on those that decide to ask for their rulings (Code of Jewish Law, YD 242/31,) but not for those that do not ask. There is scope for other halachic voices as has been the case throughout Jewish history.

The ideal scenario would be for one authority, such as the MBD, to sit harmoniously across all the Melbourne Orthodox community. For that to happen, the spectrum of all Orthodox voices needs to be represented, a situation we hope will yet happen but at present, is not the case. This is the reality in many Orthodox Jewish communities.

A core driver of ARK Centre is to provide such representation. One part of that has been in the area of Orthodox conversions.

In response to individuals seeking to live halachic lifestyles, and thus, seek halachically sound conversions via an authority that upholds halachic standards and is at the same time welcoming and inclusive, Rabbi Shneur Reti-Waks, senior rabbi at ARK Centre, forged a relationship with the dayanim who preside over the Beth Din of Gush Etzion, Israel – the two heads of which served as dayanim on the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s conversion courts until a few years ago when they reached the compulsory retirement age of 70.

Those dayanim preside over halachically sound Orthodox conversions. According to Rabbi Reti-Waks, “We’re not looking to ordain rabbis. We are looking to make sure that these people know and understand how to live an Orthodox life in accordance with halachah and commit themselves to do so. Do they keep kosher? Do they keep Shabbat? Do they keep the laws of family purity? Do they truly understand the yearly cycle, including keeping fast days and holidays? Do they practise tefillah? When that is their lifestyle, then they can think about formalising their conversion. And their learning doesn’t stop when they convert just like it didn’t begin only when they initially came to see me.”

Until candidates reach this stage they will not be recommended to the Beth Din to consider conversion. Indeed, around 20 per cent of those who commence are unable to meet the standard necessary to proceed.

And it must be understood ARK Centre is purely a facilitator. All decisions regarding conversions are made by the dayanim of the Beth Din of Gush Etzion.

Facilitating conversions was not something ARK Centre ever set out to do. It has never been advertised and, until recently, never discussed publicly. Indeed, it only came about as some people were insistent on becoming Orthodox Jews but, for various personal reasons, were unwilling to do so through the MBD.

We are saddened and disappointed that the MBD has announced it will not accept any conversions conducted by other authorities.

The question of why they would not be accepted has to be asked by the community at large. Why would a halachically sound conversion, presided over by internationally renowned dayanim, not be recognised?

We do not argue that only our view is right. We do, however, strongly believe all Orthodox beliefs attract equal value and require appropriate representation from the leadership.

We seek to broaden the perspectives the community hears, on all relevant topics, and to ensure that all who make up the Orthodox community are operating from a perspective of awareness, in particular when making decisions for themselves.

DAVID MANDEL is a co-founder and director of the ARK Centre. The full article can be found at www.thearkcentre.org.au.