Those in the position of authority on any level, in any matter, must represent their constituents in accordance with applicable legal and ethical requirements. If that is not happening, questions have to be asked and rectification has to be taken.
A religious authority, specifically a local Beit Din (rabbinic court), is beholden to a command from the Torah to govern “the people with righteous judgement” (Deut 16:18). There is no command, however, that says that there is only one body or one Beit Din who has the Halachik (religious law) authority to preside over religious rulings. History tells us the opposite in fact. For centuries there are examples of divergence, even conflict, between Halachik authorities.
From Moshe and Aharon in the Biblical Torah itself, through Talmudic times when, for example, during the 1st Century CE there were different study halls of Hillel and Shammai who had different approaches to Halachik matters. Throughout the Mishnah & Gemara, there is a range of viewpoints, notably with regard to what constitutes something being ‘Kosher’ or pure or profane.
This tradition of healthy debate, but within the realm of Halachah, continues through the generations, with preeminent rabbis debating Jewish Law and the way they see fit to apply the Torah’s dictates and values to new, emerging realities.
Today there are similar examples of divergent approaches to Halachah with each ‘side’ being viewed as having equal authority as long as it’s within the realm of Halachah.
For example, in Melbourne there are two kashrut authorities; Kosher Australia and Adass Israel Kosher Certification Authority. These two Halachik authorities do not agree entirely with each other, but they are not in conflict.
When it comes to a mechitzah, as another example, while all agree that this is a must in a synagogue during the actual prayer services, there is a range of views on what constitutes a “Kosher” mechitzah. And beyond the actual prayer services, there is a legitimate debate amongst Halachik authorities if a mechitzah is required. Until recent decades there was never a mechitzah in the shtiebel used during funeral services and this has now been changed. At Lyndhurst the mechitzah extends to separate the mourners.
Around the world there are a number of Batei Din (rabbinic courts) that have been established to govern Orthodox communities. The Melbourne Beit Din has established itself as a leader in a range of many matters to do with our Orthodox community. However, as with matters throughout history, it offers a voice of Halachik guidance, not the voice. The rulings of the Melbourne Beit Din 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 Halachik voices as has been the case throughout Jewish history.
The Melbourne Beit Din is presided over by Dayanim (judges) who have a particular viewpoint based on how they view the reality that comes before them. But that stance on Halachik rulings does not necessarily represent how the very same reality is viewed by other orthodox rabbis and judges, of equal stature, and doesn’t necessarily represent the views of all those who comprise the broader Orthodox community in Melbourne.
Orthodoxy means to adhere to Halachah and to have a belief in the 13 Principles of Faith as set out by Maimonides (also known as the Rambam). When we look at differences that fall under the banner of ‘Orthodox’ it comes down to a matter of philosophy as opposed to adherence to Jewish law to which all agree. One difference in philosophy espouses areas of study that are outside the formal Torah learning, with some stating that there can be no other source of truth than the Torah, which others, of which the ARK Centre is but one proponent, is characterised by the belief in Torah Umaddah – Torah and Knowledge. That is, belief that Torah and religious learning on the one hand, and science and general learning on the other, each enhance our understanding. These two philosophies can be seen to be like any of the debates between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai– both respected, neither right nor wrong, just different.
Arguably the ideal scenario, as the “Sanhedrin” of old, would be for one authority, such as the Melbourne Beit Din, to sit harmoniously across all the Melbourne Orthodox community. For that to happen the spectrum of Orthodox voices needs to be represented, a situation that we hope will yet happen but at present, is not the case, as is the reality in the vast majority of Orthodox Jewish communities around the globe.
A core driver of ARK Centre is to provide such representation. One part of that, just one part, has been in the area of Orthodox conversions. In response to individuals seeking to live Halachik lifestyles, and thus, seek Halachikally sound conversions via an authority that upholds Halachik 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 Beit Din of Gush Etzion, Israel. The two heads of that Beit Din served as Dayanim on the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s Conversion courts until a few years ago when they reached the compulsory age of retirement at 70.
Those Dayanim, with the assistance of others, preside over Halachikally sound Orthodox conversions. In order to be deemed ready to meet with the Dayanim, any individual seeking to convert must be living in accordance with Halachah. According to Rabbi Shneur 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 the fast days and holidays? Do they practice tefillah? When that is their lifestyle, then they can think about formalising their conversion. And then 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 of knowledge and commitment, they will not be recommended to the Beit Din to consider conversion. And indeed, around 20% of those who have commence come to the point where they are unwilling, or unable, to live within the Halachik requirements for Orthodox conversion and do not proceed, nor will they proceed with the programme that the ARK Centre offers.
And it must be understood that ARK Centre is purely a facilitator. All decisions regarding conversions are made by the Dayanim of the Beth Din of Gush Etzion, Israel.
Facilitating conversions was not something ARK Centre ever set out to do. It has never been advertised and, until recently, was never discussed publically. Indeed, it only came about due to our outreach efforts to Jews across the board, which, at times, brings along the challenge of conversion. Within this group, a number of people who were insistent on becoming Orthodox Jews but, for various personal reasons, were unwilling to do so through the Melbourne Beit Din. We have also been contacted by people wanting to share their stories who, as a consequence of their treatment, elected either not to continue conversion at all or chose to convert outside of Orthodoxy. These were people who were not aware of a viable alternative to the Melbourne Beit Din and thus, in place of becoming observant Jews, have been put off Orthodox conversion altogether. Others have made contact with ARK Centre in the hope they can complete an Orthodox conversion that until now was impossible for them; not for lack of commitment, as spelled out above, and not for any Halachik reason, but rather due to the view that the only way to convert is via the Melbourne Beit Din.
We are saddened and disappointed that the Melbourne Beit Din has announced it will not accept any conversions conducted by other authorities. Particularly when Rabbi Reti-Waks has offered, in the interests of communal harmony, to work with the Melbourne Beit Din to find a suitable protocol that would be acceptable to all. The question of why they would not be accepted has to be asked by the community at large. Why would a Halachikally sound conversion that is presided over by internationally renowned Dayanim not be recognised?
As we look ahead there is a lot more to say. There are, in true Jewish style, numerous opinions. We do not purport to be harbingers of the one and only view on what is right, true and just. We do, however, strongly believe that all Orthodox beliefs and practices attract equal value and require appropriate representation from the leadership. We seek to broaden the perspectives that the community hears, on all relevant topics, and to ensure that all who comprise the Orthodox community are operating from a perspective of awareness, in particular when it comes to making decisions for themselves.