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Rabbinical Court Puts Thousands of Converts in Legal Limbo

Haifa, Israel – More than 40,000 Israelis who were converted to Judaism in the past decade by the state’s official conversion courts may find their conversions annulled — rendering them non-Jewish in the eyes of the law — following a ruling last week by Israel’s Supreme Rabbinical Court.

The ruling, responding to an appeal in a local divorce case, deals a blow to religious moderates seeking to resolve the so-called “Who is a Jew?” dispute. The conversion courts were established ostensibly to ease the work burden generated by immigrants seeking to become Jewish. Most observers believe they were meant to bypass the religious hardliners who control the Chief Rabbinate and its own rabbinic courts. Questioning the courts’ authority, as the current decision does, would reopen the contentious debate over who determines Jewish identity in Israel.

The current crisis began in a disputed divorce case last year in the port city of Ashdod, south of Tel Aviv. A local rabbinical court ruled that the petitioning couple’s marriage had been religiously invalid from the outset because the woman’s conversion to Judaism 14 years earlier was inauthentic. The rabbi claimed she failed to observe Orthodox ritual law once she was declared Jewish, and that she had never intended to observe it.

The decision effectively turned the woman’s four children, all born after her conversion and raised as Jews, into non-Jews because their mother is not Jewish.

The case was heard on appeal by a three-judge panel of the Supreme Rabbinical Court, which voted last week to uphold the Ashdod rabbi’s decision. The panel’s chairman, Rabbi Avraham Sherman, used his ruling to deliver a stinging indictment to Rabbi Haim Druckman, who oversaw the woman’s conversion. Druckman is head of Israel’s Bnei Akiva schools and is the top religious authority in the conversion courts.

Druckman, one of the outstanding figures in the world of religious Zionism, has been a central figure in efforts to resolve Israel’s long-standing dispute over conversion procedures. In criticizing his conversion procedures, Sherman also attacked some basic beliefs of religious Zionism, which regards strengthening the Jewish state as a religious value. Druckman and his colleagues have sought to smooth the entry of immigrants into Israeli society in order to advance the Zionist principle of ingathering the exiles, and they have viewed the easing of conversion rules as a means to that end. Haredi leaders do not concede any religious significance in the establishment of Israel, and therefore they oppose the idea of easing any religious rules in order to strengthen the state. The dispute comes at a time when Haredi rabbis have been gaining increasing influence in state religious institutions, including rabbinical councils and courts, that traditionally have been the preserve of religious Zionists.

In the current dispute, therefore, converts have become the pawn in a “power struggle between rabbis,” said Sofa Landver, who chairs the Knesset Public Petitions Committee.

Conversion has been a political issue in Israel for decades, as Israel’s Orthodox rabbinic establishment has tussled with Diaspora-based Reform and Conservative rabbis, and with various immigrant groups, for the right to define who may claim Jewish status under the Law of Return.

The debate gained urgency in the early 1990s, as mass immigration from the collapsing Soviet Union brought hundreds of thousands of newcomers to Israel, many with only partial Jewish ancestry. The immigration helped convince Zionist rabbis that easing the path to conversion, in order to help integrate the newcomers into the Jewish state, was a task of national, and hence religious, importance.

In 1997, then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu set up a commission including Reform and Conservative rabbis and chaired by his finance minister, Ya’akov Ne’eman, to hammer out a compromise formula. Acting on the commission’s recommendations, the government in 1999 moved to create special rabbinical courts to conduct conversions. The new tribunals received little cooperation, however, from the Haredi-leaning rabbis who increasingly control the state and local rabbinates. These rabbis had little interest in easing rules to advance the Zionist goal of “ingathering the exiles.”

In 2004, after mounting complaints about the slow pace of conversion, a new Conversion Authority was created to oversee the special courts, answerable to the Prime Minister’s Office rather than Chief Rabbinate and its regional rabbinic court system. Druckman, who helped to run the conversion operation from its inception, was appointed head of the authority.

While the courts were accustomed to Haredi criticism, the authority was also dogged by questions from within about its thoroughness. In 2006, for reasons that were never explained, a backlog of 500 conversion certificates built up as Druckman refused to pass them. Press reports at the time claimed he was trying to force out Rabbi Eliyahu Maimon, head of the courts, who was said to be complaining of sloppy standards. One of his complaints reportedly was that Druckman or his proxy was using a rubber stamp for certificates instead of signing them.

Nonetheless, the contention of the Supreme Rabbinical Court that it was acting out of procedural concerns in this month’s Ashdod conversion annulment was greeted with widespread skepticism. When the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee met May 6 to discuss the current crisis, the dominant view was that the ruling was motivated by ideological and not procedural rigor. Ne’eman declared that it was “a political decision” and therefore “obviously invalid.” He called for a judicial investigation.

Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, responding to the protests, said publicly that he would reverse the decision of the Supreme Rabbinical Court, which he formally chairs. However, it remained unclear at press time whether Amar had the authority to do so.

The judges themselves all but admitted they were responding to the Kulturkampf between Haredim and religious-Zionists. In their written judgment, they charge that Conversion Authority rabbis view the promotion of conversion as a “national responsibility,” not as merely a religious one. The ruling accuses Zionist rabbis of inappropriately using conversion as a means of kiruv, or religious outreach, when it should be reserved only for pious individuals who plan to be fully observant.

The ruling goes on to accuse Conversion Authority rabbis of accepting converts who mostly “remain gentile in their behavior… [and] see themselves as belonging to the Jewish people solely in a patriotic, nationalistic way, without any religiously significant feelings of belonging.” In approving these conversions, the judges say, Conversion Authority rabbis have become “transgressors” of Halacha.

Not surprisingly, Haredi leaders have rallied to support the court ruling. Knesset member Avraham Ravitz of United Torah Judaism, a Haredi party, said that serious issues of rabbinic law have been raised that should concern all observant Jews, “whatever their views on Zionism.” The Chief Rabbinate should investigate Druckman and the Conversion Authority, he told the Forward.

A commitment to observe the commandments is as essential to conversion as circumcision or immersion in the ritual bath, Ravitz said. If a convert did not undertake a sincere commitment, then the conversion is invalid, he said. “It could be a year later, or two years, or 15, but if it is discovered, then the conversion is not complete and was not valid.” If a convert becomes nonobservant over time, he said, then that person’s Jewishness should not be challenged — but the person must have been genuine at some point.

The thousands of other converts processed through the special conversion courts should be regarded as Jewish until the performance of those courts has been investigated, Ravitz said. If the Ashdod case “happened as an exception, then fine,” he said. “But if it is found that conversions were given to people who were not committed to keeping commandments, there is a problem.”

Less predictably, the court ruling has prompted a rare wave of angry protests from religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox leaders, including unprecedented threats of a rift within Orthodoxy.

Knesset member Zevulun Orlev, chairman of the National Religious Party, warned this week that the behavior of the rabbinical court could force Israel to strip the Chief Rabbinate of its authority over personal-status issues such as marriage and divorce.

In America, the main body of Modern Orthodox rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America, which traditionally views the Israeli Chief Rabbinate as a definitive religious authority, issued a rare rebuke of the rabbinate’s religious court, saying in a formal statement that the court’s ruling and tone were “beyond the pale,” “create a massive desecration of God’s name” and “are a reprehensible cause of widespread conflict and animosity within the Jewish people in Israel and abroad.”

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