For at least the past seven years or so, the State of Israel has been subjecting converts to intense examinations and inquiries regarding the level of their religious observance. When a convert requests that a rabbinic court administer a get in the context of an amicable divorce, rabbinic judges will surreptitiously cross-examine the convert: Did she turn lights on during the Sabbath? Use the ritual bath? When a convert, or the child of a convert, requests a license to marry, the Marriage Registrar will refer the applicant to a rabbinic court so that it can “investigate his or her Jewishness.”
Such a conversion case came, quite serendipitously, to the attention of the Center for Women’s Justice (CWJ). It is the case of a young woman who owns a small store in Jerusalem where I buy many of my clothes. During one shopping expedition, I asked if she was married, and the young proprietor’s story came pouring out. Sarit Azouli told me how the Jerusalem Rabbinic Court had refused to grant her a license to marry. Sarit’s mother had converted under the auspices of Chief Rabbi Goren 30 years ago. When Sarit applied to the Marriage Registrar in Jerusalem for a license to marry, he sent her to the rabbinic court. The court, in turn, called Sarit’s mother on the phone to ask her what the Torah reading of the week was. When her mother couldn’t answer, the court held trial, summoning witnesses and asking probing, personal questions of all who appeared before them. Shortly before Sarit’s scheduled wedding, the court issued a decision refusing to confirm her Jewishness. It did not explain its decision.
So with one indifferent, unsupported swipe of the pen, an Israeli government official turned Sarit and her family’s life inside out and upside down, upsetting their most basic identity presumptions, not to mention almost ruining her wedding. Rabbi David Stav, a leader in the Religious Zionist community, officiated at Sarit’s wedding anyway, but the decision revoking her Jewishness remains as an official judgement of the state, waiting to wreak further havoc on other members of Sarit’s family. Humiliated and betrayed, Sarit’s mother wants nothing more to do with the whole thing. Sarit has appealed the decision, claiming that a state court cannot question a conversion that had been performed and approved by the official state rabbinate. And besides all that, the appeal claims, the decision is against Jewish law as well as a severe violation by the state of Sarit’s and her mother’s basic human rights to marry, to privacy, and to freedom of conscience.
Sarit’s problem is not just hers and her families. It’s a problem for all Jewish converts —Reform, Conservative, Open-Orthodox, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, you-name-it, converts. But it is also my problem. And it is a problem for all Israeli citizens, current and future. And for Jews everywhere who believe that Israel must be a “light unto the nations” and a democracy, not a theocracy. As the State of Israel expands its theocratic arm in so many different areas of life, it threatens all of us in many ways, not just converts. It threatens those of us who love a convert or loves the child of a convert. It threatens Jewish women who want to marry in Israel by a Conservative or Reform rabbi, or those who just want to marry without stripping naked and dunking in a ritual bath, or who may want to marry in places that do not always serve kosher food (the state-backed rabbinate won’t let them). It threatens women who want to pray from Torah scrolls at the Western Wall (there’s an official rule against it). It threatens women, and men, who merely want to divorce and their spouses say no. Not to mention, of course, gay couples who might want to marry. It threatens all of us who rely on the state to protect our basic liberties, and not to trample on them. If the state is not protecting those liberties, who will?
The Center for Women’s Justice appealed a few times to the Israeli Supreme Court to protect the liberties of converts who appear before state-sponsored rabbinic courts. It has asked, for example, that the Supreme Court declare that a rabbinic court has no authority to reexamine the Jewishness of converts if their Jewishness had already been affirmed by the Chief Rabbinate. Instead the Supreme Court, in 2012, severely chastised the rabbinic courts for revoking the petitioners’ Jewishness but still sent the case back to the rabbinic courts for a re-hearing (thereby acknowledging their jurisdiction which, we claim, the law did not grant them). When the rabbinic court deemed, upon re-hearing the cases, that the petitioners were Jewish once again, the Supreme Court managed to side-step the issues raised, declaring them moot and not ripe for adjudication. But, concomitantly, the Supreme Court underscored and reaffirmed the state-backed rabbinic court’s ensuing violations of converts’ right to privacy and freedom of conscience. (To read about what happened in the rabbinic courts during the three days of re-hearing see ). In still another case, the Supreme Court in 2015 specifically affirmed the right of state-backed Special Conversion Courts to revoke the conversion of converts for “fraud” if the convert did not really commit to adherence to Jewish law at the time of conversion. Of course no standards of due process were enunciated by the Court. What are the rules of evidence? Burden of Proof? Again the vacuum is to be filled by the capriciousness of individual rabbis each with their own subjective beliefs and dogmas.
Israel is the State of the Jewish People. This means all Jewish people. Not just those who obey the Sabbath or other religious rules. Not just men. And not just those who already live in the State, but also those who might need to, or perhaps want to, in the future. Being that it is a State, and a democratic one at that, Israel is obliged to protect the liberties of its citizens from abuses of state power. Not just from torture or unjust imprisonment. But also from religious coercion. Even though it is a Jewish State, Israel must not force its citizens to obey Jewish law, or use state power to subpoena persons and cross-examine them regarding their adherence to Jewish law, and certainly not to penalize them if they have not so adhered. Today the State is just using state power to subpoena “lapsed” converts. Tomorrow it may subpoena you and me.
Forgive us our converted brothers and sisters, for in all this we have sinned. Our Supreme Court and Attorney General have forsaken you and will have let this happen through indifference and sloth. And join us, you brothers and sisters in the United States of America, in our struggle to ensure the liberty and dignity of all citizens of the Jewish State, now and in the future. Because you are our family and because you, as American Jews can best understand that religious freedom is best served by keeping the state outside of religious matters.
Matters of the heart, like religion, should be reserved for the heart. The long, bitter, and violent history of Europe should have taught us that already. Theocracies, unbound, threaten all of us.
Susan Weiss is the founder and director of the Center for Women’s Justice. CWJ represented the converts in their appeals to the Supreme Court and it represents Sarit Azoulai.