Worry over conversions
by: Dina Kraft - Last updated: 2008-05-07
A recent rabbinic court ruling in Israel is prompting thousands of converts in the country to worry if their conversions to Judaism are at risk of being revoked.
The ruling by Jerusalem's supreme rabbinical court upheld the decision by an Ashdod rabbinical court two months ago to retroactively annul a woman's conversion conducted 15 years ago after she acknowledged that she is not religiously observant today.
The Jerusalem court ruling also cast doubt on the validity of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other conversions by suggesting the annulment of those converted by Rabbi Haim Druckman, the state-appointed rabbi who has been charged with overseeing a more tolerant, open conversion process in Israel.
"Our phone has been ringing off the hook with people who have gone through conversions who are deeply concerned about their status and potential converts who are trying to figure out if this whole process is worth the effort," said Rabbi Seth Farber, who runs the Jewish Life Information Center, or ITIM, which runs a 24-hour hotline for those seeking assistance on Jewish issues in Israel.
One of the callers was Florence Rouaux, 27, who converted to Judaism two years ago with the assistance of ITIM after moving to Israel from her native Belgium.
"I am angry, sad and disappointed -- all the things you can imagine. It's very hurtful," she said. "It reminds converted people that they are converts when you are trying to build your life as a Jew."
The ruling prompted an emergency Knesset hearing Tuesday, and public outrage and confusion both in Israel and the Diaspora.
It again has laid bare the politically charged ideological struggle between more moderate and more zealous Orthodox rabbis within Israel's religious establishment.
Many of the more moderate rabbis seek to ease the process of bringing Israelis who are not Jewish according to Jewish law, or halacha, into the Jewish fold --especially immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The more zealous rabbis want to block the conversions of anyone who does not comply with strict Jewish religious observance.
"The ultra-Orthodox, who don't see conversion as a possible solution, are willing to sacrifice on the altar of Jewish history not only those non-halachic Jews but even legitimate converts who would be accepted by any standard, said Farber, a Modern Orthodox rabbi. They are essentially engaging in an anti-traditional and, in my opinion, an anti-halachic battle.
In New York, the Rabbinical Council of America, an organization representing moderate Orthodox rabbis in North America, issued a stinging rebuke to the court decision.
A statement from the group said the Israeli rabbinic court ruling, its language and tone, "are entirely beyond the pale of acceptable halachic practice, violate numerous Torah laws regarding converts and their families, create a massive desecration of God's name, insult outstanding rabbinic leaders and halachic scholars in Israel, and are a reprehensible cause of widespread conflict and animosity within the Jewish people in Israel and beyond."
Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the chief Sephardic rabbi who has jurisdiction over Israel's religious courts, reportedly has tried to quell the fears of the decision's opponents. His office issued a statement that the ruling would not signify a new precedent in religious law.
Rabbi Nahum Eisenstein, a fervently Orthodox former rabbinical court judge aligned with those in favor of the stricter interpretation of conversion law, said the matter was not one of invalidating so-called "valid" conversions but of nullifying those that were granted erroneously -- when prospective converts tricked rabbinical court judges into thinking they would live an Orthodox lifestyle.
If this commitment never took place, the whole process was never valid, he said.
Eisenstein takes issue with the notion that conversion to Judaism should be a tool for nation building.
"Conversion is a halachic issue," he said. "It cannot be used to solve a demographic problem in the country. That's a big mistake.
Critics said the court ruling was part of a trend at some marriage registry offices -- overseen by the fervently Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate -- to cast doubt on the validity of conversions done under the auspices of the Conversion Authority.
Some marriage registry offices, including those in the cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon, Petach Tikvah and Rechovot, reportedly question one-time converts about their observance levels when dealing with marriage or divorce proceedings, according to Farber.
Although the Conversion Authority has exclusive legal jurisdiction over conversion issues, the Chief Rabbinate oversees marriage and divorce.
"Even years after living as a Jew people are now being told they are not Jewish. It's a terrible thing," said Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein, the chairman of Tzohar, a group of religious Zionist rabbis that seeks to present to Israelis a more tolerant face of Orthodox Judaism.
Feuerstein cited a commandment in Leviticus that forbids Jews from harassing a convert: "You shall not oppress the convert in your land."
Tzohar rabbis were among those present Tuesday at a stormy four-hour session of the Knesset's law committee. At the meeting's end, a call was made for legislation that would secure the status of converts.
At the meeting Zevulen Orlev, a member of the National Religious Party, made an unprecedented declaration that he would consider revoking the Chief Rabbinates authority on personal-status issues such as marriage and divorce if they proceed to nullify past conversions.