Conversions Nullification (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 4, June 10, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report.

Legislation to prevent rabbinic panels from nullifying conversions is being drawn up, the chairman of the Knesset Law Committee, Menahem Ben-Sasson (Kadima), has told The Jerusalem Report.

He was speaking after the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem, in early May, upheld an Ashdod Religious District Court’s divorce case ruling that the couple in question did not require a get (religious divorce decree) because the marriage had been invalid from the outset.

This was so, said the Ashdod court, because the woman’s conversion to Judaism 15 years ago was invalid as she did not follow Orthodox ritual after her conversion to Judaism. The decision automatically altered the status of the woman’s four children, making them non-Jews because their mother is not Jewish, and it was also seen as a precedent threatening the status of the tens of thousands of converts processed in the same way as she had been.

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who is also president of the Rabbinical Court system condemned the ruling, telling aides it countermanded his instructions and policies and expressed the view that it has no legal standing, Chief Rabbinate legal adviser Shimon Ullman tells The Report.

Modern Orthodox groups, such as the Rabbinical Council of America and Tzohar, a coalition of Zionist Orthodox rabbis in Israel, have protested the Supreme Rabbinical Court’s decision.

The controversial judgment was handed down by a bench headed by Supreme Rabbinical Court chairman Rabbi Avraham Sherman. In it he severely criticized Rabbi Haim Druckman, head of the national-religious Bnei Akiva yeshiva system, who oversaw the
woman’s conversion.

Druckman is the top religious authority in the government conversion courts, set up in 1997, to ease the way into Judaism for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who are not halakhically Jewish according to Orthodox interpretation.

This dispute is seen as another battle in the kulturkampf between the modern-nationalist Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox, who have gained control of the Chief Rabbinate and its courts, the sole arbiters of personal-status matters for all Israeli Jews. Druckman has long been criticized by ultra-Orthodox rabbis for being too easy on converts, while he charges that they are overly strict and do not process converts quickly enough.

Knesset Member Ben-Sasson, himself an Orthodox Jew, says his committee has jurisdiction to examine all the country’s courts, including religious ones. He says the bill to stop reversals of legitimate conversions will be ready for its first reading in a few months. It will also empower local rabbis to carry out conversions and allow couples to register wherever they wish, enabling them to avoid courts with a reputation for excessive strictness.

Jewish law warns explicitly against casting doubt on accepted conversions, says Rabbi Seth Farber, co-founder and director of ITIM, a Jerusalem non-profit organization that assists Israeli Jews with problems involving the religious bureaucracy.

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