Religious Advocates Decry Rabbinate Statement Calling Conversions Reversible

Cnaan Liphshiz
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Cnaan Liphshiz

A precedent-setting statement this week by the Chief Rabbinate, which said all conversions may be retroactively annulled at any time, is adding fuel to a legal battle over the status of state-sponsored conversions in Israel.

"This is an immoral, inhumane and anti-Halakhic assertion," said Rivkah Lubitch, a Rabbinic Court advocate from the Center for Women's Justice. "Let us hope that the High Court of Justice finds it is also illegal."

The document by Rabbi Shimon Yaakobi, the rabbinate's court adviser, was the rabbinate's reply to a High Court of Justice petition filed last May by the Center for Women's Justice. In it, the center asked the court to reverse the 2008 retroactive nullification of thousands of conversions performed by the state-sponsored Conversion Authority headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman. The 122-page document comprises the first time that such a prominent figure within the Rabbinate's legal arm openly states that approved conversions can be "reversed" at the discretion of any rabbinical judge.

"This is a significant blow to converts," said Seth Farber, who heads the Jerusalem-based nonprofit ITIM. "We are slowly splintering into two peoples." An American-born rabbi, Farber is a key opponent of the controversial phenomenon.

Over the past two years this issue has become a main point of contention within the Orthodox community, with hardliners conditioning conversion on strict religious observance by converts, and pragmatists who say the conversion process should be irreversible.

Rabbinical court records show that from 2004 to 2008 the Chief Rabbinate approved the conversion of approximately 26,000 people. Of those, some 17,000 were of Ethiopian descent and 5,000 were of Russian-speaking origins. Lubitch of the Center for Women's Justice says the latest statement could have far-reaching ramifications for potential converts among the approximately 300,000 non-Jewish, Russian-speaking citizens of Israel.

"Beyond the tremendous uncertainty this introduces into converts' lives... the government's efforts to convert [Russians] now face serious problems, because making conversions reversible will undoubtedly seriously diminish their motivation to even start the process."

A source within the rabbinate said that Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar was "furious" about Yaakobi's document "which does not represent Rabbi Amar's stance," according to the source. A senior advisor to Rabbir Amar told Anglo File that the rabbis who nullify conversions are "a radical minority" who "for political reasons try to show that they are 'more Catholic than the Pope' by reversing conversions sanctioned by Rabbi Amar and (Ashkenazi Chief) Rabbi Metzger."

The same adviser said last month that rabbis who nullified conversions would be called into explain their actions to Amar in December 2009, but Farber and other people involved in the field said this never happened.

On Tuesday, Shas MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem, formerly chief Sephardic rabbi in Geneva, spoke out against retroactive nullifications when he launched a book he had penned, detailing his research of the attitudes of great past Jewish sages to conversion.

"A proper conversion cannot be canceled even if the convert did not properly fulfill Jewish law," Amsalem wrote. Amsalem says he received anonymous letters, phone calls and "hinted threats" aimed at pressuring him into not publishing the book.

Farber said that even though there is a "power struggle" within the rabbinate over conversions, he has "lost faith" in the rabbinate's ability to "properly resolve the matter." Farber, who for years favored dialogue with the rabbinate over litigation, said he believed only court intervention could settle the question now.

His ITIM intends to file in a few weeks a second petition to the High Court of Justice on behalf of a number of Jews whose conversions were nullified by rabbinate representatives. "In an unprecedented manner, the rabbinate has opened a Halakhic Pandora's box with its latest legal statement," Farber yesterday told Anglo File. "This further exacerbated the predicament of thousands of converts around the world who are now living in a state of uncertainty," he said.

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