Rabbinical Court Judge Defends His Record as Acting for the Greater Jewish Good

Avraham Sherman, blasted for calling into question thousands of conversions, insists he staved off a catastrophe for the Jewish people.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

Rabbi Avraham Sherman strode purposefully through Hebrew University's Mount Scopus campus a few weeks ago, wearing the elegant frock coat of a religious court judge and a homburg hat. Shortly after he had settled among the other speakers on the panel to which he had been invited, his fellow panelists lashed out at him - personally and systemically - mainly over the perceived discrimination against women in the religious courts.

The panel was a joint initiative of the student organization Hillel, the university's Jewish philosophy department and Mavoi Satum, an advocacy group for women denied a get (Jewish bill of divorce ), and the rabbi's response was doubly incensed: Feminism as a phenomenon "calls for a deep psychological-sociological examination," he said, adding that his critics suffered from "a twisted view" and above all from a "lack of manners" - as witnessed by the way they talk to and about senior dayanim (religious court judges ) such as himself. "It is shameful and a disgrace," the rabbi fumed. "This is not a discussion."

Rabbi Sherman granted Haaretz an interview on the occasion of his retirement from the High Rabbinical Court, after 32 years on the bench. His April 2008 Rabbinical Court of Appeals verdict, in which he in essence cast doubt on the Jewishness of thousands of converts, and tore into the Zionist rabbi Haim Druckman - then head of another state religious court - threatened to undermine the state's role in Israel's religious courts and instigated a serious crisis in the conversion system. Sherman also created a long-term political, halakhic (i.e., related to traditional Jewish law ) and legal mess, which was ostensibly resolved about a month ago, when the Supreme Court annulled his 2008 ruling and harshly criticized him personally.

The outgoing Supreme Court president, Dorit Beinisch, wrote that the religious panel had "trampled the basic rules of discussion, the rules of natural justice, the required rules of respect for the courts, and displayed contempt for the special conversion courts, which are state institutions, and, above all, harmed and caused shocking injustice to the petitioners and their children." Justice Elyakim Rubinstein ascribed to the religious judges "peculiar conduct" that "hardly added to the honor" of the their court system, and begged the question "of how much patience and respect ought to be accorded to one who does not behave that way himself."

Sherman, in his first public comment on the verdict, told Haaretz that "the High Court of Justice ousted us from safeguarding the people of Israel, from watching over those communities that want to be in sanctity, and gave gentiles a fake stamp of approval, for there is doubt as to whether they are Jews according to halakha.

"The High Court of Justice became a partner to the process of widening the breach among the people of Israel. They [the judicial panel also included Justice Miriam Naor] have no business intervening in halakha, they do not know it. People who did not toil over the Torah as they were supposed to in order to be accepted as morei hora'a [Torah scholars who served as rabbis and judges] among the people of Israel are suddenly handling halakhot that pertain to all of Israel?"

Specifically, Sherman's ruling - in the religious courts' highest appellate instance - was handed down in a divorce case involving an immigrant who had undergone conversion years before in Rabbi Haim Druckman's conversion court. She subsequently married a Jew, in accordance with Jewish law. A rabbinical court in Ashdod accepted the husband's contention that he was exempt from granting her a get, because the woman had never been Jewish and so their marriage had no halakhic validity. The religious court accepted evidence that the wife did not observe the religious commandments and had no intention of being observant, in contravention to what she declared to the conversion court judges.

Sherman upheld the decisions of the Ashdod court to exempt the husband from granting a get, and to add the wife and her children to the list of individuals whose application for marriage is held up by the state, but he did not make do with that. He added an extensive declaration that was essentially an ideological indictment against religious Zionism that cast doubt on the integrity of Rabbi Druckman and his religious court judges, and determined that thousands of conversions they had performed had to be nullified. (The High Court of Justice ruled that this nullification was done without authority and has no practical significance. ) Sherman based his claim on documents and allegations - which had never been established before him - that Druckman's signature appears on some 200 conversion certificates that were issued in sessions he had never personally attended.

'Convicting' Druckman

The High Court, and the judicial ombudsman before it, considered the problematic conduct of the veteran dayan - including his decision to publicize the draft verdict he had written at a public gathering of religious court judges even before the parties to the case had been apprised of it - and his decision "to convict" Druckman, who then headed a state judicial body, without having first heard what he had to say.

The ombudsman at the time, Justice Tova Strasberg-Cohen, wrote: "The path Rabbi Sherman took is not an appropriate way to conduct a trial, and his statements deviate radically from conduct befitting a religious court judge. His moves run counter to fair and due process, are not in keeping with the mainstays of natural justice, with the rules of ethics and the basic principles of our judicial system, and they have no place in an Israeli court." She recommended removing him from the bench, but the committee for appointing religious court judges, which has an ultra-Orthodox majority, ignored her recommendation.

The crux of Sherman's allegation against Druckman was halakhic. The conversion court, Sherman claimed, waived the basic requirement that converts take upon themselves: obeying the commandments. He contended that the dispensations that many rabbis grant in conversions are nothing but fraudulent.

Religious Zionism's rabbis largely supported Druckman and rejected Sherman's controversial determination that, from a halakhic standpoint, it is possible to nullify a conversion retroactively. But there were some who conceded that the state's mass conversion arrangement allows for "wink-wink conversions" (an expression Rabbi Yehuda Brandes coined in an article for Akdamot: Journal of Jewish Thought ).

'Have they lost their minds?'

In Sherman's world, it is doubtful that Ruth the Moabite would have passed the conversion test. "The sages of Israel told us that a majority of the converts in our day do not assume the commandments," he says. "This is also the view of the former chief rabbis Yitzhak Halevi Herzog and Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook. Mass conversion of tens of thousands is impossible. What - have they undergone a transformation? Have they lost their minds and moved from a life of heresy or atheism or modern life? After all, what is the purpose of man in democratic-liberal life? To enjoy life. That is a sociological definition."

Who says so?

"They [the chief rabbis] say so, and when the main component is to enjoy life, those same forces, those same impulses - they shape the actions that will elicit the pleasure, that will elicit the thrills. That is why gedolei Yisrael [revered rabbis of their generation] say, as a fact, that it cannot be that 50,000 people who converted under Rabbi Druckman, as he attests, underwent such a transformation. When we stand and deliberate the validity of a conversion, when the convert comes before us with res judicata, our starting assumption is that the acceptance of the commandments was incomplete, unless it is proved to us that there was acceptance of the commandments and observance of them."

Sherman is especially angry about the things former Supreme Court president Beinisch wrote about the trampling of converts' honor, and her comment "that we abandoned halakha as well. She and Justice Rubinstein bring verses about honoring the convert. But, excuse me, what is the verse talking about? About equality for the convert. Which convert? A righteous convert, a convert who joins the people of Israel of his own will, by accepting the commandments. Rabbi Druckman's conversions are the ones that abetted the terrible process of introducing tens of thousands of gentiles into the people of Israel without the halakhic Jewish definition."

Sherman likens Druckman to Reform and Conservative Jews, who "do not fear the loss of Jewish identity, it isn't painful to them. Historically, they are the bridge to the terrible process - the bridge on which tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of Jews have crossed and assimilated and drowned in the sea of gentiles and lost their identity, and there is no longer a Jewish people. It is a silent Holocaust that the High Court is abetting."

Sherman does not retract a single word of his verdict: "When we deliberate a case like this, the court does not deal only with an individual, with his status and the status of his children. At the same time, we exercise the function for which we were appointed as judges - to stand guard over sanctity, to safeguard the sanctity of relations in the Jewish people. That is actually the heart of the job.

"That gentile woman whose conversion we doubted, and as a result of that also the Jewishness of her two boys - let us imagine what would have happened if we had accepted her into Klal Israel [the Jewish people], her and her boys and daughters. We would be passing a chain of essential defects to the sanctity of the people of Israel, and here there is no concept of bitul berov [nullification among the majority] or assimilation, or the notion that it has assimilated in their midst. It is never nullified."

But after your ruling, the case was once again handed to a rabbinical court in Tel Aviv, and the latter overturned your decision and ruled that she is Jewish.

"That is a verdict that was designed to placate political and judicial entities, and is not substantiated in the least from a halakhic standpoint. It was not proved to them that the petitioner had observed the main commandments - Shabbat, kashrut and family purity - and therefore her entry into Klal Israel must not be approved."

How could you write grave things about Rabbi Druckman without hearing him out first? The High Court determined that you ignored natural justice.

"There are no rules of natural justice when you are dealing with the protection of the people of Israel. We wanted to safeguard against a terrible breach that might happen to the Jewish communities, first and foremost in the Land of Israel and afterward in the whole world. And in a case like this there are no rules except that which halakha dictates. We, the religious court, are called upon to maintain the justice of the Torah. We are emissaries of the entire public ... We saw the conversion by that religious court not as a localized point concerning the petitioners, but rather as a point relating to [greater] reality. And the moment that this serious breach by an unworthy religious court was revealed to us - and there was no acceptance of the commandments - we came and said, 'We have to sound the alarm,' because here stood a panel that was the biggest converter.

"The detailed halakhic ruling we wrote was never read and studied in the proper and appropriate manner," Sherman adds, "since the verdict is based on fundamental investigations of the principles of the conversion, in which Rabbi Druckman's religious court suffered from such grave failings. If the High Court justices had delved into the verdict in depth, they would have realized that we dealt primarily with the obstacle that this sets before the people of Israel."

'Swish of a hand'

In their High Court petition against Sherman (first filed in 2008 ), the petitioners - among them the litigant whose conversion had been overturned - asked the court to rule that nullifying conversions is not within the purview of the rabbinical courts. The High Court denied that request, explaining that it was instead pinning its hopes on a new internal protocol - which was drafted in conjunction with the attorney general - under which Israel's Sephardi chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, will personally handle any case involving a demand to nullify a conversion.

What do you think of the new arrangement between Rabbi Amar and the attorney general?

"The ruling by Justice Rubinstein describes at length the manner in which Rabbi Amar, in conjunction with the attorney general, denies the entire religious court system their responsibility and function of dealing with and ruling on conversion matters. It is impossible to exclude with the swish of a hand all the religious court judges of Israel - whose greatness in Torah has been recognized and authorized, and who have been dealing with judicial work for decades - from continuing to fulfill their duty to safeguard the people of Israel.

"As described in the High Court ruling, Rabbi Amar and the attorney general did not make do with the internal regulations issued by the religious court. Subsequently, in collaboration with MK [David] Rotem [Yisrael Beiteinu], they spearheaded a move wherein everything that is said in the regulations for conversion matters in the religious courts becomes the conversion law; that says no dayan can nullify conversions; that denies all of Israel's dayanim the ability to discuss conversion, and turns them into violators of the law.

"You know," he continues, "the ultra-Orthodox communities are not scared of this, for a simple reason: Haredim will never marry anyone whose conversion has not been proved to have been conducted according to halakha. This just reeks of it."

So why not let it go? We, the non-Haredi public, will marry the converts.

"That means that we are bidding farewell to the concept of a Jewish state. I still care about shlomei emunei Israel [Israelites of wholehearted faith] ... To wed or become joined with a gentile is worse than to live without circumcision, without holy matrimony. It is worse than all the offenses. It is a feeling of the defilement of the peoples, a feeling that you are introducing a seed other than Israel's, and that is a catastrophe. We are still under the auspices of the state, still feel that we have to take care of this public, this people. That is the main point, and they [the justices] overlooked this. Don't they understand that the job of a religious court is to maintain the justice of the Torah?"

But you apparently represent only one system. There are others who think otherwise.

"That is not a school of thought. We represent the halakha in its pure form. The majority of these principles of halakha do not belong to a particular ideology or sector. If we are placed in charge, according to the words of the chief rabbis, from Rabbi Kook, Rabbi Herzog and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, of blessed memory - who is to say that it stems from some kind of nationalism? That is a lie."

What will you recommend to the religious court judges in the system - to go on annulling conversions in cases like these? Would you recommend marriage registrars to hold things up in the case of every convert?

"The High Court does not bar us from doing that. Israel's religious court judges will not deviate in the slightest from the principles of the people of Israel's existence throughout the generations."

Battle-shy fighter

On the wall in the Sherman family home in Bnei Brak hang two portraits of rabbis, side by side, both of them founding fathers: One is ultra-Orthodox, the Hazon Ish; the other Zionist ultra-Orthodox, Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook. Rabbi Sherman, a bitter ideological opponent of the national-religious public, was born in a Zionist home in Ramat Gan in 1941 but was educated at the Hayishuv Hahadash yeshiva in Tel Aviv - a Haredi institution that incorporates general studies. He went on to study at the Lithuanian stream's Hebron Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He did his rabbinical and dayanut studies at the Harry Fischel Institute for Talmudic Research, also in Jerusalem. Here he became associated with Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, whom he views as his patron and mentor in all halakhic matters.

Sherman married the daughter of Rabbi Rafael Kook, nephew of the great Rabbi Kook, and also regularly attended the lessons given by Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, son of the same rabbi, at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva. After he became a religious court judge, he chose to serve in the career army as a military chaplain. During the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and after it, Sherman served in the Jerusalem area (thanks to his title of dayan, he also received a special appointment as a judge at a military tribunal in the territories ). He retired from the army in 1979 with the rank of major. A short while later he was appointed to a regional rabbinical court, where he served for 19 years, until he was appointed to the High Rabbinical Court.

For years Sherman has been the rabbi of Congregation Segula in Bnei Brak, where most of the worshipers wear knitted skullcaps. (One was the late chairman of the National Religious Party, Zevulun Hammer. ) According to Sherman, both the Haredim and the national-religious backed his candidacy for the High Rabbinical Court 13 years ago. Even after the harsh verdict against Rabbi Druckman, he continues to serve as the rabbi of the synagogue.

"It's true that in my synagogue they didn't say to me on Shabbat, 'More power to you.' People naturally wanted to hear explanations," he said. "They knew and were familiar with my personality as well - that I am not a man of battles, but when it comes to fundamental areas of halakha, here I see my calling."

Avraham Sherman. “Hundreds of thousands of Jews have assimilated and lost their identity, and there is no longer a Jewish people. It is a silent Holocaust that the High Court is abetting.”Credit: Daniel Bar-On



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