Israel Must Repair a Religious Travesty

The Chief Rabbinate cannot complain about its loss of status when its senior representatives are prepared to undermine such principles as humanity and fairness in the name of a distorted conservative worldview.

Haaretz Editorial
Outside the Jerusalem rabbinical court.
Outside the Jerusalem rabbinical court.Credit: Tess Scheflan
Haaretz Editorial

The Rabbinical High Court did the right thing this week when it declared Sarit Azoulay and her family Jewish.

The appeals court panel headed by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau thus corrected some of the injustice and shame wrought by the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court a few years ago, when it refused to allow Azoulay to register for marriage as a Jew.

The lower court dayanim (rabbinic court judges) questioned Sarit Azoulay’s elderly mother, who had converted 30 years earlier, inquiring about her lifestyle and conducting a pop quiz on Judaism by phone from the courtroom. In the end, it came to the unfortunate conclusion that the mother’s conversion, which had been conducted under the auspices of an official state rabbinical court before she had any of her children, was invalid.

With her mother’s conversion revoked, Azoulay was deemed not to be Jewish and unable to marry another Jew. Tuesday’s decision reverses the lower court decision and recognizes Azoulay as a Jew, along with her mother, her brother, and the baby girl born to her after she was married as a Jew by Rabbi David Stav, the couple’s community rabbi.

This particular case was resolved, but the larger problem remains: the Chief Rabbinate and rabbinical courts.

During the hearing on Tuesday, the dayanim did not criticize the humiliating process of interrogating converts and revoking their conversions. They merely stated that in the case before them there were no grounds for the lower court to rule as it did, because the mother had indeed kept Jewish ritual after her conversion, which is not what the regional court dayanim had thought.

The higher court did not rule out the possibility of revoking a conversion if the convert did not observe Jewish traditions, as he or she had promised to do.

It was not the first time that the extreme practice – extreme even from a halakhic perspective – of revoking conversions had been used by the rabbinical courts. There have been other cases in which dayanim worked against converts and their children when they came before them to divorce or to register for marriage in recent years.

In 2008, a rabbinical court went so far as to declare that not only was a specific convert seeking divorce not Jewish, but the conversions of thousands of people who had been converted by the state rabbinical courts were invalid as well.

Writing about that shameful ruling, Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein referred to things that are relevant to the current situation as well.

Revoking a conversion involves “life-and-death matters,” he wrote. “This is true of the converts themselves, and it’s true of their children who grew up all their lives as Jews in Israel, and here, in a process in which the children’s voices aren’t even heard, they are deprived of their identity by the stroke of a pen?”

The Chief Rabbinate cannot complain about its loss of status when its senior representatives are prepared to undermine such principles as humanity and fairness in the name of a distorted conservative worldview.

The conclusion must be the privatization of religious services as outlined by the High Court of Justice two weeks ago, when it recognized private Orthodox conversions and the possibility of becoming a Jew without resorting to the official rabbinate.

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