The Tyranny of the Israeli Rabbinate

The case of Sarit Azoulay underlines the need to fundamentally alter the way religious court judges are appointed in Israel.

File photo: Chief Rabbinate-run conversion court in Jerusalem, May 23, 2004.
Eyal Warshavsky

“You read it and don’t believe it,” Supreme Court Justice Miriam Naor, now the court’s president, wrote in 2012 in reference to a Rabbinical High Court ruling from a few years before that threatened to retroactively invalidate thousands of conversions performed by the state’s special conversion courts. “Where is the compassion?” asked Justice Elyakim Rubinstein of the same ruling.

Haaretz yesterday revealed (“Case shows ‘no convert can sleep peacefully in Israel’”) that in that same year, only a few months after the justices sharply criticized that rabbinic ruling, the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court issued an even more extreme decision.

That 2012 ruling annulled the conversion of an Israeli woman that had taken place 29 years earlier. As a result her daughter, Sarit Azoulay, was barred from registering her pending marriage since, she, too, by the lights of the dayanim (rabbinical court judges), was not Jewish. The dayanim conducted a humiliating probe of the mother’s lifestyle, asking the 57-year-old to identify the weekly Torah portion and questioning her observance of the Sabbath and of the laws of niddah, which govern a couple’s sexual relationship.

The Jerusalem court’s unexplained ruling contravenes not just High Court of Justice rulings, but the rabbinical courts’ own internal guidelines, not to mention Jewish law. It demonstrates that when unlimited power is granted to an oligarchic group, it is exploited to the full, resulting in the extreme mistreatment of people and investigations that sometimes don’t even appear in court’s records. Moreover, this ruling contravenes explicit Jewish law, which forbids the annulment of a conversion. All this was done by those who ostensibly champion religious law.

The separation of religion and state can and must be revisited, as must the need for the state to recognize non-Orthodox conversions. However, immediate steps must also be taken within the existing frameworks. The case of Sarit Azoulay clarifies the need to fundamentally alter the way dayanim are appointed; the process is compromised by politics and nepotism, which adds to the tyranny of the rabbinate and harms people in an area that the Supreme Court has described as “life and death.”

This case also pulls the rug out from under the argument that only state-recognized conversions by the official rabbinical courts will assure converts’ recognition, since the Chief Rabbinate has repeatedly demonstrated that it doesn’t necessarily accept the rulings of its own courts. It is crucial for the state to assign authority in the realm of religion to additional bodies, encourage initiatives like the alternative conversion courts that were set up a few months ago and allow other parties to register marriages.