The conversion row: pure politics
Religion is not the prime reason for the recent spate of conversion annulments
Three weeks ago, in a Shabbat sermon about which he must have thought a great deal, Naftali Brawer, rabbi of the United Synagogue at Borehamwood, launched a ferocious attack against those of his colleagues — in Israel and elsewhere — who have proudly claimed responsibility for, and enthusiastically supported, one of the most malevolent rabbinical decisions of recent times.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Israel upheld the decision of a rabbinical court in Ashdod retroactively to annul the conversion, authorised some 15 years ago, of a woman who was a party to divorce proceedings in that city.
The conversion had been supervised by Rabbi Chaim Druckman, head of Israel’s Conversion Authority. In its dubious wisdom, the Ashdod court decided to question the woman about her practice of Orthodoxy. Based on the answers she gave, it presumed to annul her conversion. The Supreme Rabbinical Court upheld the Ashdod decision, but went much further, by publicly casting doubt — without even bothering to examine the evidence (assuming it had a right to do so) — on each and every conversion performed under Rabbi Druckman’s authority since 1999. Not only has the Jewish status of one woman and her four children been revoked. Thousands of other converts — and their children, and I daresay even grandchildren — now face the prospect of a similar loss of status.
The anxiety and stress to which the Supreme Rabbinical Court’s remarks have given rise scarcely bares thinking about. But we all need — and if necessary must force ourselves — to confront this stress and to consider this anxiety. As we do so, I suggest that we ask some simple but crucial questions.
The first that occurs to me is this: why did the rabbinical court in Ashdod decide to question one party to a divorce about her practice of Judaism? After all, she had not come to the court for a belated batmitzvah test, or to seek employment as kashrut supervisor in a local hotel, had she? Official archives no doubt recorded her as being a convert. Well and good. So why not just note this and pass on to the next item of business?
One reason that has been suggested is that the Ashdod court had an agenda. And that that agenda had nothing particularly to do with the lady in question, but everything to do with a struggle, now taking place in Israel and beyond, between what I shall term the normative-Orthodox and sectarian-Orthodox religious establishments both for control of the religious organs of the Jewish state and for the larger authority to dictate the terms in and by which Orthodoxy is defined worldwide.
For 50 years or so, the sectarians turned their backs on that state, whilst continuing to live within its borders. Now they want a taste of power — and of the taxpayers’ money that comes with it. To achieve this goal they need to oust the normatives, who are generally Zionist, whilst they, of course, are anti-Zionist. Chaim Druckman is no mere government bureaucrat. He is a noted Rosh Yeshivah and talmudic expositor. He is also a leading member of the religious Zionist Bnei Akiva movement and an elder statesman of the National Religious Party. He even wears a knitted kippah — a sure sign of his Zionist credentials. His public discomfiture carries, therefore, a symbolism and a significance that go well beyond the meagre issue of conversion.
In his Shabbat sermon at Borehamwood, Rabbi Brawer did not mince his words. He referred to the cruel remarks of the Supreme Rabbinical Court as symptomatic of “an insane and oppressive interpretation” of Jewish law, reflecting an “oppressive and exclusive Judaism [that] does not uphold the Torah [but]… degrades it”. Statements of a like nature have emanated from, amongst others, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Shlomo Amar and his mentor Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef. The Rabbinical Council of America characterised any retroactive nullification of Rabbi Druckman’s conversions as “entirely beyond the pale of acceptable halachic practice”, a violation of “numerous Torah laws” and a “massive desecration of God’s name”.
Rabbi Druckman has been relieved of his position as head of Israel’s Conversion Authority. But Rabbi Brawer remains vice-chair of the United Synagogue’s Rabbinical Council and a member of the cabinet of our own Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks. Unless we hear from Sir Jonathan to the contrary, we are, I think, therefore entitled to assume that he has the Chief Rabbi’s full confidence, and complete support.
And so he should.