State and religion clash on converts

By Anshel Pfeffer, June 20, 2008

In an unprecedented clash between state and religion, Justice Minister Daniel Friedman announced this week that he will act to fire the Dayan (rabbinical judge) who ruled that all the conversions made over the last nine years by the special conversion courts were null and void.

The ruling has caused chaos in the already unsteady conversion process in Israel.

Mr Friedman’s announcement came four days after the Judge’s Ombudsman, Tovah Strassberg-Cohen, also said that Rabbi Abraham Sherman should be dismissed. In her recommendation, Judge Strassberg-Cohen wrote that “Rabbi Sherman’s actions are not the way to handle a case and his pronouncements differed greatly from the appropriate behaviour of a dayan”.

The storm began a month ago, when a ruling of a forum of three dayanim of the High Rabbinical Court was published. In it, Rabbi Sherman, who headed the Beth Din, wrote that the conversions performed by the special conversions courts, headed by Rabbi Haim Drukman, were fraudulent and therefore null and void. Rabbi Sherman also claimed that Rabbi Drukman had falsely signed conversion certificates.

Since then, the rabbinical establishment has been in turmoil, with thousands of converts fearing that their conversions would not be recognised, which peaked when Rabbi Drukman was dismissed by the Prime Minister’s Office from his post as head of the Conversion Authority.

The official reason was that he had reached the retirement age, but sources in the Prime Minister’s Office acknowledged that there was widespread disappointment over his lack of success in boosting the number of converts.

There are 300,000 Israeli citizens who have emigrated from the former Soviet Union and are not halachically recognised as Jews. The cabinet authorised this week the formation of a committee to appoint a new head of the Conversion Authority.

The move to dismiss Rabbi Sherman has put the government on a collision course with the ultra-Orthodox establishment. While the rabbinical judges are officially government employees, like judges, the rabbis insist that there only allegiance is to their interpretation of Jewish law.

The move was roundly criticised by the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Yated Neeman, which insisted that the minister and the ombudsman had no mandate to dismiss the dayan. Rabbi Sherman himself said that his ruling “was in full accordance with halacha, the law and ethics”.

As it is, the dismissal will not be a simple matter. Rabbinical judges are appointed and dismissed by the Dayanim Appointment Committee, which while being jointly chaired by the Justice Minister has a majority of ultra-Orthodox members who are likely to oppose the move.

Last updated: 3:47pm, June 19 2008