Israeli Rabbinate: we can annul conversions

By Leon Symons, January 14, 2010

An “explosive” document on conversions by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has argued that Orthodox conversions carried out in Israel can be annulled at any time.

The 122-page submission was presented to an Israeli High Court hearing brought by a women’s rights group trying to reinstate thousands of conversions that had been annulled in 2008.

Commenting in London on the document, Federation of Synagogues’ Beth Din head Dayan Yisroel Lichtenstein said that it meant that any Beth Din could annul a conversion retroactively. On that basis, the London Beth Din would be “justified” in reviewing every Orthodox conversion carried out in Israel.

The document, he said, could be used to demonstrate the incompatibility of religion and state in Israel and could lead to their separation, “a situation I deplore.

“I have never seen anything like it. It leaves converts in a very uncomfortable situation. Families could face turmoil and the implications are horrific. It also means the authorities in Israel have to get their act together because they cannot allow such a situation to continue. They really have to revamp how conversions are done.”

The Israeli rabbinate discovered from information on divorces that 97.2 per cent of converts between 1996 and 2008 had not kept mitzvot — and as a result, their conversions could be invalidated.

“I would advise someone who didn’t plan to keep the mitzvot not to bother with an Orthodox conversion,” the dayan said. “This demonstrates the incompatibility of the halachic judicial system and the secular system. It leaves one to wonder whether there’s any future in having the religion and the state as one. It is an explosive document. However, it is also very impressive because the halachic arguments are excellent. But it highlights the incompatibility of the systems because the secular system can’t live with retroactive annulment.”

The document is the latest move in a two-year battle over conversion between strictly Orthodox elements, who want tighter controls over who is converted, and more moderate rabbis who believe that conversions are irreversible.

Rabbi Barry Marcus, of the United Synagogue’s Central Synagogue in London, said: “The impact is potentially enormous.

“There is a feeling in some quarters that converts have almost become sacrificial lambs because of the internal struggle as to who dominates the rabbinate in Israel.

“It is sad that the Israeli rabbinate can spend so much time and energy undermining what was done in good faith.”

Rabbi Yehuda Brodie, administrator of the Manchester Beth Din, said: “Whenever anyone undergoes conversion anywhere in the world, they must be careful to ensure that the conversion process they undertake is under a body competent to carry it out.”

Those who had Manchester or London Beth Din conversions “won’t have anything to be concerned about”.

Britons converted by Israeli Orthodox authorities are already expressing concern. Helen Sagal’s story came to light in April 2005, when the JC reported that she and her Israeli husband’s application for their son to attend JFS was turned down because the London Beth Din refused to recognise her Israeli Orthodox conversion.

Mrs Sagal said this week: “It is neither right nor fair that converts have to live with this. The rabbinic authorities are trying to hold an axe over their heads for the rest of their lives.

“There are so many implications. If a mother has a daughter who marries into an Orthodox family and then has her conversion annulled, what happens to everyone else? The consequences could be devastating.”

Mrs Sagal believed the process of conversion was at fault and that there should be a probationary period where rabbis could monitor a convert’s progress.

In the Israeli case, the Centre for Women’s Justice wants the court to reinstate thousands of conversions performed by the state-sponsored Conversion Authority headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman.

Last updated: 2:33pm, January 15 2010