UK rabbi uses sermon to attack convert annulments as ‘insane’

A leading United Synagogue rabbi has hit out at the recent decision of a rabbinical court in Israel calling for the annulment of thousands of conversions carried out in the country.

Rabbi Naftali Brawer condemned the verdict of the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem as symptomatic of an “insane and oppressive interpretation” of Jewish law.

In his sermon at Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue in Hertfordshire last Shabbat, Dr Brawer said: “There is a most disturbing trend in the Charedi world to be more and more stringent: to find reasons to forbid, to exclude, to condemn, instead of finding ways to permit, to include, to vindicate.

“Such oppressive and exclusive Judaism does not uphold the Torah, it degrades it.” The Jerusalem court ruled that conversions performed under the authority of Rabbi Haim Druckman, head of Israel’s special conversion court system, should be annulled — a decision which could strip 15,000 converts of their Jewish status.

Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Amar, has indicated he will move to overturn the ruling, but has yet to take formal steps to do so.

Rabbi Brawer, vice-chairman of the Rabbinic Council of the United Synagogue, said: “The Torah commands us not to oppress a convert. The 19th-century Rosh Yeshivah, the Netziv of Voloszhin, says that this prohibition also applies to those who stand by silently.

“What we see is nothing less than a real violation of the dignity of the convert and I want no part of it. What we also see is symptomatic of a broader trend and that is the insane and oppressive interpretation of Jewish Law. This too,  I reject unequivocally.

“I believe in a Torah that values human dignity and instructs its followers to do all they can to minimise human misery and suffering.”

Meanwhile, the London Beth Din, which supervises conversions for the United Synagogue, said there was “no change” in its policy.

In the past, the London Beth Din has refused to recognise some Israeli converts, although it examines the validity of foreign conversions individually.

The Conference of European Rabbis has stressed that  it has “not taken a position” on the Israeli ruling.

“Our dayanim felt that the courts decision was not the final word on this,” Aba Dunner, the CER’s secretary-general, and Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, chair of its standing committee wrote in a letter. “We are waiting to hear the opinion and ruling of Gedolei Yisrael [Torah authorities].”

They added: “In the past, the CER has been critical of the conversions made by Rabbi Druckman’s courts in Europe, many times circumventing the local rabbinate and very often producing converts who do not conform to the vow of life of Torah and Mitzvot they have been taking at the time of the conversions.

“The European rabbinate should do conversions in Europe and the Israeli rabbinate should deal with its own problems at home.”

    Last updated: 2:00pm, June 26 2008