Two separate rulings by the Supreme Court in Israel last week have brought the controversial issue of giyur (conversion) back to the fore.
In a petition filed by the Israeli Reform movement, the court ruled that the government has to provide the Reform and Conservative academies that prepare candidates for conversion with the same funding it gives Orthodox academies.
Ten years ago, the government set up a joint giyur academy with teachers from the different religious streams. As part of the agreement that enabled the academy to start teaching, the Reform and Conservative movements agreed to suspend their Supreme Court petitions demanding that the State recognise those who converted under their auspices in Israel.
Despite the academy’s existence, hundreds of giyur candidates continued to study in private programmes of all denominations, but only Orthodox ones have received government funds.
Over the past two decades, Israel absorbed hundreds of thousands of people from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to most religious definitions, although they are eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided that enabling their conversion was a “national mission” and hundreds of millions of shekels were earmarked for that purpose.
However, the special rabbinical courts that actually perform the conversions do not accept the graduates of the non-Orthodox giyur academies.
The court’s decision to start funding these academies was greeted with satisfaction by the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements. They have been threatening for the past year to break with the joint academy and re-petition the Supreme Court to force the government to recognise their conversions.
Charedi politicians attacked the decision. Knesset Member Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism announced that he would use his powers as chairman of the parliamentary finance committee to block the funding.
In a separate ruling, the court ordered the government to explain in 90 days why a rabbinical court decided last year to revoke all the conversions made by a special conversions court headed by Rabbi Chaim Drukman. The rabbinical court’s decision caused a furore since it affected over 2,000 people, all living as Jews.
Attempts to reform the giyur process and allow larger numbers to convert have been stymied by the rabbinical courts. Many of them are headed by rabbis belonging to the Lithuanian stream of Orthodoxy, which maintains that all who convert to Judaism must commit to living a strictly Orthodox way of life.
While most streams of Orthodox Jewry agree with this, there are differing views as to the stringency with which it should be applied.
Attempts to appoint more liberal-minded dayanim (rabbinical judges) have failed, mainly due to political pressure by the strictly Orthodox parties. Following last year’s ruling, Rabbi Drukman, who was appointed to head the State Conversion Authority in the hope that he would streamline the process, was forced to resign. Since his resignation, the number of conversions performed has gone down by about 25 percent to 5320 in 2008, and some of the rabbinical courts have also begun to revoke conversions retroactively, if they are informed that the new Jews are not living a totally Orthodox lifestyle.
Rabbi Shaul Farber of ITIM, the Jewish Life Center, an organisation which assists those going through the conversion process, said that “the irony is that the court has decided to fund the reform and conservative giyur academies but the country doesn’t yet even recognise the conversions they perform.”
Meanwhile, Rabbi Farber believes that the main problem with the system is the rabbinical courts. “There is no other example in the free world of a legal system where there is no judicial review. Those seeking to convert are an extremely vulnerable group and they have no recourse to appeal arbitrary decisions or complain when they are so frequently mistreated.”
Case study: ‘This blighted my life’
The Supreme Court’s decision to order the government to explain why a rabbinical court last year revoked all the conversions performed under Rabbi Chaim Drukman was described as “good news” for Yossi Fackenheim, who had his conversion renounced last year due to a lack of religious observance.
London-based Mr Fackenheim, 29, is the son of the renowned Reform theologian Emil Fackenheim. Mr Fackenheim’s mother was an Orthodox convert and he too was converted in Canada, aged 2.
He married in 2001 in Jerusalem in an Orthodox ceremony but when he and his wife attended a Jerusalem beth din to obtain a get, or religious divorce, last August, he was told he could not give a get because his religious status had been questioned. His wife, who complained this left her in limbo, was later issued a get.
Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Centre (IRAC), which is fighting Mr Fackenheim’s case, said that a “ruling which challenges the authority of rabbinical judgments improves the chances of a similar stance being taken” for Mr Fackenheim.
An appeal that was sent to the High Rabbinical Court a month ago is “not expected to be successful”, but Ms Hoffman believes a petition to the Supreme Court “holds hope. The ruling shows that secular law will consider intervention in matters of religion and although we are petitioning separately, there might be a chance that both rulings can be heard as one case”.
Mr Fackenheim, who will remarry under a Reform Rabbi in Tel Aviv this weekend, describes the renouncement of his conversion as a “ blight on my life. Until the decision is reversed I’m unable to get a civil marriage in Israel as the state only recognises marriages performed under Orthodox auspices.”