Senior rabbis from the national- religious community are harshly criticizing a decision by the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court to reject the conversion of a woman who underwent the process 30 years ago under the auspices of former chief rabbi Shlomo Goren.
Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, the founder of the state conversion authority and the head of a private conversion court, called the decision “halachically absurd,” while Rabbi David Stav, municipal chief rabbi of Shoham and head of the new Giur K’halacha conversion system, called on the chief rabbinate to prevent local religious councils from challenging conversions performed under the state’s conversion courts.
In 2012, Sarit Azoulai, 28, went to the Jerusalem local religious council to register to marry but the clerks noticed from the wording of her mother’s marriage certificate that Sarit’s mother was a convert and asked that she clarify her Jewish status in the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court.
Sarit’s mother had converted in 1983 in a conversion course of Rabbi Benjamin Aviad, then a member of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate, which was under the auspices of the serving Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the time Rabbi Shlomo Goren.
She married shortly thereafter and gave birth to Sarit and a son, but divorced her husband two-and-a-half years after they married.
During the hearing at the rabbinical court, Sarit was questioned as to whether or not she observes Jewish law and whether or not her mother does. The rabbinical judges also spoke with Sarit’s mother and asked her about her Jewish observance and that of her daughter.
Sarit’s mother was subsequently called for two more hearings at the rabbinical court – the second in front of a full panel of seven judges to further investigate her religious lifestyle.
Two weeks before Sarit herself was scheduled to get married, the rabbinical court issued its ruling stating that “since there are doubts as to the conversion of the mother, the rabbinical court, therefore, cannot affirm the Jewish status of the applicant, and she is able to appeal our decision to the Supreme Rabbinical Court.”
The one-sentence ruling gave no other explanation, though the continued questioning of the mother in two separate hearings implies that it was based on her current religious practice.
Sarit’s mother describes herself as traditional, saying she observes kashrut and marks the Jewish holidays but does not observe Shabbat.
After consulting with friends, Sarit and her fiance approached Stav who, through his authority as a municipal chief rabbi and marriage registrar, registered them for marriage.
Earlier this year, however, Sarit decided to appeal the original 2012 decision of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court to the Supreme Rabbinical Court after she gave birth to a daughter out of concern for the possible complications her daughter might face later in life due to what amounted to the annulment of her own mother’s conversion.
The Supreme Rabbinical Court is set to hear the case on December 1, during which Sarit and her mother will be represented by Dr. Susan Weiss and attorney Nitzan Caspi Shilony of the The Center for Women’s Justice.
It was Weiss, the founder and director of CWJ, who initially came across the case after Sarit’s mother overheard a conversation Weiss was having on the phone regarding conversion issues while in her shop in the Mahaneh Yehuda market in Jerusalem.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Rosen said there is no concept in Jewish law of annulling a conversion, and that, in fact, even if a convert returns to his previous way of life after converting he remains Jewish.
“Forty days after the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people made the Golden Calf, but their ‘conversion’ was not canceled, and their declaration of ‘we shall do and we shall listen’ was not abrogated either,” said Rosen, citing sources from rabbinic literature.
Rosen said modern arbiters of Jewish law have used this source to give legitimacy to converts who returned to their previous way of life after converting, and continued to say that if the annulment of the mother’s conversion was done because of her way of life it would an “absurd” decision, so long after she converted and on such a basis.
“I do not see any reasonable way to cancel the conversions of Rabbi Goren from 1983, unless there is some dramatic information in the hands of the rabbinical court that has not been released,” said Rosen.
Stav described the decision as “an unparalleled scandal,” saying it essentially meant that one arm of the chief rabbinate was not recognizing another arm of the very same chief rabbinate.
“Such a decision cannot be made according to Jewish law, this disgraces former chief rabbis, and disgraces the Torah,” he told the Post.
Stav said the chief rabbinate needed to make clear to the rabbinical courts that they cannot revoke conversions done through state rabbinical courts and to instruct local religious councils that they are forbidden from requesting Jewish status clarification from the rabbinical courts for someone who has a conversion certificate from a state rabbinical court.
“This whole episode was humiliating and made us feel unwanted and that my mother’s conversion, which was a long and difficult process, had been for nothing,” Sarit told the Post.
She added, however, that it was not the intent of her and her husband to injure the chief rabbinate, which she described as a positive and important institution, but simply to ensure that her daughter does not encounter similar problems in the future.
Sarit’s mother, who declined to be named, said she felt humiliated by the decision.
“I felt very rejected and that they were playing around with people’s souls,” she said. “It was crushing to my integrity, a convert is not even supposed to be reminded that they are a convert.
“I’ve lived here for 30 years, I’ve been Jewish for 30 years; I was injured in a terrorist attack in 2002 in the supermarket bombing in Kiryat Hayovel; both my children were raised here as Jewish and without any doubt on that fact; and I felt like I was facing an inquisition. The last thing I was expecting was to be told 30 years down the road that Rabbi Goren wasn’t good enough.”
She said, however, that she did not in anyway wish for the state to be besmirched by the issue and that she wanted to prevent any antagonism toward the state because of this episode.
The Center for Women’s Justice said the incident proves that a convert in Israel can never feel secure in the validity of their conversion.
“The behavior of the rabbinical courts, the marriage registrars and the chief rabbinate are leading to a situation in which no convert can sleep peacefully in the State of Israel. Every conversion can be canceled, something against Jewish law and the authority that the law grants to religious institutions. Now we are seeing a new level in which the children of converts are able to lose recognition of their Jewishness.
This behavior, which constitutes deceiving converts, proves that the authority to deliberate on conversions must be expropriated from the rabbinical courts, an authority the legislature never granted them in the first place.”
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