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(photo credit: AP [file])
In a move that pits him against the haredi rabbinical establishment and endears him to thousands of converts to Judaism, Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar issued a written order that effectively bars a controversial haredi rabbinical judge from adjudicating in conversion cases.
"Recently, conversion cases have become the focus of public scrutiny," wrote Amar in a letter to Rabbi Eliyahu Ben-Dahan, administrative head of the Rabbinical Courts. "Groups have taken advantage of the controversy surrounding these cases to attempt to limit the jurisdiction of the Rabbinical Courts. As a result, I am exercising my power... to personally choose panels of judges that will rule on conversion cases."
Amar's directive would allow him to remove from a conversion case any judge - but it is seen as being directed, in particular, at Rabbi Avraham Sherman, a judge on the High Rabbinical Court who one week ago issued his second highly controversial halachic opinion on a divorce case involving a woman who converted to Judaism.
As in his previous ruling of more than a year ago, Sherman questioned not only the validity of the woman in the divorce case but also all contemporary Orthodox conversions - especially those performed by the National Conversion Authority, which is under Amar's supervision - and called to protect the purity of the Jewish people from "invasion" by gentiles undergoing "bogus" conversion ceremonies. In addition, Sherman declared that only the haredi rabbinical establishment was qualified to adjudicate on conversion matters; Sherman did not mention Amar as part of this "legitimate" rabbinical establishment.
In the wake of the publication of Sherman's opinion, Amar came under pressure to clarify his stand, said a senior source in the Rabbinical Court Administration.
"Rabbi Amar could not simply remain quiet any longer," said the source. "Sherman's opinion basically undermined Rabbi Amar's authority. He had to do something."
Amar's spokesman denied that the new directive was aimed against Sherman.
"Nowhere in the letter is Sherman mentioned," said the spokesman.
Amar's attempt, through his spokesman, to play down the sidelining of Sherman is in accordance with the non-confrontational style that has characterized his leadership style since he took office as chief rabbi more than five years ago.
However, a representative of the haredi rabbinical establishment rejected Amar's spokesman's attempts to sidestep a direct confrontation and vowed that Amar would be "punished" for coming out against Sherman.
Rabbi Nahum Eisenstein, who is closely aligned with Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, considered the preeminent halachic authority of Ashkenazi haredi Jewry, said in response: "If reports regarding Amar's letter are true, our rabbis will come out with a very serious reaction. Rabbi Amar has crossed a red line and he is directly undermining the halachic validity of conversions in Israel."
Meanwhile, in a meeting with Absorption Minister Sofa Landver on Wednesday, Amar reiterated his commitment to recognize all conversions performed by the Conversion Authority, according to Landver's spokesman.
Landver voiced her concern that Sherman's attack on the Conversion Authority would discourage potential converts from converting.
"No one will be willing to go through the trouble of converting if there is a real fear that, sometime down the road, the conversion will simply be annulled," she said.
According to data presented to Amar by Landver, there are 320,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who received automatic citizenship under the Law of Return but who are not Jewish according to halachic criteria - 80,000 of whom are under the age of 18.
The National Conversion Authority was set up to streamline the conversion process in the hope of converting these non-Jewish Israelis. Both secular and Orthodox Israelis see these non-Jews, who are fully integrated into Israeli society, as a potential threat to the cohesion of Israeli society because they challenge the congruity between Israeli and Jewish identities.
Also, because these non-Jews have no other religious definition, they cannot marry in Israel and must travel abroad. Only members of a recognized religion - Christianity, Islam or Judaism - can marry in Israel.
The haredi community's stringent approach to conversions is seen by secular and modern Orthodox Israelis as counterproductive since it blocks potential converts from becoming Jews - thus increasing pressure to provide civil marriages. It also increases the chances of intermarriage.
Meanwhile, haredim argue that relaxing conversion criteria empties the conversion act of any meaning and, therefore, does not solve the problem of intermarriage.