The state informed the High Court of Justice on Sunday that the Chief Rabbinate has appointed four dayanim from the state administered conversion courts to serve as marriage registrars with the power to register anyone who had converted to Judaism according to a ruling by the state-appointed courts.
The brief came in response to a petition filed by Rabbi Seth Farber, head of the Jewish Life Cycle Information Center (ITIM) and others against four marriage registrars who refused to register the marriages of couples in cases where one or both of them had converted to Judaism in state-administered conversion courts, whether military or civilian.
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In an afterword to the response, the state’s representatives, attorneys Yochi Gnessin and Avinoam Sega-Elad, also wrote that the state considered IDF conversion courts to be of extreme importance and an integral part of the state system of conversion.
Farber told The Jerusalem Post
he was satisfied that the state was “finally officially recognizing the IDF conversions. The state’s declaration can put the minds of those who converted at ease, and encourage those considering undergoing the process.”
On the other hand, the appointment of four dayanim from the state-administered conversion courts to serve simultaneously as marriage registrars was not entirely new. There are already three “extra-territorial” rabbis who have the power to register marriages from outside their jurisdiction.
The four new “extra-territorial” dayanim are Rabbi Yehoshua Meitlis, chief rabbi of Nahariya, Rabbi Yisrael Glickman, Rabbi Eliezer Altshuler, and Rabbi Eyal Yosef.
The petition was aimed at the marriage registrars of Ashkelon, Rabbi Yosef Blau, Rehovot, Rabbi Simcha Hacohen Kook, Rishon Lezion Rabbi Yehuda David Wolpe and Ashdod Rabbi Yosef Sheinin.
The petitioners charged that some city marriage registrars, including those listed in the petition, refused to register converts. “We have learned that in some registrar’s offices, which operate according to the mandate of Israeli law, marriage registrars take the law into their own hands and refuse to register for marriage people who underwent conversion and possess a conversion certificate... These instances of refusal are not coincidental or exceptional but a widespread phenomenon which has taken on worrisome proportions…”
The state informed the court on Sunday that the appointment of the four dayanim as registrars is an “appropriate, worthy and reasonable solution…which, on the one hand, allows couples to be registered for marriage by authorized dayanim while, on the other hand, not forcing local rabbis to do anything contrary to their halachic position or their conscience.”
From now on, a couple wishing to register for marriage may do so with the religious council of the groom’s city, the bride’s city, the city where the marriage is to take place or with one of the dayanim belonging to the state-run conversion courts. Furthermore, they will not be obliged to register with their local marriage registrar first, but may bypass him altogether to avoid any unpleasantness and register their marriages directly with the dayanim.
The state, however, rejected one of the petitioners’ arguments to the effect that the marriage registrars had no choice but to register such couples as long as the convert produced his conversion certificate. The state wrote that this rule, which applies to Interior Ministry clerks who must register as Jewish anyone in the population who provides documents to prove that he is so, does not apply to marriage registrars who are authorized to investigate the documents.
At the end of the state’s response, Gnessin referred to an incident which occurred during a hearing on the petition before the High Court of Justice on September 6, when she announced that soldiers who converted in the IDF could not register to be married because their conversion was incomplete. She said she had discovered that that the validity of the conversions performed in the army was in doubt because they are not approved by the Chief Rabbinate and are often conducted by officials who are not authorized dayanim.
Gnessin’s statement aroused a sensation. Roughly 4,500 soldiers, most of them women, have already converted to Judaism by the army rabbinate. If the conversions of the women were invalid, it meant that not only they, but their children were not Jewish.
The Justice Ministry confirmed that there were administrative problems involved in the conversions of the soldiers but said these could be resolved.
As a result of the furor, the Knesset State Control Committee summoned Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar to discuss the matter. Following the meeting, Amar issued a statement which seemed to indicate that he recognized the army conversions.
“For many years,” he wrote, “the army chaplains converted soldiers in IDF conversion courts. The military chaplains acted in full cooperation with the chief rabbis on all questions of religion and state. Soldiers who converted in these courts were also married properly by the marriage registrars.” Amar added that his office was working with the justice ministry to resolve the administrative problems.
Amar’s statement triggered attacks by Ashkenazi haredi rabbis and he eventually backtracked. On October 21, the Council of the Chief Rabbinate appointed a committee to examine the question of the halachic legality of the army conversions. However, within less than one week, two members of the five-man committee appointed by Amar, Yehuda Deri and Ratzon Sarrusi, announced their resignations.
In Sunday’s response, the state stressed that it “regarded the existence of the conversion system in the army of extreme importance. It is part of the state conversion system which has been, and is operating for decades in full cooperation with the chief rabbis and with their support.” The state added that “the branches of government recognize the validity of these conversions for all matters.”
Farber expressed concern that the state refused to order the marriage registrars to register the marriages. He said the state regards the state-administered conversion courts as being of extreme importance but “the declaration is not being implemented de facto since it does not force the registrars to recognize these conversions. This is a worrisome phenomenon which is spreading beyond the four cities mentioned in the petition. Furthermore, there is no reason to force converts to leave the city of their residence and wander over the country to open a marriage file somewhere else. Other Israelis do not have to do that.”
Attorney Aviad Hacohen, who represents the petitioners, said, “It is saddening to think that the only solution found for this intolerable situation is reassigning converts to a “special” track, that will imprint upon them – contrary to the values of Judaism and the principles of justice and egalitarianism, a mark of Cain as someone whose Judaism is allegedly incomplete.”
In a related development, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation is due on Monday to discuss a bill initiated by Knesset Law Committee Chairman David Rotem (Yisrael Beitenu) and Robert Ilatuv (Yisrael Beitenu) officially establishing army conversion courts. According to the bill, “The conversion court’s decision to convert a soldier is decisive proof of his Jewishness.”
The bill also calls on the Chief Rabbinate to confirm these conversions and stipulates that the conversion cannot be repealed.
In the explanation to the bill, the MKs wrote that the bill was necessary “to remove any doubt and to clear away the cloud of suspicion over the heads of those who have already converted or are studying now for conversion [in the army.]”
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