Religious affairs: God only knows where this will lead

Conversion bombshell underscores haredi-religious Zionist divide.

haim druckman 88 (photo credit: )
haim druckman 88
(photo credit: )
A high-ranking source in the rabbinical courts said this week that the recent controversy over conversions, pitting rabbi against rabbi, has devastated the rabbinical establishment. "I don't know if we will ever fully recover from this fiasco," he said. Last week, Rabbi Avraham Sherman, a judge on the High Rabbinical Court and the most important rabbinical adjudicator in the country, dropped a bomb which is still rocking the rabbinic world. In a 50-page legal decision, which is part talmudic dialectic, part emotional diatribe, Sherman blasted a rabbinic peer and in the process undermined the Chief Rabbinate's official Conversion Authority. His attack cast doubt on the Jewishness of thousands of converts converted over the years by the Conversion Authority. Most of the converts affected by Sherman's claims are Soviet immigrants who came here under the Law of Return but who are not considered Jewish according to Halacha. Sherman accused Rabbi Haim Druckman, a leading religious-Zionist leader and former Knesset member who heads the Conversion Authority, of forging documents and allowing political ideology to taint his legal judgment. But Sherman's most severe accusation was apostasy. He said that Druckman intentionally converted gentiles, even though he knew they would never adhere to Halacha, willfully transgressing the God's will. This was a blatantly evil act, no matter how you looked at it, argued Sherman. If Druckman seriously believed that the gentiles he was converting were being transformed into full-fledged Jews, then he was committing the sin of placing a stumbling block before the blind. The instant these converts emerged from the ritual bath, God would expect them to eat only kosher food, keep Shabbat and adhere to a multitude of other commandments. If these converts would not adhere to the Orthodox law, claimed Sherman - who said Druckman knew they would not - these converts would receive heavenly punishment like any other wayward Jew. On the other hand, if Druckman's conversions were not valid, as Sherman claimed they weren't, Druckman was permitting gentiles to intermarry with kosher Jews, a colossal assimilation disaster that would destroy the purity of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. Either way, Sherman said, Druckman was unfit to preside as a judge. And since a panel of three kosher rabbinic judges was an integral and necessary part of the conversion process, any gentile whose conversion was overseen by Druckman had never really converted. Overnight, thousands of converts, many of whom had been living for years under the impression that they were part of the Jewish people, were being rejected by Sherman. If Sherman was right, the implications from a halachic point of view were far-reaching: If these "converts" were married to Jews, sexual relations were forbidden; if a woman had converted and given birth after the conversion, her children were not considered Jewish; if the convert was single and wished to get married, he or she could not do so in Israel, where marriages are governed by the Chief Rabbinate. SHANEY GILBERT, a convert to Judaism who might be affected by the High Rabbinical Court's decision, was preparing for Shabbat when she first heard about Sherman's decision. "My table was set; my Shabbat candles were ready; and I had some time before sundown," recalled Gilbert. "So I decided to check the news on the Internet. I could not believe what I saw. I started shaking all over. I could not believe that I had been through so much, and now this court could come along years after the fact and take away my Jewish status retroactively. Just like that, without any investigation into who I am." Gilbert said that the decision was a clear violation of the biblical commandment to love the convert and not to wrong him. "On the day of their judgment, those judges will be accountable for every tear that I and thousands of other converts shed," added Gilbert. Druckman told The Jerusalem Post this week that Sherman's attack on him was "motivated by hatred, evilness and animosity." "How can a judge condemn a man without giving him the chance to answer the charges leveled against him?" he asked. Druckman related that even before the publication of Sherman's decision, which was signed by two additional High Rabbinical Court judges, Sherman had distributed the decision at a conference that took place three months ago. "After that I refused to appear before Sherman. It was obvious that he had already made his decision about me." Druckman declined to address the specific accusations made by Sherman against him. Sherman, who was contacted by the Post for his response, said that he was prevented from commenting on the matter. Rabbinical courts spokeswoman Efrat Urbach confirmed this. However, Sherman received backing from the haredi rabbinic establishment. For instance, Rabbi Avraham Dov Levine, who heads an independent rabbinical court based in Jerusalem that specializes in determining Jewish genealogical trees (yihus) in the haredi community for couples before marriage, claimed in an interview this week on Radio Kol Hai that the vast majority of converts converted by Druckman's authority did not adhere to Halacha after the conversion. Therefore, this was proof the conversions were not valid. Sherman's attack also received the backing of the haredi daily, Yated Ne'eman, which has been spearheading a campaign against the Conversion Authority for years. Haredi rabbis are fundamentally opposed to the creation of a separate rabbinical body that specializes in making conversions as easy and user-friendly as possible. Rather, these rabbis believe that conversions should not be encouraged, but should be performed only in extraordinary situations, when the prospective convert is sincerely interested in embracing all Orthodox strictures. But many secular Jewish leaders and religious Zionist rabbis see mass conversions as the best solution to the threat of intermarriage posed by the presence of about 300,000 non-Jewish Soviet immigrants and their offspring. These immigrants are fully integrated in public schools, the IDF, the universities and the labor force. Even secular Jewish leaders who do not accept Orthodox strictures in their day-to-day lives are strongly convinced of the danger to Jewish continuity posed by these gentiles if they are allowed to meet Jewish Israelis, fall in love and get married without being converted. Religious-Zionist rabbis believe it is possible to encourage conversion among non-Jewish immigrants while maintaining the highest halachic standards. These rabbis have to juggle two competing goals: converting as many non-Jews as possible to prevent intermarriage, while uncompromisingly adhering to the demands of Jewish law which dictate that a prospective convert must be willing to embrace Orthodoxy. Haredim, in contrast, are convinced that conversions can never be the solution to the threat of intermarriage, because for the vast majority of gentiles, adopting a strictly Orthodox lifestyle is simply not realistic. The only guarantee against intermarriage, argue the haredim, is maintaining strict separation from secular Israeli society. Sherman's decision, though more aggressive in its wording, was just another salvo in the ongoing argument over conversions between haredim and religious Zionists. But it also defined more clearly the delineation between the warring camps, and it placed Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar squarely on the side of the religious Zionists. Although Sherman's rabbinic invective focused mainly on Druckman and his former deputy, Rabbi Yosef Avior, the attack was also indirectly aimed at Amar, who is the overriding halachic decisor supervising conversions performed by the Conversion Authority. If, as Sherman claimed, thousands of converts were passing through the Conversion Authority in a non-kosher way, without any intention of adhering to Halacha, Amar could not escape culpability. Immediately after the publication of Sherman's decision, Amar released a terse press release saying that he backed Druckman, and that all conversions performed by Druckman or by the authority would be recognized. However, so far, Amar has refrained from addressing Sherman's specific accusations, one of which is that Druckman signed off on documents attesting to the fact that he was present at conversions when in reality he was not. As a result, dozens of city rabbis who have read Sherman's claims against Druckman are hesitant to register converts for marriage. City rabbis, who as part of their job also serve as marriage registrars in their respective cities, are responsible for determining the Jewishness of couples who come before them with a request to marry. Several rabbis told the Post this week that if a convert came to them to register for marriage they would have to consult with Amar first. A near anarchic situation has been created in which one arm of the official, state-funded rabbinate, the High Rabbinical Court, is attacking another, the Conversion Authority - while the chief rabbi, who is the ultimate authority of both, is torn in half, and has yet to issue a definitive stand on the issue. More importantly, thousands of Israelis who converted to Judaism no longer know whether or not they are Jewish. The answer, obviously, depends on whom you ask.