High Court of Justice says rabbinical court can annul conversions retroactively

Ruling could re-open the wounds of the conversion crisis in 2008.

Gavel [Illustrative] (photo credit: INIMAGE)
Gavel [Illustrative]
(photo credit: INIMAGE)
The High Court of Justice ruled on Thursday that a rabbinical court was within its rights to retroactively annul a conversion because the convert in question had deceived the court when she said she undertook to observe Jewish law.
The ruling could reopen the wounds of the conversion crisis in 2008 when the Supreme Rabbinical Court upheld a decision of a lower court that invalidated a woman’s conversion because it said she never intended to observe Jewish law when she converted. The ruling endangered the 40,000 conversions conducted under the state-conversion system.
On Thursday, Deputy President of the Supreme Court Justice Miriam Naor, with Justices Esther Hayut and Neal Hendel ruled on a case concerning a woman born in Romania to a Christian family who converted in Israel in the state conversion system. Two years later, the rabbinical court annulled her conversion because, according to the court, doubts had been raised as to the sincerity of the convert when she converted.
She petitioned the High Court saying the rabbinical court did not have the authority to retroactively invalidate her conversion and that its decision violated the principles of natural justice.
The state attorney said the contrary saying the rabbinical court did have the authority to annul the conversion and was justified in doing so.
In its ruling on Thursday, the court said the woman had in fact “changed her lifestyle dramatically a very short while after completing her conversion, so that practically speaking nothing at all was left of her observance of Jewish law that the petitioner accepted upon herself.”
The justices said that when the rabbinical court reached its factual conclusion that its original decision to approve the conversion was made on a fraudulent basis, there was no place for the High Court to revoke the authority of the rabbinical court to annul its own decision.
Naor emphasized howevever that “our ruling is only regarding a conversion that was obtained deceitfully. One cannot take from our ruling that the rabbinical court for conversion has the authority annul conversions in other cases.”
The Hiddush religious freedom lobbying group criticized the decision saying it opened up “a Pandora’s box,” the results of which could be calamitous.
Hiddush director and Reform rabbi Uri Regev said it would require “extreme detachment from reality not to know that the majority of converts from the immigrant community from the former Soviet Union do this [conversion] without true intent to accept Torah and commandments upon themselves and are forced to promise false promises that they will observe the religious commandments.”
Regev said that following rabbis serving on the conversion courts “who are working under heavy pressure from the haredim, will be able to retroactively annul conversions with the blessing of the High Court of Justice.”
Director of the ITIM religious services advisory body said the ruling was a setback but it would not affect many people.
“The decision associates the conversion courts with the civil courts, a comparison that is specious at best,” Seth Farber said.
“The major flaw in the decision is that it says that someones behavior following a conversion is grounds for determining ones sincerity, but it does not give a timeline for evaluating behavior. In theory, a court could undermine a conversion years later. This is against normative practice in Jewish law and Jewish tradition. ITIM will work in the coming Knesset to make sure that converts rights are fully protected.”