Amar calms converts after decision

Despite Chief Rabbi's comments, rabbinic sources say damage to conversions' legitimacy already done.

rabbi amar 88 (photo credit: )
rabbi amar 88
(photo credit: )
Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar attempted on Sunday to calm thousands of converts whose Jewishness has been cast in doubt by a High Rabbinic Court decision, assuring them that their conversions would continue to be recognized by the rabbinic establishment. However, rabbinic sources said that despite Amar's declaration, the repercussions of the court's scathing indictment of a central figure in the conversion courts would continue to be felt. The High Rabbinical Court, the highest rabbinical authority in Israel, released a decision last week that accused State Conversion Authority Rabbi Haim Druckman of intentionally transgressing Jewish law, forging official rabbinic documents and lying. As a result of Druckman's alleged criminality, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of conversions performed by Druckman were totally illegitimate, the court ruled. According to Jewish law, the honesty and uprightness of the three rabbinical judges who conduct the conversion process are essential to the validity of the convert's transition from gentile to Jew. Rabbi Avraham Sherman, a highly respected halachic authority, headed the three-judge panel that issued the decision. Shaney Gilbert, a convert to Judaism who might be affected by the court's decision, said she was distraught by the callousness of the judges. "When I first heard about it I started shaking all over," said Gilbert, who leads a totally Orthodox lifestyle. "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 the decision was a clear violation of the biblical commandment to love the convert and not to wrong him or her. "On Judgment Day, those judges will be accountable for every tear that I and thousands of other converts shed," she said. If the High Rabbinical Court decision is upheld by the rabbinic establishment, people like Gilbert will not be recognized as Jews even if they have embraced an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle for years. The ramifications of the decision, if upheld, are far-reaching for converts like Gilbert: they will be unable to marry another Jew in Israel, where all marriages are governed by Jewish law. If they are already married, the marriage will not be binding. Also, the children of female converts will not be considered Jewish, since Jewishness is determined by matrilineal descent. Religious schools might expel these children; marriage registrars would refuse to register them for marriage; ritual circumcision would not be performed on their sons. Converts who converted under Druckman who wish to be recognized would have to repeat the process before an approved rabbinic conversion court. In a short written statement to the press, Amar said he was sorry about the controversy caused by the rabbinical court's decision. "The decision relates to one particular incident that has yet to be resolved. At any rate, no one has annulled the conversion of anyone. Rather, the court just criticized one of the panels of judges on the conversion court." An Amar spokesman said the chief rabbi stood behind Druckman and recognized his conversions as kosher. The spokesman also said the rabbinical court decision was published against Amar's express command. He hinted that disciplinary measures might be taken against Sherman and the two other judges who signed off on the decision - Hagai Izerer and Avraham Sheinfeld. Despite Amar's backing, however, rabbinic sources said the allegations leveled against Druckman were so severe that inevitably, fault would be found with Druckman's conversions by some rabbis. Rabbi Shaul Farber, head of ITIM, an organization that has helped hundreds of converts - including Gilbert - navigate the bureaucracies of the Israeli rabbinical establishment, said his organization planned to contact marriage registrars, religious schools and mohels [ritual circumcision performers] and other religious officials and try to convince them to ignore the high rabbinical court's decision. "Marriage registrars are not obligated to adhere to the decision," Farber said. "In parallel, we initiated a Knesset committee discussion to expose this legal outrage in which rabbinical judges who are government officials are scoffing at the decisions of the governmental bodies vested by the cabinet to perform conversions," he said. Immigrant Absorption Minister Ya'acov Edri said, "I'm saddened by the fact that the state of Israel, particularly the rabbinic establishment, has not internalized the importance of conversion to the State of Israel. As a traditional man, I am worried about the terrible obstacles being erected on the path to conversion. The Absorption Ministry, together with the Prime Minister's Office, will do everything necessary to enable conversion by the proper authorities of the State of Israel, he said. "I will not let this go. The Jewish people always went with the [more lenient school of] Beit Hillel. In Israel, Beit Shammai [said to be more strict] seems to be the stronger party. The rabbinate is necessary in the life of the state, but it has to be responsive to the will of the people. The people want religion and tradition, but not impossible decrees and extremism," Edri said. "I support dialogue for a solution along the 'golden mean,' so people don't have to resort to flying to Cyprus to get married." Haviv Rettig contributed to this report.