'Un-converting' Mrs. Sagal & Mrs. Lightman

Imagine that when you opened your newspaper this morning you read an astonishing story. You read that the Lord Chief Justice of England had written fo

mikve 298 (photo credit: )
mikve 298
(photo credit: )

Imagine that when you opened your newspaper this morning you read an astonishing story. You read that the Lord Chief Justice of England had written formally, though secretly, to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the US, asking that a case that had been decided by an American court should be transferred to the jurisdiction of the Lord Chief Justice so that it might be decided anew, and suggesting the form of words that the Chief Justice might use in this unique transfer of jurisdiction.

Imagine also that the individuals, domiciled in England, who were the subject of this "judicial review," knew nothing about the secret letter, and had indeed, been told that - on the contrary - no application would ever be made to the US.

If you can imagine these things, can you also imagine the political furor that would ensue in the US? Can you imagine how outraged the US Congress and American public opinion would be?

If you can imagine all these things, are you not as perplexed as I am at the silence of the Israeli authorities at the attempts being made by the British Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, to undermine the authority of Israeli rabbinical courts, which are after all part of the judicial system of the State of Israel?

The cases I am referring to involve two ordinary Jewish families in London - very ordinary save in one respect. Living in Mill Hill, within the great Anglo-Jewish "ghetto" of northwest London, are Mr. and Mrs. Roy Sagal and their three sons. A few miles away in Finchley live Mr. and Mrs. David Lightman, and their son and daughter. Ordinary Jewish couples trying to go about their daily lives and, significantly, trying to give a Jewish education to their children. What makes them out of the ordinary is that both Helen Sagal and Kate Lightman were born in England to non-Jewish parents, that both converted to Judaism, that the conversions were carried out by the official rabbinical authorities in Israel, and that neither of these conversions is recognized by the British chief rabbi.

This has meant that the eldest of the Sagal boys, Guy, has been refused entry to the famous Jews' Free School (also in northwest London), as has the younger of the Lightman children, Maya, even though her mother holds a senior teaching position at this school.

THE SAGAL case has had extensive coverage in the British media. Mrs. Sagal developed an intellectual interest in Judaism while studying law at Birmingham University. She began visiting Israel. The intellectual interest became a strong emotional attachment. She applied for conversion, and was converted under the auspices of the Lod Rabbinical Court. For good measure her conversion has subsequently been endorsed, in writing, by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar.

Following her conversion she met a former IDF officer, Roy Sagal; they were married huppa v'kiddushin (in accordance with Jewish law) in Tel Aviv. Mrs. Sagal holds dual British-Israeli nationality. But because she now no longer lives an Orthodox lifestyle the British chief rabbi has ruled that she was never sincere in her conversion, which he declines to recognize. Instead of recognizing her as a lapsed convert, he refuses to recognize her as a convert at all.

But the issues are more complicated than that. When I first interested myself in the case, and was shown all the documents the Sagals then had in their possession, I noticed several odd features of the exchanges they had had with officials of the chief rabbi's office. For instance, Sir Jonathan's assistant, Rabbi Dr. Julian Shindler, declined on his behalf to recognize Helen Sagal's conversion before he, or his boss, or any of his colleagues in Sir Jonathan's office, had ever met Helen Sagal, or had so much as one word of conversation with her.

A meeting was eventually arranged with Rabbi Menachem Gelley, one of Sir Jonathan's dayanim. Gelley acknowledged that Sagal's conversion had been endorsed personally by Amar, but (in an e-mail to Mrs. Sagal) declined absolutely to contact him to verify this endorsement.

In fact, however, Rabbi Gelley did contact Rabbi Amar by writing secretly to Amar's bureau chief, Rabbi Yigal Krispal, asking that the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem officially hand over to Sir Jonathan's Beit Din in London the authority to determine Sagal's Jewish identity, and also suggesting the form of words that the Rishon Lezion (the Sephardi chief rabbi) might use in transferring such jurisdiction. Fortunately, Krispal declined to take this bait, sending instead a suitably vague but polite response.

WE KNOW about this secret exchange because, under UK Data Protection legislation, we have compelled the Office of the Chief Rabbi in London to hand over to us the entire Sagal file. Material in the file has confirmed our suspicion that the Office of the Chief Rabbi never intended to recognize Sagal's conversion, did its best to get the conversion officially revoked in Israel, and then decided to act unilaterally when it became clear that such revocation was not on the cards.

THE LIGHTMAN case is somewhat different. Mrs. Lightman was converted by the Beit Din in Kiryat Gat. She subsequently married in an Orthodox ceremony in New York. But Mr. Lightman is a kohen. And the chief rabbi's office in London is arguing that because Mrs. Lightman - a convert - married a kohen, her original decision to convert must have been insincere.

This is a complete non sequitur.

Although Halacha frowns upon such marriages, they are in fact valid. It is the husband - the kohen - who must be punished (by flogging), not the wife or children.

In any case, the fact of the matter is that Lightman's conversion has not been revoked. Neither has that of Sagal. Sir Jonathan Sacks simply refuses to recognize them. And this non-recognition is - of course - a studied and deliberate insult aimed at the rabbinical authorities in the Jewish state.

The Sagals have been given no support whatever from the Israeli embassy in London, which is unwilling to talk about the case. From the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem there has been silence.


The writer, an academic, is the author and co-author of some 12 books, including Modern British Jewry. He writes irregularly for the Guardian and regularly for the Jewish Chronicle.