Zealots in the Public Sphere

A recent decision by the rabbinic courts, putting at risk thousands of conversions to Judaism, raises some disturbing new questions about the place of religion in Israel

06druck (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
The latest ruling by the Supreme Rabbinic Court, which challenges the status of an Orthodox institution, goes beyond the perennial questioning of Reform and Conservative conversions. The Supreme Rabbinic Court, now dominated by non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox rabbis, not only upheld a lower court's decision that challenged the Jewishness of a woman who was converted 15 years ago by a state-authorized rabbinic court headed by the impeccably Orthodox and staunchly Zionist Rabbi Haim Druckman, it also raised doubts regarding all the conversions overseen by Rabbi Druckman since 1999. When the woman went to the Ashdod Rabbinic Court for an amicable divorce, the presiding judge noticed that she was a convert, and started inquiring, on his own initiative and to the woman's bewilderment, about her religious observance: Did she turn on lights on Shabbat? Did she observe the laws of family purity? - questions that have nothing to do with the writing of a get, the Jewish bill of divorce. The woman's answers did not satisfy the judge and though he completed the divorce ritual, instead of a divorce certificate, he issued a decision declaring her conversion effectively null and void. Since she was not really a Jew, he reasoned, her marriage had never been valid under Jewish law and she did not need a get. When she appealed, the tribunal of Rabbis Sherman, Izerer and Sheinfeld not only confirmed the lower court's decision, but went one giant step further by questioning the validity of all of Druckman's conversions - and thus, in one fell swoop, putting the religious status of thousands of Israeli Jews in limbo The three judges also issued a "warning" to the effect that a conversion certificate issued by any rabbinic court in the world, "as big, as renowned, and as official as that court might be," does not authorize marriage registrars "to include such person in the community of Jewish people for the purposes of marriage." A marriage registrar should not routinely register a convert to marry, they ruled, "should there be any doubt as to whether the bearer of the conversion certificate took upon himself the full and true observance of the commandments of the Torah, a matter that it is possible to discern from the appearance of the petitioner … or from the words that he exchanges in passing with the registrar, or from the social or familial framework that [the petitioner] comes from or lives in…" Fearing for the "community of the Jewish people," the three rabbis take zealous guard over the integrity of the dress, customs, conduct of those outsiders who may want to join. Indeed, it is the coherence of that community and its traditions, not any sense of national responsibility or social goals of the state, that concerns them. They point out that rabbis in the state-authorized conversion courts see conversion as commanded by the Torah, as promoting the gathering of exiles, as a national responsibility, as a way to help stop assimilation and to return Jews to the embrace of Judaism. "All this notwithstanding," the three judges say in their decision, "these national and social goals cannot be taken into consideration if behind them there is no real change in [the convert's] observances or connection to God, His Torah, or His commandments." In other words, for Rabbis Sherman, Izerer and Sheinfeld, religion is separate from the Zionist agenda; has implications and obligations that are far deeper than the symbolic; and has nothing whatsoever to do with the public good of the nation-state of Israel. For them, synagogue precedes the state, the goals of one trumping the other without any equivocation or nuance. Having been nursed on the primacy of freedom of conscience, I respect the rabbis' decision to set their own personal definitions and standards of "Who is a Jew?" I may even concede that their definitions and standards meet those set by the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community. And I understand their need to protect the fortress and boundaries of ultra-Orthodox Jewry. It's even in the spirit of multicultural tolerance. The rabbis have every right to decide who they think their kids can marry or not. All this is fine, for them. But not for me. The rabbis are not an independent, private arbitration panel. They sit under the Seal of the State of Israel, which, incidentally, also pays their not insignificant salaries. They cannot casually dismiss the state-sanctioned, Orthodox conversions by Rabbi Druckman. Nor can they impose their standards of "Who is a Jew?" on all the rest of us Israelis, neither for the purposes of citizenship nor for setting the parameters for state-authorized conversion. For its rabbis, the ultra-Orthodox world is simple, clear, and has a well-defined dress code. For me, that world is much too narrow for comfort, and it certainly cannot serve as a working blueprint for public religion in the State of Israel. • Susan Weiss is Executive Director of the Center for Women's Justice, which has petitioned the High Court of Justice on behalf of the woman whose conversion was effectively annulled by the Supreme Rabbinic Court.