High Court to decide if it will hear petition over recognition of independent rabbinical courts

Religious rights group petitions court on behalf of women whose conversions was not recognized by Interior Ministry.

Rabbinical Court  in Jerusalem 150 (photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem 150
(photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
The High Court of Justice is due to decide next week whether it will hold a hearing on a petition calling for formal recognition of the authority of independent Orthodox rabbinical courts.
The petition’s basis is a case in which bureaucratic contradictions and obstructions led to a man being registered as married to a spouse who, bureaucratically speaking, does not exist.
The case was filed in February by ITIM, a religious rights advocacy group, which has been critical of the way in which Orthodox converts and conversion candidates are treated by the state.
ITIM has petitioned the High Court on behalf of two women – and their spouses – who converted in the independent Orthodox rabbinical courts of two of the most highly regarded Torah scholars of the generation, but could nevertheless not get their conversions recognized by the Interior Ministry.
One of these couples is Avraham and Tikva, not their real names.
Avraham is now happily married to Tikva who converted in the independent rabbinical court of Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz, a renowned Torah scholar and prolific author of numerous works on the Talmud and Jewish thought.
Tikva originally sought to convert at the beginning of 2008 and began a conversion process under the auspices of the late Rabbi Yosef Azran, then Sephardi chief rabbi of Rishon Lezion.
After Azran’s death in 2010, Tikva’s case was referred to the Exception’s Committee of the state Conversion Authority – under the authority of the Prime Minister’s Office, which deals with all non-Israeli nationals seeking to convert in Israel.
The Exceptions Committee is notorious for its bureaucratic shortcomings, the extremely high number of applicants it rejects and the lack of clear operating criteria. It was singled out for criticism by the state comptroller in a report released in May, for its rejectionist attitude towards those seeking to covert.
Tikva’s request was repeatedly held up by the Exceptions Committee and she finally despaired of being able to convert to Judaism through this body.
She instead turned to Steinzaltz’s independent court and successfully converted, receiving her certificate on August 15, 2010.
At the beginning of 2011, Avraham and Tikva traveled to the town of Medzhybizh in western Ukraine, once the residence of the founder of Hassidism, known as the Baal Shem Tov – a place the couple connect to spiritually – in order to get married. They were married in an Orthodox ceremony by an Orthodox rabbi of a religious town in Israel.
Having wed, the couple sought to have their status as a Jewish married couple recognized by the state.
On February 14, 2012, the state rabbinical court of Jerusalem recognized both Tikva’s conversion and her marriage to Avraham and instructed the Interior Ministry to register the couple as married in the population records. The ministry refused.
It did recognize Avraham as married, because of the declaration of the state rabbinical court, and registered him as such, but did not recognize Tikva’s conversion or her married status for the purposes of granting her citizenship, to which she is entitled, both for being Jewish and as the spouse of an Israeli citizen.
In its petition to the High Court, ITIM demanded an interim injunction be handed down to force the Interior Ministry to explain why Tikva’s conversion was not accepted by it, although her conversion was in accordance with Jewish law and recognized by the state rabbinical court system.
ITIM is also demanding an explanation as to why the ministry does not establish criteria for the recognition of conversions performed by non-state rabbinical courts.
“Our main goal is to open the doors of Orthodox conversion in Israel to all those who genuinely seek to join the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM.
“When I first met this couple, I was flabbergasted. How could Israel be denying Jewish rights to a family so obviously committed to Jewish peoplehood and Jewish tradition?” Farber said that his organization was “seeking to break the rabbinic establishment’s monopoly on ‘Who is a Jew’.”
The organization says it is currently dealing with around 20 similar cases and believes there are between 300 to 400 couples facing the same kind of problems.
In 2011, approximately 400 people turned to independent Orthodox rabbinical courts to convert because of difficulties they encountered with the Interior Ministry and the State Conversion Authority.
“Israel cannot survive as a Jewish and democratic state if bureaucrats ad clerks are given the power to determine the destiny of the Jewish people,” he continued.
“The great irony is that the couples we are representing got the rabbinical courts in Israel to recognize their conversions. In every country in the world they would be seen as Jews. Only in Israel are they denied this right.”
Because it was anxious for the High Court of Justice not to issue a ruling on the matter, the the ministry, via the Attorney General’s Office, offered that Tikva could undergo a simple ceremony, immediately, in order to gain recognition as a convert by the state.
Tikva accepted, but the wife from the second couple named in the petition who was offered the same deal has not yet decided whether or not to accept it.