Ask the Rabbi: Can a judicial court nullify a conversion?

Rabbi Avraham Sherman's nullification of an Israeli rabbinate conversion has stirred up controversy.

Rivlin meets rabbis 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Knesset spokesman)
Rivlin meets rabbis 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Knesset spokesman)
Over the past few years, conversion became embroiled in a new controversy after a senior rabbinic court led by Rabbi Avraham Sherman nullified a conversion performed by a different court of the Israeli rabbinate, further calling into question thousands of conversions performed in the context of the Israeli army and other special conversion courses established by the state and overseen by Rabbi Haim Druckman. While various lawsuits, Supreme Court rulings and agreements with Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar have partially neutralized that decision, it raised larger questions regarding conversion standards and the power to nullify another court’s conversion.
Unlike a country club whose board can revoke the rights of membership, no legislative body exists which can declare a convert non-Jewish at whim once he has properly undergone the conversion process. The current imbroglio stems from various definitions regarding what it means to “properly undergo a conversion” and the potential consequences of a conversion performed under non-ideal circumstances.
One particularly sensitive situation is the Orthodox community’s refusal to recognize non-Orthodox conversions because it believes those movements do not heed basic theological and legal axioms. To help alleviate this sensitive polemical tinderbox, the Neeman Commission established conversion schools comprised of teachers from the various streams of Judaism, even as the formal court remained exclusively Orthodox. This process, however, has achieved limited support and success.
Matters have become particularly complex regarding conversions done under Orthodox purview but with disputed standards. The Talmud states that one should not accept a convert for the sake of marriage or when the Jewish people enjoy superior political or economic standing, as in the times of kings David and Solomon, since they might simply seek to enjoy the material benefits of citizenship. For this reason, the Cutheans were rejected as Jews since they attempted to join the Jewish people for political gain while concomitantly remaining idol worshipers (II Kings 17:33). Commentators questioned how Persians joined the Jewish people once Mordecai and Esther gained the upper hand against Haman (Esther 8:17), with some asserting that these Persians never formally converted.
The talmudic sages debate what happens if such a conversion takes place under these non-ideal circumstances. While Rabbi Nehemiah deems their conversion invalid; the rabbinic majority concludes that after the fact, the conversion remains valid. Elsewhere the Talmud asserts that even if the convert begins to regularly sin, he remains a Jew and is treated like other sinful Jews. On this basis, Maimonides rules that Samson and King Solomon were still married to their convert wives even as it was clear that they had strayed from the observant path.
Nonetheless, it appears that those who presented themselves to the judicial court under false pretenses can have their conversion nullified because of fraud. In the 1970s, for example, Rabbi Bezalel Zolti invalidated a conversion after the original judicial court discovered that the converts were missionaries seeking to infiltrate into Israel under the Law of Return in order to spread Christianity. More recently, Rabbi Yisrael Rozen, then head of Israel’s special conversion courts, nullified a conversion after the Interior Ministry discovered that the convert had throughout and after the conversion process been romantically linked to a gentile.
The most controversial conversion nullification took place in 1972. Against the previous rulings of several judicial courts, then-IDF chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren nullified the (undocumented) conversion of a distinctly non-observant Polish man that had allegedly taken place 30 years earlier in order to declare his wife to have been legally unmarried when she married her “second” husband. This ruling was celebrated by many politicians because it allowed her children to marry without the stigma of being mamzerim (born of a relationship that is considered illicit according to Halacha) and partially led to Goren’s election as chief rabbi. Yet it was derided by many rabbinic scholars, including Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, as logically flawed and against all norms of protocol. As such, scholars from a wide ideological spectrum believe that at times a conversion may be nullified.
The recent controversy relates to the standards of conversion and who has the authority to determine them. Rabbi Sherman asserted that Israeli population registries must follow the ruling of leading haredi (ultra-Orthodox) decisors including rabbis Elyashiv and Eliezer Schach, who had declared that any conversion that did not entail full-fledged mitzva observance was meaningless. He further contended that his court had supervisory jurisdiction over all courts in the state’s system, and that in contemporary times all declarations of fidelity to Halacha remain subject to examination based on future observance.
This last declaration was sharply criticized by Rabbi Shlomo Dichovsky, who contended that we do not endlessly badger converts with examinations of their behavior after their formal conversion. Others further declared that the state’s conversion courts followed standards acceptable to many decisors while further promoting various Zionist interests. As such, this controversy quickly became a battle over control of the rabbinate and its vision for the future.
The author, online editor of Tradition, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel. [email protected]