…the Canadian Jewish News is weeks behind on this story.
Here is the Canadian Jewish News report:
By PAUL LUNGEN, Staff Reporter
Thursday, 05 February 2009
The son of a prominent philosopher who urged Jews to retain their identity in order to deny Hitler a posthumous victory has had his own Jewish status denied by a Jerusalem rabbinic court.
In a case that was expected to merely finalize a divorce between Yossi Fackenheim and his wife, Iris, a dayan (judge) ruled that Fackenheim’s conversion as an infant 29 years ago, performed by an Orthodox rabbinic court in Toronto, no longer had any effect. Fackenheim, the son of renowned scholar Emil Fackenheim, said the judge came to that conclusion after questioning him about his level of observance and his record of attending synagogue.
The decision not only affects his status as a Jew, it also brings into question the Jewish status of many other Orthodox converts, Fackenheim, 29, stated.
“I have friends who live in fear that their conversion may be revoked,” he said on the phone from London, where he is studying for a master’s degree.
Fackenheim, who has lived in Israel since childhood, said he is appealing the decision on a number of fronts. He has complained about the presiding judge’s findings to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, as well as to a rabbinic court ombudsman and to Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan, director of Israel’s rabbinical courts. The Chief Rabbinate has deferred to the ombudsman, who is conducting a review of the decision. Fackenheim has also retained the Israel Religious Action Center for legal assistance.
The irony of the situation is not lost on Fackenheim, whose father, Emil, a Holocaust survivor and a Reform rabbi, posited one of the most influential concepts of post-Holocaust Jewry. Known as the 614th commandment, it stated, in part: deny Hitler a posthumous victory by remaining Jewish.
Adding to the irony was that his father “went to the Orthodox so we would not have problems [about Jewish status] down the line. Now Orthodox converts have the rug pulled out from under them,” he stated.
Fackenheim is outraged at the ruling and at the presiding judge of the Jerusalem Rabbinic Court, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Hagar.
“He stepped all over my identity and my father’s memory,” he said. “I think he’d be furious. I think he’d be livid. You know the 614th mitzvah. This is the exact opposite of that. It’s the antithesis of everything he ever worked for. It’s dividing the Jewish people.”
During the hearing, Rabbi Hagar questioned Fackenheim closely when he saw his profile, which indicated he had been born of a non-Jewish mother but had been converted at eight days of age by the Toronto beit din (rabbinic court). He asked whether Fackenheim kept Shabbat, ate kosher food, observed all the mitzvot (commandments) and attended synagogue regularly. He asked when Fackenheim had stopped living an Orthodox lifestyle (it occurred when his mother was stricken by Alzheimer’s when he was around 12 to14, though he did have a bar mitzvah at 13). Based on the answers, Rabbi Hagar concluded Fackenheim had renounced his faith and there was no need for a divorce since Halachah does not recognize marriage between Jews and non-Jews.
At the request of Fackenheim’s ex-wife and to ensure she faced no future questions about her marital status, Rabbi Hagar agreed to issue a get (divorce decree), but with a document attached that stated the rabbinic court did not recognize Fackenheim as a Jew. The divorce decree refers to Fackenheim as “‘Yosef who goes by the name Yossi the convert,’ which is a hop, skip and a jump from Yossi the goy,” Fackenheim said.
The decision surprised Rabbi Reuven Tradburks, a member of the conversion committee of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), an umbrella organization representing 1,000 Orthodox rabbis in North America. He questioned Rabbi Hagar’s re-examination of Fackenheim’s childhood conversion.
“To look at personal behaviour, to look at the validity of a conversion 29 years ago is highly objectionable,” Rabbi Tradburks said.
Current behaviour should have no impact of the validity of a conversion. “Conversion can only be valid or invalid at the moment it is confirmed,” he said.
If the convert sincerely accepts Judaism at the time of the conversion and later completely abandons the faith the conversion remains intact, Rabbi Tradburks, president of the Toronto Vaad Harabonim (Orthodox council), added.
Rabbi Martin Lockshin, a professor at York University, said the decision “definitely shows the arbitrary and dangerous nature of the haredi-dominated beit din system in Israel… This type of action is unprecedented in Jewish history and must be decried.”
Rabbi Lockshin suggested the impact of the rabbinic court’s decision could be far-reaching. “All of the converts converted in Toronto 29 years ago and 39 years ago and 49 years ago and all the descendants of the females among those converts now have to worry that some haredi judge will declare them to be gentiles. This is unconscionable and unthinkable”
Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, said legitimate conversions should be beyond challenge. “What matters is whether the conversion was done properly – including the reasonable conclusion that the convert is undertaking halachic observance. If such a conclusion is reasonably reached by the beit din, the convert is Jewish, even if he or she lapses at a later time. If, however, it seems the convert never had any intention to be observant, the conversion is subject to being undermined.
“It indicates that the single standard of Halachah – which is the sole true unifier of the Jewish people – is being taken seriously by Israel’s rabbinate.”
Rabbi Tradburks said Rabbi Hagar’s decision should have no impact on current and future conversions conducted under Orthodox auspices in North America. The RCA agreed about two years ago to tighten the requirements for conversion and adopt a universal set of criteria that would conform to standards agreeable to the Israeli rabbinate. It has also developed a cadre of rabbinic authorities who are delegated with approving all Orthodox conversions in North America.
However, two years ago, when the Toronto Beit Din was considering adopting the new standards, Rabbi Tradburks told The CJN, “I don’t believe there will be changes for child conversions that have already been done.”
Rabbi Hagar’s ruling likely points to the tension between the Israeli rabbinate and North American rabbis over acceptable standards for conversion. “The Israeli rabbinate did not accept what was the norm in North American for many years,” Rabbi Tradburks said.
Until North American batei din changed their standards two years ago to match Israeli practices – requiring converts be Torah-observant Jews – they operated under the influence of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who argued that a day school education and a traditional Jewish home would be influential enough to ensure a converted child practises Judaism, even if the parents were not particularly observant.
“The Israeli rabbinate never really accepted that,” Rabbi Tradburks stated. “That could be what Rabbi Hagar is challenging.”
Complicating the issue was a decision last year by an Israeli rabbinic court that called into question the legitimacy of thousands of Israeli conversions conducted under one of Israel’s most respected Orthodox halachic authorities, Rabbi Chaim Druckman.
Despite the high regard for Rabbi Druckman, a haredi rabbinic appeal court last year annulled the marriage of an Ashdod man whose wife was converted by Rabbi Druckman 15 years earlier. The appeal court ruled the conversion was flawed and insincere and that consequently, the couple were never married.
Rabbi Lockshin said the Fackenheim decision should worry the Toronto beit din, which operates under the Vaad Harabonim. “While it is true that the Vaad Harabonim of Toronto has been seriously ‘haredized’ over the last 29 years, they should realize that even their own semi-haredi conversions are also subject to disqualification from Israeli haredi judges. This is not an idle concern.
“Modern Orthodox Jews and modern Orthodox rabbinical organizations must not cede to Israeli haredim,” Rabbi Lockshin continued. “They must strengthen the hands of modern Orthodox forces in Israel and encourage them to set up alternate rabbinical systems that will allow Israelis to circumvent the haredi-dominated system.”