Chief Rabbi Versus Chief Rabbi On Conversions
Michele Chabin • NY Jewish Week Israel Correspondent
Jerusalem — An apparent power struggle between members of Israel’s centrist Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox establishment has left thousands of Israeli converts in religious limbo.
Although the standoff is so far centered on Israel-based conversions, it could ultimately affect overseas conversions as well, according to some observers.
The disagreement — which cuts to the very heart of who is a Jew — pits Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the country’s Ashkenazi [sic] chief rabbi and the man officially in charge of conversions in Israel, against haredi, or fervently Orthodox rabbis, including, it appears, Sephardic [sic] Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger. [The rabbis' titles are reversed.]
Speaking at a Jerusalem-based rabbinical conference last week Metzger gave his wholehearted support to Rabbi Avraham Sherman, who has twice announced that thousands of Orthodox conversions approved by the government’s official Conversion Authority (and, by extension, Chief Rabbi Amar) are not kosher until proven otherwise.
Rabbi Sherman, the most influential judge on the Rabbinical High Court, has instructed religious authorities in local municipalities to scrutinize every conversion authorized by the Conversion Authority of the Prime Minister’s Office to either approve or deny a marriage certificate or burial in a Jewish cemetery, for example, on a case-by-case basis.
Just this week Rabbi Sherman annulled a woman’s conversion and ordered her to divorce her husband, who said his wife had never fully committed to an Orthodox lifestyle.
By invalidating the conversion, Rabbi Sherman also rendered the couple’s children not Jewish.
Despite the fact that local rabbinic officials must, by law, automatically accept the conversion certificates signed by Rabbi Chaim Druckman, the rabbi who formerly headed the Conversion Authority, some officials as well as local chief rabbis are blatantly defying these orders.
At the conference, which was dedicated to “Strengthening the Walls of Conversion,” Rabbi Metzger was videotaped calling Rabbi Sherman “an honest man, a God-fearing man whose ways are religious.” The chief rabbi also said Rabbi Sherman’s actions “against conversions that are not genuine is the right thing … at the right time and [in] the right generation.”
Rabbi Sherman also told his fellow rabbis to beware of foreigners wishing to convert, asserting that “the vast majority of gentiles who want to convert do so out of self-interest.”
Rabbi Sherman, Metzger noted, is a follower of haredi Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, an ultra-conservative rabbi whose views on everything from fertility treatments to the shmitta year often put him on a collision course with the Chief Rabbinate as well as more moderate rabbis.
The controversy has resulted in calls for a clarification from the Chief Rabbinate and especially Rabbi Amar, who is, at least on paper, Rabbi Sherman’s boss.
“It is unacceptable that politicians and others seek to compromise the status of the conversions, seeking to harm their status and acceptability,” Knesset Member Sofa Landver, the minister of absorption, said before calling on Rabbi Amar to answer those “seeking to harm the converts.”
Knesset Member Uri Orbach of the Jewish Home party said Rabbi Metzger should be fired.
“The honor of the converts supersedes that of the chief rabbi, who does not recognize the conversions of his own system. If the chief rabbi believes his job is to obey and flatter his haredi sponsors, it would be best to find him employment outside of the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel.”
Rabbi Metzger sidestepped the issue by telling The Jewish Week, “conversion matters fall under the auspices of Rabbi Amar.” Rabbi Amar’s spokesman did not return several phone queries.
In a statement to journalists, Rabbi David Stav, co-founder of the national-religious Zohar Rabbinical Organization, which works with rabbinical courts to help new immigrants authenticate their Jewish roots, said it is “inconceivable that the chief rabbi of Israel can be speaking in front of a privately run conference and expressing complete distrust in the system of judges that he is meant to be heading.”
A Conversion Authority spokesman asserted that the conversion certificates issued by the Conversion Authority “of the Prime Minister’s Office” are “valid and recognized by the Chief Rabbinate and government offices.” The spokesman then provided a phone number for those encountering difficulties.
Rabbi Seth Farber, founder of ITIM, which helps converts and others overcome hurdles related to personal status, said his organization has received several calls in recent days from worried Conversion Authority “graduates.”
“Until now a conversion certificate from the State of Israel was an unassailable certification of one’s Jewishness. Now the chief rabbi has intimated that no convert can feel secure in his or her Jewishness,” Farber said, explaining the disquiet.
While acknowledging that there have always been “a minority” of marriage registrars who have refused to automatically recognize a convert’s Jewishness in cities like Petach Tikva and Rehovot, “now this radical trend has been given momentum and legitimacy,” Farber said.
Farber warned that even those American converts whose Jewishness is supposed to be automatically recognized in Israel through an agreement between the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and the Chief Rabbinate could ultimately find themselves persona non grata in the eyes of Israeli clerks.
“If a marriage registrar does not feel beholden to recognize an Orthodox conversion certificate issued by the government of Israel, there is no reason to think they will not scrutinize a conversion performed overseas, even if it has approval from the chief rabbi.”
Shaney Gilbert, who converted via the Conversion Authority in 2003, said she is hurt by comments made by Rabbis Sherman and Metzger.
“It’s lashon hora,” she said, using the Hebrew term for gossip. “Rabbi Sherman is attacking me, slandering me, without any justification.”
Gilbert, whose father is Jewish, maintains a strictly Orthodox lifestyle. She gravitated to Judaism, she said, as a teenager.
“When I converted I didn’t have a boyfriend and I certainly didn’t have any financial motivation for converting. I was already a citizen under the Law of Return and frankly would have had a better life financially in America. I converted simply because I wanted to be Jewish.”
Gilbert said she is putting her faith in God to resolve the conversion crisis once and for all.
“I truly believe that what Rabbi Sherman is saying is not true and that his policy will not stand,” Gilbert said.