One issue which has really riveted Israeli society for some time but especially over the past few months has been the conversion process. I will first explain the specific incident which ignited this crisis and then expand upon its broader implications. To provide the factual background I will quote extensively from “A Responsum Regarding the Annulment of Conversions” that was written by Rabbi David Golinkin in June, 2008.
Question: At the beginning of May 2008, a panel of three dayyanim (judges) of the High Rabbinical Court of the Chief Rabbinate presided over by Rabbi Avraham Sherman published a ruling that all of the conversions performed by Rabbi Hayyim Druckman and Israel’s National Conversion Court since 1999 are retroactively annulled and that Rabbi Druckman and his fellow judges are דיינים פסולים dayyanim pesulim, disqualified judges. What were the halakhic grounds for this decision? Why would a rabbinic court in Israel which belongs to the Chief Rabbinate retroactively annul thousands of conversions performed by another rabbinic court which also belongs to the Chief Rabbinate?
This is the latest round in the “Who is a Jew?” controversy. In the past, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel maintained that Conservative and Reform converts are not Jewish. Now, חרדי Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbis within the Chief Rabbinate are claiming that converts converted by their Religious Zionist colleagues in the Chief Rabbinate’s own conversion courts are not Jewish.
In February 2007, “Sarah”, a Danish-born convert who converted in 1992, and her husband came to Rabbi Avraham Attia in Ashdod for an uncontested divorce. He was merely supposed to perform the divorce ceremony. Instead, he asked her a question or two about her level of observance. He then wrote a ruling which they only received in March 2007. Eight of the nine pages dealt with her conversion and called Rabbi Hayyim Druckman and his fellow dayyanim who had converted her אפיקורסים ופושעים apikorsim u’poshim (heretics and sinners). He ruled that since she is not fully observant, she is not Jewish; her conversion is retroactively annulled and she therefore does not need a גט get.
Sarah and her lawyers appealed this to the High Rabbinical Court. Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi and President of the High Rabbinical Court asked Rabbi Avraham Sherman, the אב בית דין Av Bet Din, and his two fellow judges not to rule on this issue. Nonetheless they did. They not only sided with Rabbi Attia in Ashdod, they went much further. They ruled that:
1. A convert who does not accept all the מצוות mitzvot (commandments) is not Jewish.
2. Rabbi Hayyim Druckman and Rabbi Yosef Avior, heads of the National Conversion Authority set up in 1995 are dayyanim pesulim, are disqualified from acting as judges.
3. They have also engaged in all sorts of fraudulent actions such as signing conversion certificates when they were not present at the conversion.
4. Therefore, all of the conversions performed by Rabbi Hayyim Druckman and his Bet Din since 1999 are retroactively annulled.
5. Henceforth, all marriage registrars in the State of Israel should not register any convert who does not look observant.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, who serves as a dayyan in one of the special conversion courts, prepared a list of 167 converts who, in his opinion, are not fully observant and are therefore פסולי חיתון p’suley hittun they cannot marry in the rabbinic court system.
In mid-May, the Prime Minister’s office fired Rabbi Druckman as head of the National Conversion Authority and he has not yet been replaced.
Approximately 300,000 out of 1,200,000 Russian immigrants who have made עליה aliyah under the Law of Return since 1990 are not halakhically Jewish. Through great effort, the Joint Institute of Jewish Studies set up after the Ne’eman Commission in 1998 and the National Conversion Authority have converted many thousands of Russian immigrants who studied for one to three years in very serious courses. Rabbi Sherman’s ruling retroactively annuls all these conversions.
In our two sessions, we can not examine all of the aspects of this ongoing dispute. What I would like to focus on is the question of the requirements for a convert. Everyone agrees that according to Jewish law the convert must immerse in a מקווה mikveh and I male must undergo circumcision. If he has already been circumcised, there must be הטפת דם ברית hatafat dam brit, taking of blood by prickling the tip of the penis. The dispute among the Rabbis has to do with the extent to which the potential convert must be observant of the mitzvot (commandments). Must the convert be fully observant at the time of conversion or must he have the intent or hope of becoming fully observant or is even that not required?
We will examine sources from the Talmud up until the present day.