The Netanya Rabbinical Court recently rejected a request by a woman to have her conversion recognized, even though it had been conducted by the Bnei Brak Rabbinical Court of Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, which is considered one of the most respected rabbinical courts in the ultra-Orthodox world.
This was an extraordinary decision, since state rabbinical courts usually approve the rulings and conversions of Haredi rabbinical courts automatically. But the Netanya panel, headed by Rabbi Shlomo Shapira, declared that Haredi rabbinical courts have no intrinsic advantage and that conversions by the state rabbinical courts are preferred.
The ruling, which was issued on May 14 and is being reported here for the first time, did not formally invalidate the woman’s conversion. Instead the panel indicated that the Haredi court had made an error: it had relied on forged documents as evidence that the woman was probably Jewish and allowed her to make do with what is known in Judaic law as giyur l’humra – a quick and lenient conversion, performed as a stringency on the off chance that she wasn’t actually Jewish.
The Bnei Brak court, known as “Badatz” Karelitz, is considered one of the most prestigious and reliable rabbinical courts in the world, with Haredi Jews here and abroad coming before it to adjudicate a variety of issues, including financial disputes, wills, divorces and conversions.
The story began when the woman, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, asked the Netanya Rabbinical Court to recognize her as Jewish. Among other documents, she presented to the court what she claimed was the birth certificate of her maternal grandmother. Suspicious, the rabbinical court judges sent the document to the police, which determined that it was forged. The rabbinical court thus rejected her petition.
The woman then went to Rabbi Karelitz’s private rabbinical court in Bnei Brak with the same documents, and asked that her Judaism be recognized, without telling those rabbis anything about the Netanya panel’s rejection of her request. The Karelitz court seemed partially convinced, but nonetheless ordered her to undergo the short conversion process just to be certain. As a result, the court seemingly removed all doubts about her Jewishness.
The woman, armed with the giyur l’humra certificate from the Karelitz court, went back to Netanya and asked it to affirm her Jewishness, so that she could marry a Jew. But the Jew happened to be a kohen (of Jewish priestly lineage ). Because Jewish law prohibits a kohen from marrying a convert, religious councils in Israel won’t register such couples. The woman, claiming that the Karelitz court had essentially ruled that she was a Jew from birth, demanded that the marriage be registered.
Not only did the Netanya Rabbinical Court refuse, but after a lengthy debate, it decided that it would challenge the decision of the other rabbinic court, something Halacha generally frowns upon. The Netanya judges said that the Karelitz court had been “mistaken about the facts,” and there is no choice but investigate it, particularly when the issue is as serious as conversion, and when it was clear the Karelitz court had been misled.
The Netanya Rabbinical Court ruling also addressed the general question of whether the state rabbinical apparatus should accept the conversions of private rabbinical courts, and stated unequivocally that compared to the state rabbinic courts, private courts are inferior.
“Some of these [private courts] are meticulous with the demands of Jewish law, some are less so and some are not careful at all,” the presiding judge, Shapira, wrote. “Anyone who wants to truly convert and have his conversion valid by law, will convert in those courts that are reliable and authorized.”