Rabbinical Court headquarters
Rabbinical Court headquarters Israel News photo: (Flash 90)

Counsel for the Rabbinical Court System, Rabbi Atty. Shimon Yaakobi, determined in a formal legal opinion that rabbinical courts have the authority to

A fictitious conversion in the context of a Jewish marriage is equivalent to a fictitious marriage license.

rule on the validity of conversions to Judaism, provided that the conversion issue is raised in the context of marriage or divorce proceedings. In Israel, marriage and divorce matters fall under the jurisdiction of the relevant religious courts.

In the 120-page legal opinion, provided at the behest of the Attorney General's Office, Rabbi Atty. Yaakobi argued that a conversion under Jewish law cannot be considered valid if the convert was insincere in accepting religious observance at the time of conversion. An integral and necessary component of conversion, he explained, is accepting the laws of Judaism. Because the rabbinical courts are only authorized to adjudicate family law matters related to couples who are both Jewish, Yaakobi continued, judging the validity of a conversion by one of the sides is a necessary condition to establish the court's jurisdiction. If a non-Jew is found to have made fraudulent declarations at the time of conversion regarding his or her acceptance of Judaism, then he or she remains a non-Jew and hence is not subject to the rabbinical courts.

Under Jewish law, as Yaakobi detailed, fraudulent conversions can be declared in the case of a convert who returns to his or her former lifestyle or rejects Judaic law shortly after the conversion. In such a case, even when the convert was deemed sincere at the time of conversion by a rabbinical conversion court, the legal status of the individual becomes, at best, questionable. Therefore, the person may be required to obtain a formal Jewish bill of divorce on the one hand, but may not be allowed to marry a Jew on the other.

As Yaakobi further points out, the conversion courts in Israel are administrative panels, not legal ones, consisting of rabbis who are not necessarily rabbinical court judges. The task of the conversion courts is to determine a candidate's readiness to convert and to perform the conversion. The subsequent certificate issued by the converting authority, even if it is a rabbinical court in another country, does not automatically confer a legal "assumption of Jewishness", according to Rabbi Atty. Yaakobi, nor does it block further inquiry regarding the convert's good intentions. The certificate is evidence of conversion, but does not establish the authenticity of the conversion itself. Furthermore, as the rabbinical courts are judicial entities under Israeli law, they therefore have the authority to determine the legal validity of administrative documents such as conversion certificates.

Under Jewish law, Yaakobi said, a rabbi is obligated to make his own determination for any issue brought before him based on the facts as he sees them at the time.

In civil law, as well, Yaakobi pointed out, there are cases in which a court can even reverse a legal decision when it is discovered that the decision was issued under false pretenses. Civil courts even have the right to ignore legally binding documents such as marriage licenses if the judges are convinced that the marriage was a fictitious one. In Rabbi Atty. Yaakobi's view, a fictitious conversion in the context of a Jewish marriage is equivalent to a fictitious marriage license abroad in order to obtain automatic Israeli citizenship.

Rabbi Atty. Yaakobi was asked to provide his legal opinion in the context of a case currently before the High Court of Justice in which the justices were asked to overturn a determination of the Rabbinical High Court regarding the conversion of a Danish-Israeli involved in a divorce case. During the couple's initial appearance before a lower rabbinical court, the

Allowances for "easier" mass conversions is a slippery slope, he said.

woman was asked if she observed Jewish law, to which she answered that she did not.

A bill of divorce was nonetheless arranged, according to Jewish law, but a divorce certificate was not issued. The court said that, as the woman is only doubtfully Jewish, there was technically no need for rabbinical divorce proceedings, but, by the same token, the woman and her children cannot marry Jews under Jewish law. The rabbinical court of appeals refused to reverse the lower court's decision and thus the case arrived on the docket of the High Court of Justice.

Rabbi Atty. Yaakobi warned that care must be taken to assure sincere conversions. Allowances for "easier" mass conversions is a slippery slope, he said, leading to a "split status" between rabbinical courts, civil courts and conversion courts, which has a far greater impact: a split within the Jewish people.