Top court backs rabbis who revoked conversion over secular lifestyle

Israeli justices decide rabbis had the right to cancel Yonit Erez’s conversion two years after she became Jewish

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Illustrative photo of a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath (Mayyim Hayyim / JTA)
Illustrative photo of a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath (Mayyim Hayyim / JTA)

In a case that illustrates what might be termed Israel’s unique theocratic democracy, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday against a motion from lawyers representing Yonit Erez, whose conversion to Judaism in 2000 was revoked by Israel’s rabbinical courts. The rabbis took the radical step after concluding that Erez had misled them in promising to lead an Orthodox life.

In the petition, Justice Neal Hendel was asked whether the rabbinical court had the authority and jurisdiction to cancel Erez’s conversion two years after it was approved by the same rabbinical court system. The motion was heard by Hendel, who was joined by Deputy President of the Supreme Court Miriam Naor and Judge Esther Hayut.

Erez was represented by lawyers from the Center for Women’s Justice, including Susan Weiss, who, like Hendel, immigrated to Israel from the United States. The rabbinical court was represented by state’s attorney Roi Shweka and Rabbi Shimon Yaakobi.

In his decision Hendel wrote: “Just as the civil court has the inalienable authority to reverse — in extremely rare cases — a final judgment, so too does the special religious conversion court. For otherwise, we would allow for judgments that are flawed from their inception to exist eternally.”

According to Hebrew news website News1, the conversion court decided to revoke Erez’s conversion based on the fact that she completely changed her lifestyle shortly after her conversion, with no remnants of observing the religious commandments (mitzvot) she agreed to uphold.

Observing religious commandments is imperative in Orthodox Jewish conversions, the only religious stream whose conversions are recognized by the State of Israel.

From Erez’s seemingly secular lifestyle, the conversion court concluded that her original statement agreeing to maintain a religious lifestyle was a deception, and that even a priori, she had no intention of doing so.

In the decision released Thursday, Judge Naor agreed with Hendel, but emphasized that there should be no assumptions that this judgment is a precedent for cancellations of other conversions; rather, it relates only to those obtained through deceit. Judge Hayut concurred.

In the short time since the judgment came out, one expert reacted with shock and bafflement to the original religious court’s decision to revoke the conversion.

According to Chuck Davidson, a modern Orthodox rabbi and social activist on what he calls “the conversion crisis in Israel,” it is very clear in rabbinic literature that there is almost no instance in which a conversion can be revoked.

“From the Middle Ages onwards, the greatest of the rabbis wrote explicitly that even if immediately after the conversion the convert goes off to worship idols, the person is still considered Jewish,” said Davidson, who has published extensively on this subject.

Davidson, who does not know the specifics of the case, said, “Unless there was payment or bribery, if reversal is based on non-observance, there is zero basis for overturning it. If the conversion was kosher with a kosher beit din [religious court] then it is impossible to reverse.”

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