Religion & Beliefs

Haredi’s Most Wanted: The 5 Worst Offenders

Israel has no civil marriage or divorce, which means that every Jewish Israeli is at the mercy of the state’s rabbinic courts. During the past decade, ultra-Orthodox rabbis have wrested control of those state rabbinic courts from their more moderate … Read More

By / June 19, 2008

Israel has no civil marriage or divorce, which means that every Jewish Israeli is at the mercy of the state’s rabbinic courts. During the past decade, ultra-Orthodox rabbis have wrested control of those state rabbinic courts from their more moderate Religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox peers. Now securely in control, they have begun to use this new power to de-legitimize those who came before them. What weapon are they using to do this? Conversion to Judaism. If a rabbi’s conversions are not recognized by the state, he is stripped of the authority needed to function and is essentially no longer a rabbi.

Last month, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox rabbinic judges voided hundreds, perhaps thousands of Religious Zionist conversions, creating a nightmare scenario where converts woke up one day—often years after their conversions—to find that they and their children had been ruled “goyyim.” The impact has not stopped at the Mediterranean. Converts in Europe, the Americas, and Australia now find their Jewishness under question. Even converts who have lived strictly Orthodox lives now must consider undergoing a second conversion procedure administered by ultra-Orthodox rabbis to clear up the “doubt”—“doubt” created by the ultra-Orthodox themselves. Many other converts, now less religious then at their conversion, or whose lives are not up to ultra-Orthodox standards, have nowhere to turn.

What follows is a brief list of the most involved ultra-Orthodox rabbis behind this mayhem—a rogues gallery, if you will, of ultra-Orthodox malfeasance.

Name: Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv
Age: 98
Last Seen: Attacking Religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox rabbis

The leader (“Gadol Hador”) of non-hasidic ultra-Orthodox Jews (haredim). A life-long Jerusalemite, Elyashiv has waged a long, personal, and bitter war against Religious Zionism and the Chief Rabbinate. In 2003, Elyashiv propelled Rabbi Yona Metzger to the position of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, in a backroom deal arguably worthy of the worst days of Chicago politics. Metzger’s ethical problems and his lack of advanced rabbinical training have considerably weakened the Chief Rabbinate, giving Elyashiv near-complete control of the state-funded Rabbinate’s infrastructure. Elyashiv uses that control to attack the Religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox rabbis while simultaneously filling state-funded rabbinic positions with his cronies. All the ultra-Orthodox rabbis behind the conversion crisis call Elyashiv their leader.

Name: Rabbi Yona Metzger
Age: 55
Last Seen: Dealing with allegations of sexual harassment and charges of graft and ethics violations.

As the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, it's not Metzger’s active presence in the conversion crisis that matters—it is his absence. A Religious Zionist who has moved to the right, Metzger—who was put in office by Rabbi Elyashiv—lacks the advanced rabbinic qualifications necessary to serve as Chief Rabbi. He is not trained as a dayan (religious judge), and therefore cannot hold the position of President of Israel’s rabbinic court system—a key part of the job description of chief rabbi—or sit as a judge on a religious court. While he was the sitting rabbi of North Tel Aviv in the 1990s, Metzger was credibly accused of extortion. In a judicial proceeding convened by the Chief Rabbinate to deal with those allegations, Metzger agreed not to run for Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv as part of plea deal. At the time of his election as Chief Rabbi in 2003, Metzger was also under the cloud of several sexual harassment allegations made against him – allegations made by both by females and males. When Metzger took office, I asked Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum, Jerusalem Post columnist and haredi spokesperson, if Elyashiv knew about Metzger’s legal and ethical problems before backing him for Chief Rabbi. If Elyashiv did know, I asked, why did Elyashiv back Metzger anyway? Rosenblum checked with Elyashiv’s right hand, Rabbi Yosef Efrati. The answer he came back with was strikingly unabashed: Elyashiv knew about the extortion and the alleged sexual harassment before the election, but he backed Metzger anyway. Why? “To restore the glory to the Chief Rabbinate,” Efrati told Rosenblum. Metzger spent much of his first years in office dealing with those sexual harassment allegations, and with new charges of graft and ethics violations raised after he took illegal gifts from at least one business. Metzger is now supposed to succeed Sefardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar as President of the High Rabbinic Court. (Amar held the position for the first half of the duo’s ten year term of office.) But because Metzger lacks the necessary qualifications, Amar continues to serve as High Rabbinic Court president while Metzger presses his case in Israel’s civil courts. Metzger’s plight has weakened the Chief Rabbinate while at the same time increasing the influence of Rabbi Elyashiv, whose cronies now dominate state rabbinic courts.

Name: Rabbi Avraham Sherman
Age: ?
Last Seen: Voiding the conversions of thousands of converts to Judaism

A former Israeli Army rabbi who once spent a sabbatical at Yeshiva University in New York, Sherman moved to the religious right and is now a follower of Rabbi Elyashiv and a Judge on the High Rabbinic Court. Sherman wrote the High Rabbinic Court decision voiding the conversions of thousands of people who converted to Judaism by under Rabbi Haim Druckman, a leading Religious Zionist rabbi. One of the legal maneuvers used to void said conversions was based on a technicality—Druckman had signed state documents stating conversions were done in his presence, and that the three judges, including Druckman, “sat together as one.” That was true for almost every conversion he performed—except for a handful performed for converts in Europe. Along with his duties as head of Israel’s Conversion Courts, Druckman served as a Member of Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Due to unexpected Knesset business, occasionally Druckman was unable to leave the country to oversee a planned conversion. To deal with problem and avoid disappointing these converts, Druckman relied on three European rabbis to perform the actual conversions, then signed the state document to allow the convert to be registered as a Jew in Israel. But the document still contained the same wording, and Druckman was not actually physically present when the conversions were performed. Druckman relied on a halakhic (Jewish legal) principle with Biblical precedent allowing a person to appoint an agent or agents to function on his behalf. (Think of Abraham sending Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac.) The Chief Rabbis at the time, Mordechai Eliyahu and Avraham Kahana-Shapira, ruled those conversions valid, but asked Druckman to stop using proxies. Druckman agreed. Flash forward almost ten years: Rabbi Sherman reopened the these “forged” conversion documents and based some of his ruling voiding Druckman’s conversions on this issue. Yet Sherman himself apparently did what Druckman did—except when Sherman did it, the mandatory three judges did not “sit together as one.” They couldn’t, because there were only two of them. Sherman, the third judge on that panel, was not in the court at the time actual testimony was heard in a divorce case. And Sherman did not appoint a proxy. Yet Sherman ruled on that case anyway, and signed a state document regarding it, to boot. Sherman also ruled that people with serious hearing and/or speech impairments cannot convert to Judaism and that any conversion performed for these people in the past are invalid. In Sherman’s eyes, conversion depends on acceptance of all the commandments. Since the “deaf” and “dumb” are considered exempt from observing commandments, they have no way to convert. Sherman believes that no matter how much a “deaf” or “dumb” person loves God and the Jewish people, he must forever remain an outsider. Any conversion performed for him will not change his spiritual status as a “goy.” Reacting to Sherman’s treatment of Druckman and the belittling, obnoxious language Sherman used in his decision, Israel’s official ombudsman for judges and court procedures recently recommended Sherman’s dismissal.

Name: Rabbi Nochum Eisenstein
Age: ?
Last Seen: Pushing for a ban on Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist conversions

Eisenstein is a close follower of Rabbi Elyashiv and a leading figure in the push to ban Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist conversions. The rabbi of the Ma’alot Dafna neighborhood of Jerusalem, he also heads the Vaad HaRabbonim Haolami LeInyonei Giyur, an international haredi organization whose goal is to make stricter conversion standards worldwide. Eisenstein is a long-time enemy of Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism, and is also an early backer of the Monsey, New York-based Eternal Jewish Family (EJF) and its founder, Rabbi Leib Tropper. Speaking at an EJF convention late last year, Rabbi Eisenstein said anyone believing the universe to be older than 5768 years is a heretic who is unfit to serve on a beit din (religious court). This would make any conversions done by that rabbi or beit din invalid. Eisenstein’s source for this ruling? Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.

Name: Rabbi Leib Tropper
Age: 57 or 58
Last Seen: Revoking his own conversions.

A follower of Elyashiv, Tropper heads EJF, which seeks to convert non-Jewish spouses of mixed marriages to ultra-Orthodox Judaism—while at the same time marginalizing Orthodox rabbis who don’t march to Rabbi Elyashiv’s tune. Originally a North American organization, EJF is slated to have a couples seminar this November in Israel. Tropper told potential converts already in the conversion process with Modern Orthodox rabbis that they should move their conversions to EJF to “ensure” acceptance by Israel’s state rabbinate.

Like Elyashiv’s Israeli acolytes, Tropper has also revoked at least one conversion. Tropper (together with another haredi rabbi, Leib Pinter, who is now on trial for his alleged role in a $44 million mortgage fraud) is said to have spearheaded the 2004 ban against the Zoo Rabbi, Natan Slifkin, and his books. Slifkin’s “crimes”? Following the lead of medieval rabbis and modern savants like Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Slifkin wrote that the scientific and medical opinions of ancient Jewish sages may have been in error. He also attempted to show that the opening chapters of Genesis can jibe with a universe far older than the 5768 years Orthodoxy commonly holds. Both positions are frequently held by Modern Orthodox rabbis, and were—before the ban—a mainstay of the ultra-Orthodox kiruv movement. (The kiruv movement is, in effect, made up of ultra-Orthodox missionaries out to “convert” Jews to ultra-Orthodoxy. Its main players internationally are Aish HaTorah and Ohr Somayach. Chabad functions in a similar fashion, but has been opposed to anything but a literal understanding of Genesis from the get go.) The ban against Slifkin was signed by dozens of ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Who was the lead signatory? The Gadol Hador, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.