Rabbinic court rules son of famed philosopher 'has never been Jewish'
Last update - 15:57 01/03/2009
By Cnaan Liphshiz
Tags: Jewish World
Jerusalem's rabbinic court erred and overstepped its authority last year when it retroactively declared that the converted, Canadian-Israeli son of prominent Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim was in fact a non-Jew, the court's ombudsman ruled earlier this month.
Eliezer Goldberg, the former Supreme Court justice and State Comptroller who monitors rabbinic court activity, rejected the ruling made in August 2008 by Jerusalem rabbinic judge Yissachar Dov Hagar regarding Yossi Fackenheim, the 30-year-old son of the late Holocaust survivor, esteemed theologian and Reform rabbi.
Hagar - who was reviewing Yossi Fackenheim's divorce from his former wife Iris, unexpectedly declared that he "was not and had never been Jewish," despite the man's ultra-Orthodox conversion in Canada at the age of two. Therefore, the judge concluded, there was no need for a formal get, or divorce document.
The couple married in 2001 in Jerusalem in a ceremony conducted by Israel's Chief Rabbinate, which years earlier had approved the conversion he underwent with his mother in Toronto prior to the family immigrating to Israel in 1984.
In his complaint to Goldberg, Yossi Fackenheim - who has no children - said a simple divorce had "unnecessarily turned into a humiliating expulsion" from the Jewish people. "The judge also made derogatory remarks about my profession," Fackenheim - an actor studying for his master's degree at London University - told Anglo File. "I came completely unprepared and didn't think for one minute I'd walk out with a document expelling me from my people."
Rabbi Hagar nullified the conversion after learning that Fackenheim did not go to synagogue often or observe Halacha, the Jewish religious code. The rabbinic court administration later defended the ruling as justified.
In his letter of rebuke, obtained by Anglo File, Golderg wrote: "These are offensive and rude statements that do not befit the status of a rabbinic judge or a judicial institution of the state." He added he would have taken disciplinary action against the judge in question if it were not for the man's imminent retirement.
"Goldberg's rebuke is a positive development," Fackenheim said, "but I'm not sure how much it will help me in my struggle with the religious establishment to have that judge's ruling reversed."
In parallel to lodging the complaint against Hagar with Goldberg, Fackenheim is also fighting to have Hagar's retroactive decision overturned with the help of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal arm of the Reform movement in Israel, whose leadership defines the case as both "crucial and alarming" (see box).
Einat Horowitz, the attorney whom the action center has appointed to handle the case, said that "rabbinic judges may consider Goldberg's rebuke, but are not bound to it." She added she would file a petition to the High Court of Justice on Fackenheim's behalf within a few weeks. "Yossi Fackenheim's status is not clear right now," she said. "He has one document from a rabbinic judge saying he's not Jewish. If he wishes to get married again, no rabbi will be able to wed him."
After the Holocaust, Yossi Fackenheim's father, Emil Fackenheim, who served in Canada as a Reform rabbi, spoke of the "614th commandment," a concept alleging that "to despair of the God of Israel is to continue Adolf Hitler's work."
Professor Fackenheim, who died in 2003, believed Jews had an obligation to observe their faith and frustrate Hitler's goal of eliminating Judaism.
Signs of a system 'in chaos'
The Yossi Fackenheim case is unique in two aspects, according to U.S.-born Rabbi Seth Farber, head of ITIM, a non-profit organization that helps Israelis navigate the Chief Rabbinate bureaucracy. "We often handle cases in which the Israeli Rabbinate's conversions tribunal fails to recognize conversions performed abroad," he explained. "This case is different and unprecedented in that the rabbinic court nullified a conversion the court itself had already approved."
The second aspect, according to Farber, is the judge's questioning Fackenheim's Jewishness without being asked, contrary to past practice. "This case, which began as a simple divorce, highlights the current chaos within the rabbinic court system on the issue of conversions," he concluded.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the leader of the U.S. Jewish Reform movement, said Fackenheim's case "has sent shock waves in the Reform community." David Ellenson, the president of Hebrew Union College, recalled the retroactive nullification last year of thousands of conversions performed by the state-sponsored Conversion Authority headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman, "That Jewish identity can be revoked," he said, "means an erosion of the certainty that each of us can have in our faith."
Hod Hasharon's chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Reuven Hiller - who is an outspoken critic of the Reform movement - also voiced harsh opposition to retroactive nullification of conversions. "I wholeheartedly object to such rulings," he said. "This is an extreme view that has no place in Judaism, and its recent emergence is very regrettable. In the past, the hard-line Haredi establishment fought against the nullifying conversions at all price. Now we see a complete reversal which shouldn't be allowed to happen."