Fresh Skirmish in who is a Jew Wars
Jerusalem — In a slap in the face to diaspora rabbis, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has rejected the word of one of American Jewry’s most well-known Orthodox rabbis, who in a letter was attesting to the Jewishness and single status of an American Jewish couple wishing to marry in Israel, The Jewish Week has learned.
The rejection of the letter written by Rabbi Avi Weiss, longtime spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, appears to be the Chief Rabbinate’s latest attempt to be the sole arbiter of “Who is a Jew” — not only in Israel but in the diaspora as well.
Several years ago the Chief Rabbinate secretly decided it would no longer automatically recognize conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis in the diaspora. That decision led to a standoff with the Orthodox establishment in the U.S., which ultimately relented to the rabbinate’s demands to establish regional conversion courts and to severely limit the number of rabbis who can perform conversions.
Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM, an organization that helps people deal with Israeli government bureaucracy related to marriage and other issues, said Rabbi Weiss’ letter was one of “about 10” rejected letters from Orthodox rabbis that have come across his desk in the past six months. He could not estimate how many other rejections the rabbinate has issued.
ITIM, which runs a service for couples wishing to register for marriage in Israel, filed the couple’s paperwork with the local Jerusalem rabbinical court before the start of the summer, Rabbi Farber said. The letter, required by every couple wishing to marry in Israel, has been a mandatory part of the application for decades.
Rabbi Farber recalled that the local rabbinical court “sent us back a letter saying it had checked with the national rabbinate office and that Rabbi Weiss is not registered for the purposes of certifying Jewishness and single status for people who are born Jewish.”
This despite the fact that the rabbinate had, in the past, accepted “countless” such letters from Rabbi Weiss, one of the most visible rabbis in Modern Orthodox Jewry today, according to the Riverdale rabbi.
When ITIM realized that the rabbinate wouldn’t budge, it scrambled to find someone the rabbinate would recognize to certify the couple in time for their wedding day.
When The Jewish Week asked the Chief Rabbinate on what grounds Rabbi Weiss’ letter had been rejected, Ziv Maor, a rabbinate spokesman, consulted with Rabbi Itamar Tubul, who for the past few months, since the installation of the new chief rabbis, has been the secretary in charge of personal status matters and people converted abroad.
Within a couple of hours Rabbi Maor called back and said, “We checked and found that three rabbis from Riverdale” were recently approved for the purposes of marriage registration “and that Weiss was not one of them.” If Rabbi Weiss’ letter was rejected, Rabbi Maor continued, “it means he’s been checked and his document was not found valid.”
Rabbi Maor said he did not know how Tubul determined that Rabbi Weiss and the other rabbis could not be trusted to vouch for a person’s Jewishness.
Rabbi Maor said that “basically, what is being checked is the beit din [rabbinical court] that issues the certificates” attesting to marriage and marital status. “Even if you are born in Israel you still have to prove you are a Jew, even if you are haredi.”
The spokesman insisted the rabbinate “does not maintain a black list” of rabbis. “We check every case separately, checking again and again,” even if a letter from the same rabbi was approved earlier the same day.”
In fact, Rabbi Farber faxed The Jewish Week part of an “approved rabbis list” he was able to obtain.
Rabbi Farber added that the rabbinate has never before relied exclusively on diaspora rabbinical courts to certify someone’s Jewishness and that “halachic sources are exceptionally clear that no beit din is required for certification. Throughout Jewish history,” he said, “local community rabbis have always been trusted to certify the status of their community members.”
Rabbi Farber believes that the new chief rabbis’ transition teams “have taken it upon themselves” to make the demands more stringent, and that the Orthodox Jewish community overseas “must put pressure on Israel’s religious establishment to have their rabbis recognized.”
If the Orthodox world does not fight the new measures, “I’m concerned that this will cause a greater fissure between the religious establishment of Israel and diaspora Jewish communities,” Rabbi Farber warned.
Having spent considerable time in the Chief Rabbinate offices in recent months, Rabbi Farber noted, “my overwhelming sense is that the list of Orthodox rabbis who are recognized is shrinking considerably, particularly regarding newly ordained rabbis,” even if they graduated from Yeshiva University and/or serve in major synagogues.
“The rabbinate is heading in the direction where they will no longer accept any community rabbi and will instead insist on rabbinical courts certifying someone’s Jewishness, a situation that is completely unmanageable in North America,” Rabbi Farber said.
“ITIM can continue fighting one case at a time, but ultimately we need to change the system,” he said. “It is inexcusable that “Who is a Jew” is being decided in this way.”
ITIM is considering legal measures in order to make the issue of Jewishness certification more transparent. Before the close of the last Knesset session, the organization put a position paper on the table of the Knesset calling upon the rabbinate to go public with its list of accepted rabbis.
Speaking from New York, Rabbi Weiss said he had agreed to go public “not to bring pressure so that my letters will be accepted. It is rather to raise a voice against a policy that affects many rabbis” while the rabbinate “is making decisions based on politics: talking to different people who whisper in their ear something about the rabbi in question. This policy brings shame to the Chief Rabbinate.”
Rabbi Weiss said that although he has no specific information, “my hunch is that it’s political, having to do with the institutions I’m involved with.” Those include Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the liberal Orthodox rabbinical school he founded and, until recently, led; Yeshivat Maharat, a seminary for Modern Orthodox women; and the International Rabbinical Fellowship, a Modern Orthodox rabbinical association founded as a liberal alternative to the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA).
Rabbi Weiss remains a controversial figure in American Orthodox circles. His decision to ordain women as “rabbas” was condemned by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA).
Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the RCA, said, “We are aware of this from time to time and using our
relationship with the Rabbinate to resolve specific issues and also the general problem.”
When necessary, the RCA asks the Beit Din of America to assist, he said.
Rabbi Dratch said that rejections also occurred under the leadership of the former Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar.
Although the RCA has been able to resolve “almost all” of the Rabbinate’s queries, Rabbi Dratch said, the lack of clear rabbinate guidelines on “who is accepted, whether they require a letter from a beit din or the word of an individual rabbi” is
causing unnecessary stress for the couples and certifying rabbis.
Rabbi Dratch said the Rabbinate “is certainly entitled to ask questions and verify information to its satisfaction,” but that it must be done in an organized and compassionate way, based on specific criteria.
He said the RCA and rabbinate “are having conversations” about the fact that the Rabbinate does not automatically accept the authority of RCA-affiliated rabbis.
Other prominent Orthodox rabbis whose letters have been rejected “were equally outraged and surprised,” Farber said, but declined to be interviewed.
“The issue is not me,” Rabbi Weiss insisted. “The issue is primarily the wonderful people with whom I have contact.” The couples, he said, “have to seek letters from others rather than their own rabbi.”
Rabbi Weiss said the Chief Rabbinate’s rejection of “respected” Orthodox leaders “is deeply insulting to these rabbis and even more importantly, to their own communities.”
Diaspora Jews “frankly don’t’ know why the State of Israel allows the Chief Rabbinate to undermine the credentials of religious Zionist rabbis who are among the staunchest and most vocal supporters of the State of Israel,” Rabbi Weiss said.