The chief rabbinate of Israel was ordered to release its internal list of Diaspora rabbis deemed acceptable by the organization for purposes of proving Jewish identity.
At a court hearing on January 6, the rabbinate, the bureaucratic body under whose auspices Jewish lifecycle events such as marriage or conversion must legally be registered, was ordered to produce the list within a month and a half.
Without recognition from the rabbinate, Jews from abroad, including many converts, are blocked from access to lifecycle events, including burial in a Jewish cemetery.
In her decision, Judge Nava Ben-Or declared herself “shocked” by the apparent lack of transparency in this matter most central to everyday existence.
“This is a person’s life, we’re talking about very serious matters,” she said, describing a situation in which people wait indeterminately for the rabbinate to decide their fates, saying they hear nothing and are not being answered.
“It is a right to start a family,” Ben-Or said. “I am ashamed that in a functioning state this information cannot be provided. It is an unprecedented scandal. It is not Jewish, and inhumane.”
The release of information suit was brought against the rabbinate in October by Itim, an NGO headed by Rabbi Seth Farber which since 2002 has made it a mission to aid immigrants and Israelis with problematic Jewish status in navigating the religious bureaucracy.
“I am pleased that the court recognized both the ineptitude of the present administration as well as the significance of the issue at hand. I hope that the rabbinate will take the judge’s words to heart and begin to act in a transparent way in order to make Jewish life more normal in this country,” Farber told The Times of Israel on Thursday.
According to Itim, in the past two years alone the organization has petitioned the rabbinate six times to produce the list of rabbis whose testimonies are considered in determining which immigrants, or children of immigrants are considered Jewish according to Orthodox religious law (halacha).
Itim has requested the list due to what it calls opaque practices in the chief rabbinate’s registrar office. Manned by mid-level bureaucrat Rabbi Itamar Tubul, the sole employee has handled some 5,000 proof-of-Judaism letters and marriage requests from immigrants between 2013-2015.
The lawsuit is one of many against the rabbinate and other state religious authorities from Itim, as part of a strategic grassroots effort to erode the rabbinate’s monopoly.
The Israeli chief rabbinate is the sole provider of legal marriages for Israeli Jews. According to law based in pre-state protocols, it is illegal for Israeli Jews to marry outside of the rabbinate, an administrative body founded by the Ottoman Empire.
According to the Hiddush 2015 Israel Religion and State Index, the Israeli public supports de-monopolizing the rabbinate, most especially in regards to marriage. It found that in addition to the 70% of secular Jews and 67% of immigrants who would prefer to have a non-Orthodox wedding, some 37% said they would prefer an unsanctioned marriage in Israel, or to live as common law spouses.
However, although in recent years Israel has seen a growing trend of unauthorized halachic weddings, a 2013 law emphasized the possibility of a two-year jail sentence for both the couple standing under the chuppah, and the officiating rabbi.
There is no state authorized civil marriage in Israel, although common-law partnerships are recognized by the civil population registry. In the cases of mixed marriage (ie. Muslims with Jews), one party must officially convert to the other’s religion for an authorized ceremony.