‘Avi Weiss not the only US Orthodox rabbi rejected by Israel’s rabbinate’

Critics see a growing trend in Israeli chief rabbinate to question legitimacy of overseas rabbis, and warn of divisive repercussions

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 wedding (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a wedding (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

True story: Two young women entered the Jerusalem municipal rabbinate within a month of each other seeking to begin the process of registering for their upcoming weddings. The first, Liat, had attended Jewish day school, belonged to a Jewish youth group, and brought in her parents’ ketuba, or ritual marriage contract, from a wedding that had been performed by an Orthodox rabbi in the United States.

The second, Ahuva, didn’t grow up in a religiously observant home, had a patch-work Jewish education and little documentation proving her Jewishness. But she was able to produce a letter written by an Israeli rabbi who knew her long-lost cousins from an ultra-Orthodox settlement outside of Jerusalem stating she shared the same yichus (lineage) as that family, and was therefore Jewish.

With a healthy boost of Vitamin P — a euphemism for the Hebrew “protekzia,” also described as “it’s not what you know, but who you know” — Ahuva sailed through the registration process. Liat, meanwhile, spent months jumping through hoops in an effort to produce documentation proving her Jewishness and bachelorhood.

That was ten years ago. Recently things have gotten a lot worse for Jews from abroad who wish to be married through the Israeli rabbinate.

This October, in a widely publicized case, the Israeli rabbinate rejected the halachic authority of prominent New York Rabbi Avi Weiss when a couple from his congregation who had made aliyah sought to be married in Israel.

Rabbi Avi Weiss speaking at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School on 19 November 2007. (photo credit: Drew Kaplan, CC-BY, via wikipedia)
Rabbi Avi Weiss speaking at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School on 19 November 2007. (photo credit: Drew Kaplan, CC-BY, via wikipedia)

A third party was handling the couple’s case with the rabbinate and succeeded in finding an alternative route to vouch for their Jewishness, enabling them to marry. Neither the couple nor Weiss were notified of the incident until several months later.

ITIM, an Israeli nonprofit that helps Jews, mostly immigrants, navigate the country’s religious bureaucracy, deals with such tough cases.

This isn’t the first (nor is it likely to be the last) time ITIM has heard of the Israeli rabbinate’s refusal to accept testimony from American Orthodox rabbis. According to the group’s director, Rabbi Seth Farber, who has helped 750 immigrant couples wed in the past six years, there have been six additional cases of rejected testimony from Orthodox rabbis since October. In all instances solutions were found and the weddings held without delay.

“This story is not just about Rabbi Avi Weiss,” says Farber, though Weiss and his congregation are certainly victims.

Head of the non-profit religious-Zionist organization Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah that represents Weiss in Israel, also believes “Rabbi Avi Weiss is just a symptom of the problem.”

In a letter released this week, the rabbinate’s legal adviser wrote that Weiss’s testimony was dismissed because complaints had reached the Israeli rabbinate of his lax “halachic commitment.” Weiss is the famous founder of Open Orthodoxy’s Yeshivat Chovevei Hatorah, is involved with the new Yeshivat Maharat program for women, and has controversially ordained women in the past.

“If the rabbinate would say Weiss’s testimony was excluded because he is doing a, b, or c, then okay, but everything is hidden and there are no criteria,” says Shetah.

A lawyer for the organization, Assaf Benmelch, adds, “This is a scandal. The rabbinate is legally hurting him, without telling him and without [granting him] a hearing. Even to take away a driver’s license there is a hearing.”

Farber says ITIM identified this trend a year ago, when he began noticing the threshold of religious observance demanded of overseas rabbis going up considerably, he says. He cites two reasons for the change: “the objective factor:” there is no central body of Orthodoxy in America; and the “subjective” one: growing distrust of the American Jewish community within the ranks of the Israeli rabbinate.

Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau (left) and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attend a meeting of the Rabbinate Council in Jerusalem on November 04, 2013. (photo credit: Flash90)
Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau (left) and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attend a meeting of the Rabbinate Council in Jerusalem on November 04, 2013. (photo credit: Flash90)

“We’ve reached a point of critical mass, like in the case of conversion in 2006, where the rabbinate is saying, ‘We’re going to assume everybody is not ok,'” says Farber.

Since the Weiss scandal broke there have been whispers of a “blacklist” of US rabbis in the Israeli rabbinate.

And, according to Farber, there is now a list of “kosher” rabbis, started about two and a half years ago by mid-level rabbinate bureaucrats with little understanding of American Jewry. The officials had gone through the rabbinate’s files for the past 20 years and compiled a list of all the American rabbis the rabbinate had worked with.

Farber stresses this list is “as capricious as it comes,” and not binding, but is nevertheless used as a basis of acceptability in the rabbinate today. Weiss should have appeared on such a list, and probably was, says Farber, until factional politics intervened.

“The rabbinate is a public institution and can’t continue operating like a shtetl, on the basis of who you know.”

Students at the controversial Maharat religious training program. (photo credit: Chavie Lieber/Times of Israel)
Students at the controversial Maharat religious training program. (photo credit: Chavie Lieber/Times of Israel)

But in a letter to MK Elazar Stern this week, the rabbinate wrote it is familiar with the different streams of Judaism in the US, and the lack of regulation in who is called “Orthodox.” Stating that it is not enough to rely on a rabbi’s personal testimony for an assessment of his religious observance, the rabbinate letter asks, “How can we suggest criteria for rabbis who are themselves elected without criteria?”

Farber is not the only Orthodox voice calling for greater transparency and the publicizing of the Israeli rabbinate’s criteria for accepting testimony from overseas rabbis.

Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah is working towards a democratization of religious services in Israel and a separation of religion and politics. The group still sees the state acting as a regulating body for religious services, but would enable Israeli Jewish communities to choose their own rabbis, rather than be forced to accept government-appointed rabbis in communities and neighborhoods throughout the country.

In Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah’s model, “all the denominations can play on our field. We want to open up religious services and put as many players as possible in there, from Israel and the world.”

In practice, the group’s proposal would see non-Orthodox movements and representatives from the Diaspora weighing in on personal status and life-cycle issues such as conversion and marriage.

Today, however, there is neither transparency nor inclusion. The rabbinate’s role as the sole arbiter of Jewish life-cycle events gives it an almost papal status in the lives of many Israelis.

The religiously observant world has become used to insults being hurled at Reform or Conservative Jews, says Benmelech. Now, he says, the rabbinate is insulting all Modern Orthodox in Israel and the Diaspora.

“Today it is Avi Weiss, tomorrow it could be any rabbi. Every rabbi who hears this story should be shocked and speak his mind,” says Benmelech.

Though the Shulhan Aruch states any Jew who affirms he is Jewish should be believed unless there is reason to doubt him, the practice in Israel has been to get additional confirmation to remove all doubt, says Farber. “According to halacha, we can trust” people beyond the narrow circles of “Orthodox rabbis of a certain ideological posture.”

Even 25 years ago, he says, no one would have questioned a rabbi’s testimony.

“Right now the rabbinate is exporting its isolationist postures to the Jewish world at large, and that has to be curtailed, because it’s not just bad for the rabbinate, it’s bad for the Jewish people and Israel,” he warns.

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