Diaspora rabbinical judges could have to take exams to get Chief Rabbinate’s OK
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Diaspora rabbinical judges could have to take exams to get Chief Rabbinate’s OK

State-run religious authority releases proposed guidelines for recognition of Orthodox rabbinical courts abroad; activists slam 'unprecedented power grab'

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau (center) and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (right) attend a meeting of the Rabbinate Council in Jerusalem in November 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau (center) and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (right) attend a meeting of the Rabbinate Council in Jerusalem in November 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate on Tuesday released its proposed criteria for the recognition of rabbinical courts abroad for the purposes of conversions to Judaism and divorce.

The preliminary terms for regulating the certification process were swiftly condemned by advocacy groups and experts, who argued that the state-run body was seeking consolidate its power over Jews worldwide, and that the new guidelines could leave would-be Jewish immigrants in legal limbo.

The draft criteria — which must still be brought to a final Chief Rabbinate Council vote, a date for which has yet to be set — would require judges in Diaspora rabbinical courts that have not previously been recognized by Israel’s religious authorities to undergo Chief Rabbinate exams on Jewish law.

It mandates that rabbinical courts seeking Israeli recognition of their conversions and divorce proceedings be Orthodox, permanent (as opposed to panels that convene only when cases arise), and recognized in their home countries.

The ultra-Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate has never recognized non-Orthodox rabbis or conversions, and in the past few years, it has questioned the credentials of a few of the leading liberal Orthodox rabbis as well.

No new rabbinical courts will receive recognition if there are existing ones nearby, except in “exceptional” cases, the proposed rules stipulate, adding that the rabbinate would determine the religious needs of the community and whether the existing courts suffice.

Earlier this week, Venice’s chief rabbi protested in the Knesset against the Israeli rabbinate’s refusal to recognize his Orthodox rabbinical court and converts. The rabbinate had deemed the Milan and Rome rabbinical courts — some 300 and 600 kilometers away — were sufficient for the Italian Jewish community, while local rabbis argued that community members, unwilling to travel for hours, were eschewing religious services.

The new criteria only apply to rabbinical courts that had not previously received Chief Rabbinate recognition, while courts whose rulings were accepted by the rabbinate in the past remain on its lists and need not take further steps, the guidelines state.

However, they add that rabbinical courts that were approved for divorces will not necessarily be recognized for conversion.

In December 2016, Israel’s two chief rabbis appointed a committee to hammer out the guidelines for rabbinate recognition of both rabbinical courts and rabbis, tapping five rabbis for the task: Aharon Katz, Shlomo Shapira, Yitzhak Elmaliach, Yitzhak Ralbag, and Yehuda Deri — elder brother of Shas MK Aryeh Deri.

The Chief Rabbinate had pledged to streamline its recognition process after a petition to the High Court by the ITIM organization. The regulation process came amid accusations it was quietly “blacklisting” hundreds of non-Israeli rabbis.

The terms posted online on Tuesday for review and proposed amendments pertained only to rabbinical court recognition, with the criteria for recognition of individual Diaspora rabbis set to be advanced at a later date, Chief Rabbinate Director-General Moshe Dagan told a Knesset committee earlier this week.

‘An unprecedented power grab’

The new rabbinate terms, covering divorce and conversion cases, address only 31 percent of the cases brought to the attention of the Israeli rabbinate, according to ITIM, with the vast majority — 69% — related to verifying Jewish marriages and proof-of-Judaism letters from community rabbis for would-be immigrants to Israel. Those 69% are still left unaddressed by the new guidelines.

“The Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s draft criteria for recognizing non-Israeli rabbinical courts is a power grab unprecedented in Jewish history, which shows profound ignorance of and disregard for the Jewish world that will alienate Israel from world Jewry and threaten the unity of the Jewish people,” ITIM said in a statement.

The organization, which helps Jews navigate the state-run religious services, protested the “arrogance” of forcing rabbinical judges abroad to undergo tests administered by the Chief Rabbinate and blasted the vaguely worded guidelines, which it said still allowed for the authorities to make “arbitrary” decisions on the rabbinical courts abroad.

Moreover, the policy “potentially increases assimilation by reducing the number of rabbinical courts around the world. Fewer rabbinical courts mean fewer conversions, and more unadjudicated grievances in cases of divorce and child welfare,” it noted in its list of reservations.

The terms mark an attempt to extend the Chief Rabbinate’s “monopoly on religious authority in Israel around the globe by calling for a single, authorized rabbinical court — ostensibly a local branch of the Chief Rabbinate — in each sizable Jewish community, including those that historically have had several courts, in order to meet the needs of a diverse Jewish population,” it argued.

Added ITIM: “It represents a break from two thousand years of Jewish tradition in which Jewish communities throughout the world respected the autonomy and halakhic rulings of other Jewish communities.”

Dr. Shuki Friedman, director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Religion, Nation and State, said the proposed guidelines, if finalized, could hurt divorcees and converts to Judaism who immigrate to Israel.

“On the practical level, if the strict criteria of the rabbinate (largely controlled by the ultra-Orthodox) are accepted, there could be many inconsistencies,” he said in a statement. “For example, Jewish couples who divorce abroad in a Jewish ceremony and then immigrate to Israel may not be recognized as a divorced.

“This could potentially cause their children’s legal status to be questioned, and even lead their children to be assigned the legal status of bastards (mamzer). Additionally, many people who have undergone a long conversion process will no longer be eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return,” added Friedman.

Until now, the rabbinate has kept internal lists of approved courts and rabbis, with no specific criteria disclosed on its vetting process.

The rabbinate released a list in April 2016 of more than 100 rabbis from the US and 19 other countries whose authority over Jewish conversions it accepts. But the rabbinate attached a letter to the list saying it was “not exhaustive” and simply included rabbis whose authority had been accepted in the past. The letter also said there was no guarantee the rabbis would be trusted in the future.

In July 2017, ITIM published an internal rabbinate “blacklist” of some 160 rabbis, including several prominent American Orthodox leaders, whom the Chief Rabbinate does not trust to confirm the Jewish identities of immigrants.

Rabbis from 24 countries, including the United States and Canada, were on the list. In addition to Reform and Conservative rabbis, the list includes such Orthodox leaders as Avi Weiss, a liberal Orthodox rabbi from the Riverdale neighborhood of New York.

The Chief Rabbinate later said the list was misconstrued and was not a blacklist.

Earlier this week, a leaked memo also indicated a rabbinate official was blacklisting rabbis from Weiss’s liberal Chovevei Torah yeshiva in New York. The rabbinate denied this was a matter of policy.

The proposed terms come as Israeli lawmakers were also seeking to extend the rabbinate’s reach beyond Israel’s borders on divorce cases to give them sanction power over Jewish men who refuse to grant their wives a religious bill of divorce, or “get.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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