Venice’s chief rabbi takes row with Israeli Rabbinate to Knesset

Scialom Bahbout protests Chief Rabbinate’s refusal to recognize his conversions, says argument ‘nearby’ rabbinical courts in Rome, Milan are sufficient doesn’t hold water

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Venice's chief rabbi, Scialom Bahbout (YouTube screenshot)
Venice's chief rabbi, Scialom Bahbout (YouTube screenshot)

The chief rabbi of Venice on Monday traveled to Israel’s parliament to protest the Chief Rabbinate’s refusal to recognize his Orthodox rabbinical court and its conversions to Judaism.

Rabbi Scialom Bahbout previously served as the chief rabbi of Naples and was the former acting av beit din [presiding rabbi] over Rome’s rabbinical court, which is recognized by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. He was specifically contesting the state religious authority’s rejection of the Orthodox conversion of a woman, who was not named, under his tutelage two years ago.

His testimony came during a committee meeting that also saw the Chief Rabbinate announce it had formulated official guidelines on the recognition of rabbinical courts abroad, after consultation with Orthodox Diaspora groups, but would not publicly release the criteria until it was officially approved by the Chief Rabbinate Council.

The Venice chief rabbi, who was appointed to the job four years ago, told the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs that he had revived the defunct rabbinical court in what he described as a “necessary decision,” after learning that local Jews were unwilling to travel to Rome or Milan to seek a religious bill of divorce or resolve financial disputes, and to make conversions to Judaism accessible in the northern region of Italy.

The Jewish ghetto in Venice, on August 8, 2008. (Chen Leopold/Flash 90)

But the authority of the Venetian body and its converts were not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate, the Israeli state-run religious authorities acknowledged during Monday’s heated parliamentary hearing.

The official reason for the snub, given by the director-general of the Chief Rabbinate, Moshe Dagan: Though Bahbout’s religious stature was not in question, under Israeli Rabbinate rules, no new rabbinical courts may be formed when others already exist “nearby,” namely in Milan and Rome, some 300 and 600 kilometers away (186 and 373 miles), respectively.

Bahbout had sought permission from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to form a rabbinical court in Venice and was rebuffed, due to the proximity to the Roman and Milanese rabbinical authorities, said Dagan.

“What happened is that Rabbi Bahbout didn’t care about this principle.”

Director of the Chief Rabbinate Moshe Dagan seen at a ceremony of selling hametz before the upcoming Passover holiday on April 9, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

Dagan also claimed that Bahbout flouted the rules when forming the court and was accepting converts who had been turned away from the rabbinical courts in Milan and Rome, though they are required to convert in the court closest to them.

The allegation that they were accepting rejected converts from other regions was firmly denied by Bahbout’s colleague in the Venetian rabbinical court, Rabbi Itzhak David Margalit, as false and “insulting.”

The Chief Rabbinate’s Dagan set up an uproar in the hall when he accused Bahbout of being paid by the ITIM organization to attend Monday’s Knesset hearing. He later apologized for the “slip of the tongue,” as Bahbout and opposition leader Isaac Herzog fiercely countered the allegation and the Venetian rabbi said he paid for the trip with his personal funds.

The Venetian chief rabbi said his invitations to Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi to visit the hundreds of years’ old Jewish community and observe, from up close, its religious needs, went unanswered.

And his colleague Margalit asserted that a recent letter from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate had again denied their request for recognition, citing the “nearby” Rome and Milan authorities.

Bahbout’s religious rulings and conversions were accepted by the Israeli Orthodox authorities when taken in Rome, but not in Venice, noted Margalit.

“This is something that is simply difficult to fathom,” Margalit said.

A religious snub or bureaucratic mix-up?

At the heart of Monday’s debate was the case of a woman who converted in Venice “for years and years,” relocated from Naples for that purpose, but who was later barred from moving to the State of Israel.

“This is a woman who observes all of the commandments, 100 percent,” Bahbout said.

A year ago, after completing the process, the woman was denied permission to immigrate to the Jewish state in what Venetian rabbis said was a  rejection of their religious conversion by the Rabbinate and the Jewish Agency countered was a bureaucratic hurdle stemming from internal Interior Ministry guidelines.

The explanation given to the woman, said Margalit, was that “the rabbinical court that converted her was not recognized. Period.”

But a representative from the Jewish Agency said the woman was not denied on the grounds of her Jewishness, but because she had failed to comply with internal Interior Ministry guidelines — approved by Orthodox, Conservative and Reform representatives — that require fresh converts to remain in the communities in which they converted for nine months.

Documents showed she was now living in Verona, making her ineligible, said the Jewish Agency.

But Bahbout maintained she was living in Venice, prompting the Jewish Agency’s Yehuda Sharaf to pledge to revisit the case if Venice’s chief rabbi submitted a document on her residence.

The Rabbinate guidelines

Also Monday, the Chief Rabbinate’s Dagan told the panel that long-awaited criteria for its recognition of rabbinical courts abroad had been finalized and was pending a final vote by the Chief Rabbinate Council, a date for which has yet to be set.

He said six Orthodox groups abroad, including the Rabbinical Council of America and European organizations, had been consulted in the process.

But he would not disclose the standards until the final rabbinical vote took place, despite protests from Knesset lawmakers who appealed for transparency.

The guidelines pertain only to the rabbinical courts abroad, not specific rabbis, Dagan stressed, with the criteria for recognized rabbis for the purposes of conversion to be advanced separately.

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 and Yitzhak Elmaliach, Yitzhak Ralbag, and Yehuda Deri, elder brother of Shas MK Aryeh Deri.

Elmaliach served on the court that in July disqualified a conversion performed by the New York Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the rabbi who also converted Ivanka Trump, the daughter of US President Donald Trump, before she married. The high-profile case was one the factors that led to the rabbis setting up the committee.

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.

The ultra-Orthodox-dominated 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.

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 Orthodox leaders like Avi Weiss, the liberal Orthodox rabbi from the Riverdale section of New York.

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

JTA, Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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