Jerusalem — Israel’s Chief Rabbinate may be close to finalizing its criteria for vetting diaspora rabbis for purposes of conversions, a rabbinate spokesman told The Jewish Week.
“The criteria are in the final stages of development,” Kobi Alter, the rabbinate spokesman, said Tuesday. He did not say when they would be finalized and declined to provide any details.
If Alter is correct — and, given the rabbinate’s propensity for procrastination and exaggeration, this is far from certain — the criteria would be the first official document to specify how the rabbinate decides which diaspora rabbis are “kosher” and which are not.
For more than a decade the rabbinate has questioned and sometimes rejected conversions performed by several Modern Orthodox rabbis, some of them pillars of the American Jewish community. It has also rejected hundreds of certifications of Jewishness penned by Reform, Conservative and Orthodox community rabbis in the diaspora — letters required by the rabbinate’s marriage registrars.
Along with the Israeli government’s refusal to honor a January 2016 agreement to support a state-funded pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall, these rejections have led to increasingly strained relations between Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious establishment and north American Jews.
Rabbi Seth Farber, whose ITIM organization petitioned the High Court to force the rabbinate to issue its vetting criteria, said he would be very surprised to see the rabbinate deliver the criteria anytime soon.
“I really don’t see them on the horizon,” said Farber, who noted that it has been two years since the rabbinate promised to do so, in court.
Just last week ITIM discovered that the committee the rabbinate established in November 2016 to draft rabbinical criteria had met just once — in February 2017.
“When we turned to the rabbinate for a progress report on the criteria committee we certainly didn’t think that they hadn’t done anything at all,” Farber said. “The fact that they have only met once is an embarrassment. Rabbis around the world should be the rabbinate’s partners, not their enemies.”
Alter, the rabbinate’s spokesman, said the rabbinate has held “internal consultations” and “has turned to rabbinical courts overseas” to elicit their input. He said the committee has presented its recommendations to the Chief Rabbis’ Council, which has “a number of hearings” on the topic.
Alter declined to say who in the diaspora the rabbinate had contacted.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of Public Affairs at Agudath Israel of America, said that “to best of my knowledge, there has not been any outreach” to his organization.
The Beit Din of America said it does not comment on matters related to the rabbinate, and the Rabbinical Council of America could not be reached for comment.
Farber, who maintains contact with a wide variety of North American Jewish leaders, said that to the best of my knowledge, they have not been asked for their input.
“It behooves the rabbinate to create these criteria through discussion with all the parties involved. That includes the leadership of the North American and world Jewish communities.”
“It behooves the rabbinate to create these criteria through discussion with all the parties involved. That includes the leadership of the North American and world Jewish communities, the organizations and institutions that have significant experience in this area, as well as experts in Israel-diaspora relations.”
While it is possible that the rabbinate has indeed been working hard on the criteria, but not through the committee established for this purpose, “that seems doubtful,” Farber said.
“If this is true, with whom did they consult and on what basis did they determine criteria. We’d hoped there would be a more exhaustive process and that it would be transparent.”
The criteria are needed now more than ever, he said, because “there are no ground rules.”
Just last week, Farber said, an American woman came to ITIM with a Jewishness letter from her respected local Orthodox rabbi, who had been serving at the same synagogue for 18 years. The letter was rejected by Tel Aviv rabbinate’s marriage registrar.
Farber knew that the rabbinate had accepted letters from the synagogue’s former rabbi, who retired 18 years ago, and asked him to attest to the woman’s Jewishness.
“We shouldn’t have to do this,” Farber said.
Rabbi Jason Herman of Congregation Beth Israel/West Side Jewish Center in Manhattan and one of the rabbis on the 2016 blacklist, still has no clue how he landed there, since he hasn’t written a Jewishness letter since 2012.
“The rabbinate hasn’t been forthcoming,” Rabbi Herman said dryly.
Since one of his letters was rejected by the rabbinate six years ago, Herman has sent his congregants to the Chicago Rabbinical Council, because the rabbinate accepts letters written on its letterhead.
Ironically, the rabbinate permitted Rabbi Herman to perform a wedding in Israel “even though I’m not good enough to write a letter. It’s kind of frustrating,” he acknowledged.
Rabbi Adam Scheier, the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, an Orthodox shul in Quebec, Canada, was also on the blacklist.
“I am still in the dark about what transpired to put my name on the list. I am not aware of any cases that came before the Chief Rabbinate, and I was never consulted by the Chief Rabbi’s office concerning a case in which I was involved,” he said.
Rabbi Scheier said that whatever embarrassment he felt by being on the list “was mitigated” by the support he received from his congregation, colleagues and friends “who offered me public support and private encouragement.”
When the rabbinate finally comes up with criteria, he hopes they will be inclusive, not exclusive.
Lists like the one Rabbi Scheier found himself on “shames the Chief Rabbi’s Office, whose rejectionist stance towards Diaspora rabbinic leadership does no favors for those, like myself, who preach love and support for the State of Israel,” he said.