Natan Sharansky, the iconic hero of the Soviet Jewry movement and chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, this week characterized the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s questioning of Rabbi Avi Weiss’s rabbinic credentials as “absurd.”

Sharansky said that the “commitment and integrity” of Rabbi Weiss, the longtime spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and a leading figure in the Modern Orthodox community, are “beyond reproach,” noting that “by his teachings and his personal example he has inspired and raised generations of Jews… with a deep commitment to the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”

Rabbi Weiss has been in the spotlight since his name was made public several months as being deemed unqualified by the Chief Rabbinate to verify the Jewishness of a young couple planning to marry in Israel. 

In fact, though, a number of other American Orthodox rabbis, including Yeshiva University graduates, congregational rabbis of Orthodox Union (OU) synagogues and members of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), have had letters attesting to the Jewishness of couples seeking to be married in Israel rejected by the Chief Rabbinate. In effect, the rabbis were told they were not qualified to determine who among their congregants and constituents was indeed Jewish.

Rabbi Weiss was the only one willing to go public — the others preferred anonymity — and that complicated the situation. That’s because Rabbi Weiss is a lightning rod of sorts. His outspoken views and actions in regard to women’s ordination and his brand of Open Orthodoxy at the yeshiva he founded, have made him a controversial figure within the RCA, where some colleagues are urging the leadership to come to his defense and others call for his dismissal.

Now another North American Orthodox rabbi with none of controversial baggage of Rabbi Weiss has come forward and expressed indignation that he, too, was found to be unacceptable to the Chief Rabbinate for the purpose of verifying that a young couple he knows well is indeed Jewish.

“I’m outraged that I would be disqualified,” Rabbi Scot Berman told me this week. He received his ordination from the Hebrew Theological College (known as “Skokie yeshiva”) in Chicago and has had a three-decade history as a Jewish educator in Orthodox schools.

Rabbi Berman has been a principal and administrator at several Orthodox day schools, including the Rabbi David Silver Academy in Harrisburg, PA, the Ida Crown Academy in Chicago, the Kushner Academy in Livingston, NJ, and the Yeshivat Ohr Chaim Bnei Akiva school in Toronto, where he now lives.

The Chief Rabbinate said he lacked the tools and skills of a congregational rabbi.

Their decision “is indicative of the Chief Rabbinate’s lack of understanding of the Jewish community in North America,” said Rabbi Berman. “What tools do shul rabbis have more than school principals who are embedded [in the community] and keenly aware of the constituents with whom they work?”

Rabbi Berman, a member of the RCA, said he shared the news of the Chief Rabbinate’s decision about him with the group’s leaders and colleagues during a meeting in Toronto last month. “No one responded verbally,” he said.

He chose to step up now, in part, so that the community could understand that the issue is about far more than Rabbi Weiss, who is initiating a lawsuit against the Chief Rabbinate for questioning his credibility as an Orthodox rabbi. (Rabbi Berman does not plan to take such action at this time.)

To be clear, this issue is not just about Rabbi Weiss and it’s not just about Orthodox politics. It’s about how Israel’s two new chief rabbis, Ashkenazi David Lau and Sephardic Yitzchak Yosef, elected to 10-year terms this summer amidst hope they would present a more benign face to Jews in Israel and the diaspora, are instead continuing their predecessors’ deeply disturbing trend to monopolize and centralize rabbinic authority, limiting the autonomy of Orthodox rabbis in the diaspora. And that is bad for Jews everywhere, splitting us further apart as a people.

It is high time to speak out against this power grab on the part of the Chief Rabbinate — and the passive response of the RCA, which has more than 1,000 members in the U.S. and Canada. Despite its size, the RCA seems to be cooperating in diminishing its own influence for fear of losing status with a Chief Rabbinate few here or in Israel respect. And with good reason.

Over the last several decades the Chief Rabbinate has become increasingly haredi in practice and narrow in scope, more eager to protect its authority than to take a welcoming attitude toward an Israeli society increasingly distanced from Judaism.

The rabbinate controls personal status in the state — marriage, divorce, burial and conversion. Increasing numbers of Israelis have opted to marry outside the country, often in Cyprus, to avoid an Orthodox ceremony. And while there are hundreds of thousands of Russians with Jewish relatives living in Israel, many of whom may want to become Jewish, the rabbinate has made the process increasingly difficult, insisting on observance of all of the mitzvot to qualify.

Several years ago the previous chief rabbis, Sephardi Shlomo Amar and Ashkenazi Yona Metzger (who was arrested in November for fraud and taking bribes), took control of Orthodox conversions in the U.S. Until then the RCA had its own policy guidelines; its conversions, conducted by rabbis who knew well the men and women with whom they studied and guided during the process, were recognized in Israel. But the Chief Rabbinate moved to limit the role of congregational rabbis and established a policy where only a select number of bet dins could conduct conversions.

The RCA acquiesced rather than insist that its congregational rabbis were best qualified to see the procedure to its fruition.

Some observers say the rabbinical group here lacked confidence to stand up to the Israeli chief rabbis, who could have cut them out of the process altogether. Others say a few RCA insiders enjoyed being the exclusive North American conduits to the Israeli rabbinate.

Last October, Israel Correspondent Michele Chabin broke the story in The Jewish Week about Rabbi Weiss’s letter for a young couple being rejected by the Chief Rabbinate. But weeks earlier, such groups as ITIM, an Israeli organization that helps people navigate the bureaucracy of the Chief Rabbinate and government agencies dealing with marriage, divorce, conversion and burial, and Tzohar, a group of religious Zionist rabbis in Israel dedicated to making weddings and other Jewish rituals more appealing to society, pressed the Chief Rabbinate on its decision-making methods. They wanted the chief rabbis to explain how they determine which of the thousands of Orthodox rabbis in the diaspora are approved for ritual participation and which are not.

The Chief Rabbinate acknowledged that it has no systematic means of determining the credentials of diaspora rabbis so it relies on the advice of a few trusted colleagues, some of whom are members of the RCA. It’s hard to believe that this primitive method, prone to rumor, gossip and personal bias — and administered by only one, mid-level, non-English-speaking official in the Chief Rabbinate office — is employed by an agency of the government of Israel in dealing with thousands of diaspora rabbis for official matters of personal status.

“It’s completely arbitrary,” says Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of ITIM, which has proposed to the Chief Rabbinate that it recognize all members in good standing of Orthodox rabbinic institutions in the diaspora that are at least 10 years old and have at least 50 members.

In that way, he points out, the decision of who is Jewish would be decentralized and made within the various diaspora communities who know their constituents best. “It’s a matter of trust” between the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and the qualified local rabbis, Rabbi Farber says.

“If there is no mutual trust…” He left the sentence unfinished but the message was clear.

Meanwhile, the RCA is trying to tamp down the public attention and work out an agreement that would recognize its members as legitimate in the eyes of the Chief Rabbinate.

But along with other major Orthodox institutions, such as Yeshiva University and the OU, whose rabbinic constituents have been snubbed by the Chief Rabbinate, the RCA has left Rabbi Weiss — and Rabbi Berman — out to dry. Only this week did the organization come out with a brief, painstakingly neutral statement on the controversy. It notes the group’s “cherished” relationship with the Chief Rabbinate and expresses the hope of resolving matters “in ways that will avoid the problems and embarrassments of these past few weeks.”

The real embarrassment, though, is that the RCA cherishes a relationship with a religious body that has veered from its sacred mission, choosing to detach itself from, rather than embrace, the majority of the Jewish people.

Gary@jewishweek.org