Jerusalem — Amid all the confusion and controversy surrounding the status of diaspora rabbis in the eyes of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, it now seems clear there is no operative definition of who is a rabbi.

In a startling admission, Kobi Alter, spokesman for the Chief Rabbinate, told The Jewish Week that the Rabbinate “has no clear criteria yet” for deciding which rabbis can be trusted and which cannot when it comes to vouching for the Jewishness of constituents in the diaspora seeking to marry, convert, divorce, settle in or be buried in Israel. But he said that a high-level rabbinical committee will soon tackle the subject.

The issue came to light again this week when the Chief Rabbinate was forced to release a so-called blacklist — the names of 160 rabbis from several countries whose letters on behalf of constituents were rejected. About 30 of the rabbis on the list are Orthodox. The remainder are Conservative or Reform. At least a few are deceased.

That list was obtained under Israel’s Freedom of Information Act by ITIM, a Jerusalem-based advocacy organization that helps people navigate the Israeli religious bureaucracy.

When Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the Orthodox executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, learned he was on the list, his first thought was, “I’m in very good company,” he told The Jewish Week with a touch of humor. “On the other hand,” said Rabbi Potasnik, who also hosts a popular radio show on religion, “it’s a very sad commentary on the state of our people when members of the rabbinical community start delegitimizing one another.”

According to Alter of the Rabbinate’s office, the list in question relates solely to documents presented to the Rabbinate by men and women applying for marriage licenses.

“The list applies to documents that the [marriage registry] department didn’t recognize for a variety of reasons. For example, if a ketubah was signed by only one witness.” Two witnesses are required by Jewish law.

“It doesn’t relate to the rabbis … or to conversions,” Alter said, insisting that “when examining requests for approval of marriage certificates the Chief Rabbinate does not rely on this list and it does not affect the department’s work.”

“It’s a very sad commentary on the state of our people when members of the rabbinical community start delegitimizing one another.”

Rabbi Seth Farber, ITIM’s director, said Alter’s assertions are preposterous.

“If the documents were rejected, that’s a rejection of the rabbis who signed them, whether they were ketubot, bar mitzvah certificates or letters attesting to a congregant’s Jewishness. This is a blacklist.”

The fact that so many Orthodox rabbis, most of whom are Modern or liberal but five of whom are not, Rabbi Farber said, “indicates the Rabbinate’s heightened level of suspicion for anyone coming from overseas” who wants to marry, live or be buried in Israel.

Rabbi Farber said he was baffled to see so many Conservative and Reform rabbis rejected by marriage registrars because non-Orthodox Jews rarely bring these documents to the Rabbinate in the first place.

Most non-Orthodox Jews who wish to get married in Israel “know that in the present environment the Rabbinate doesn’t generally accept the word of non-Orthodox rabbis,” he said.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Masorti [Conservative] Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, said his movement’s documents sometimes get accepted “if they’re not written on letterhead stationery from Temple so-and-so or if the Hebrew letters Bet-Hey (short for B’ezrat Hashem, with God’s help) appear at the top of the letter.”

In other words, if the clerk mistakenly thinks the letter comes from an Orthodox rabbi.

To get married in Israel, Rabbi Sacks said, the vast majority of Reform, Conservative and secular diaspora Jews have to obtain a letter written on their behalf by an Orthodox rabbi — often a friend of their community rabbi. For native Israelis, their parents’ rabbinate-certified marriage certificates generally suffice.

Rabbi Seth Farber

Rabbi Farber said the blacklist’s abundance of non-Orthodox rabbis raises suspicions that Reform and Conservative rabbis have long been on the Rabbinate’s radar due to its interactions with the Ministry of the Interior. He said it indicates that the Ministry of the Interior, which is legally required to accept non-Orthodox documents attesting to a prospective immigrant’s Jewishness for the purposes of making aliyah, is conferring with the Rabbinate on matters related to Jewishness — even though deciding who is and isn’t Jewish for immigration purposes “isn’t part of the Rabbinate’s jurisdiction,” the rabbi emphasized.

“The Rabbinate and the Israeli government are arbitrarily deciding who is a Jew and who is an acceptable rabbi.”

Rabbi Farber, whose ITIM legal team has long demanded that the Rabbinate share the criteria it employs, said several Orthodox North American rabbis on the list have contacted him since the list’s publication, asking how they can get on the “acceptable rabbi list.”

“I told them I have no idea. The Rabbinate and the Israeli government are arbitrarily deciding who is a Jew and who is an acceptable rabbi.”

A number of rabbis on the list, regardless of denomination, expressed anger at the Rabbinate’s determination to dictate standards to the diaspora.

“The only possible explanations for keeping a list of this sort are incompetence or malice, neither of which is remotely acceptable, though the community has now come to expect it from the Rabbanut,” said Rabbi Barry Dolinger, the Orthodox rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom in Providence, R.I., using the Hebrew word for Rabbinate.

Rabbi Dolinger said he is certain the letters he has written testifying to people’s Jewishness have been accepted by the Rabbinate, and he finds the situation “truly appalling.”

Rabbi Dan Ornstein, a Conservative co-rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom, in Albany, N.Y., said he expects “no immediate effect” on his career and his synagogue from being on the list but is concerned that the “Jewishness” letters he writes for olim, including those who want to be buried in a Jewish cemetery in Israel, might not be accepted.

“I don’t want them discriminated against,” he said.

“This isn’t just about rabbis. It’s about people who want to be considered Jews in Israel.”

Rabbi Potasnik of the New York Board of Rabbis said it was “very disheartening” to realize that there are Jews who, due to the Rabbinate’s stringent standards, may never be able to prove their Jewishness.

“This isn’t just about rabbis. It’s about people who want to be considered Jews in Israel.”

If social media posts are any indication, many Jews, including Jews by choice, are worried about their Jewish status.

One woman told members of a Jewish Facebook group that she was converted by a prominent (and now-deceased) Orthodox rabbi more than 30 years ago. She asked, facetiously, whether she should give up her Israeli ID. “Do I have to keep kosher anymore? I’ve got a bunch of meat and dairy dishes if anybody’s interested. Oh wait, you probably can’t take them from me.”

Another convert in the group wrote: “I love your sense of humor. Seriously, though, I’m so upset for you. I’m a convert of 45 years. The questioning of our Jewishness never friggin’ ends, does it?”