Israeli Rabbis Nix Diaspora Conversion, Divorce

Published May 26, 2006, issue of May 26, 2006.
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JERUSALEM — Israel’s government-sponsored rabbinic courts have been ordered by the Chief Rabbinate to stop recognizing conversions and divorces performed by most Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora, escalating the longstanding “Who Is a Jew” conflict to a new and previously unforeseen level.

The new rule means that persons who underwent an Orthodox conversion abroad will have to be converted again in Israel in order to be recognized as Jews by Israeli rabbinic courts. Jewish women who received an Orthodox divorce overseas and wish to remarry in Israel will have to ask their ex-husbands for another divorce certificate, known in Hebrew as a get, if the first one was approved by Orthodox rabbis not recognized by the Israeli rabbinate.

Diaspora rabbis must be examined by a special tribunal appointed by the Chief Rabbinate for their conversions and divorces to be recognized. Recognition of divorces additionally requires that the Diaspora rabbi attend a brief training program to learn Israeli standards.

The rabbinate will continue to recognize the practices of some 50 senior Orthodox rabbis around the world. These rabbis, whose names appear on a list prepared several years ago by previous chief rabbis, will not be required to take the exams.

The new system was approved by Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, chairman of the Chief Rabbinate Council. Amar was elected in 2003 for what is usually a 10-year term.

Israel has long angered American Reform and Conservative rabbis by refusing to recognize their conversions and divorces as valid, instead giving Orthodox rabbis exclusive jurisdiction over personal status matters. That system has had the backing of the largest American Orthodox rabbinic group, the Rabbinical Council of America, which sees itself as an ally of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.

The Rabbinical Council of America has not reacted officially to the new rules, which appear to disqualify most of its members. Rabbi Basil Herring, the council’s executive vice president, said it was unclear how far the rules had changed. Council officials are expected to visit Israel in the coming weeks to clarify their status.

One council official interviewed by the Israeli daily Ha’aretz but not identified said the “impression created is that Rabbi Amar is trying to become a sort of Jewish pope.”

The Chief Rabbinate historically was seen as a stronghold of Religious Zionism and Modern Orthodoxy, but in recent years critics say it has come under the sway of the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, rabbinate. The 2003 chief rabbinical election was hotly contested between the two camps, and the choice of Amar and his Ashkenazic colleague, Yona Metzger, was seen as a Haredi victory.

Non-Orthodox leaders described the new rules as a setback. “While I’ve read nice statements my Orthodox colleagues here have made about the Chief Rabbinate attempting to standardize procedures, that’s hardly the case,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly. “What I see happening is a further hardening of requirements. For certain, if the rules are shifting for the Orthodox, it would then become harder for us to achieve equity.”

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