As Rabbinate Stiffens Rules, Orthodox Rites Face Scrutiny

By Gershom Gorenberg

Published June 02, 2006, issue of June 02, 2006.
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The young American Orthodox Jew, about to marry in Israel, was asked to appear before a state rabbinic court that checks whether applicants are indeed Jewish. The immigrant, it turned out, was the child of a woman converted to Judaism by three prominent Orthodox rabbis in a major American community. The court checked with the Chief Rabbinate, which replied that the three officiating rabbis did not appear on the short list of Diaspora clergy whose conversions are to be trusted. Before you marry, the stunned Orthodox day school graduate was told, you must convert to Judaism.

That recent incident, described by Rabbi Seth Farber, a religious activist, demonstrates the Chief Rabbinate’s growing mistrust of conversions performed by overseas rabbis — including, it turns out, even Orthodox rabbis.

Farber, who heads Itim, an organization that helps Israelis navigate the state religious bureaucracy, declined to offer any identifying information about the person involved, saying he wished to avoid causing further embarrassment. But Farber stressed that the young American had a letter from a prominent rabbi who did appear on the Chief Rabbinate’s list, certifying that the mother’s conversion had met the highest standards of rabbinic law. That, it turned out, wasn’t enough.

For years, the legitimacy of overseas conversions has been the focus of a continuing battle that pitted the Orthodox rabbinate here against mostly Reform and Conservative rabbis and their supporters overseas, with periodic involvement by Israel’s courts and government.

Conversion policy re-emerged as an issue last month after the rabbinate jettisoned a working arrangement with America’s main group of Modern Orthodox rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America. For several years, the Chief Rabbinate had accepted conversions by rabbis not on its own list, as long as the ceremony was certified valid by the head of the American council’s religious court, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz. Now, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, as head of the Israeli religious courts, has ceased accepting such certification. Henceforth, if a Diaspora rabbi wants to get on the list, he will have to come to Israel and be tested by an Israeli rabbinic court.

The move is rife with ironies. It’s a bid by the Israeli state rabbinate to impose its increasingly stringent approach to a key religious issue on the Diaspora. Yet it comes even as the Chief Rabbinate’s stature within Israeli society continues to contract. An icon of the rabbinate drawn today would show a very small man with a very long arm.

In a further irony, American Modern Orthodoxy is one group that has remained supportive of the Chief Rabbinate through recent storms, viewing the Israeli rabbinate as an embodiment of Israel’s Jewish religious legitimacy. Now the rabbinate has given a statement of no confidence to its overseas cheerleader.

One final irony: If Orthodox spokesmen have argued in the past that Reform and Conservative conversions pose the risk that Orthodox Jews may be unable to marry others, creating two Jewish peoples, the current flap shows that the divide may run through Orthodoxy itself.

Under Israeli law, the Chief Rabbinate has authority over marriage and divorce of Jews in this country. For Diaspora-born Jews marrying in Israel, part of the process is proving they are, under Orthodox law, both Jewish and single. Over the years, the rabbinate has developed a list of overseas rabbis whose conversions and divorce proceedings it recognizes. The list was put together “through personal acquaintance, visits abroad, and existing tradition,” said Rabbi Eliyahu Ben-Dahan, director of the state rabbinical courts. A relatively recent version, posted on the Itim Web site (, includes 69 rabbis and rabbinical courts worldwide, 29 of them in America.

The rabbinic courts vet conversions and divorces performed by other rabbis. “Case by case, they try to clarify who the rabbi is, what’s known about him,” Ben-Dahan said.

In effect, the longstanding “Who is a Jew?” dispute was actually a question of “Who is a rabbi?” Previously, Reform and Conservative rabbis were not recognized as such by the Israeli rabbinate, and so their converts were not recognized as Jews. It now emerges that it is insufficient for a rabbi to be Orthodox.

The problem is not entirely new. In one well-publicized case in 1997, one Abraham Elhiany of New Orleans came to Israel to marry his Israeli fiancee. Elhiany, the son of a Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman, had undergone Orthodox conversion in his youth and attended an Orthodox day school. The rabbinate, however, refused to accept his conversion. “It’s weird that anyone would convert in Louisiana,” Yitzhak Ohana, an aide to then-Sephardic chief rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, told me at the time. “Can you keep mitzvot in Louisiana? Is there kosher food there?”

The questions indicated limited knowledge, to put it politely, of American Jewry. They also suggested a belief that conversion is conditional, dependent on whether the convert continues to live by Orthodox rabbinic law. That view, once radical, has gained increasing support among Israeli rabbinic court judges over the past two decades, said Zvi Zohar, a Bar-Ilan University expert on rabbinic law — even though it contradicts the talmudic stance that a convert who violates religious law remains Jewish, like any other Jew.

The problem of familiarity with American Jewry had at least a partial solution in the arrangement that Ben-Dahan worked out under the previous chief rabbis with the Beth Din of America, the tribunal affiliated with the RCA. The point, Ben-Dahan said, was that the Israeli rabbinate would rely on a highly regarded American rabbi to keep track of conversions. The arrangement did not apply to divorces, which in any case are performed by far fewer rabbis.

Asked about the recent change in policy, Ben-Dahan hesitated and said plaintively: “Don’t ask me hard questions. Who am I to express an opinion of the chief rabbis?”

Farber said that the decision to stop accepting RCA certification “affects hundreds if not thousands of people, every Orthodox convert whose rabbi is not on that list.” Moreover, he said, the move has “delegitimized the largest [Orthodox] rabbinic group in world,” and one that has been the Chief Rabbinate’s “closest friend.”

These days the Chief Rabbinate is short on friends. A study last year by the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, found that only 38% of Israelis had trust in the rabbinate as an institution — fewer than expressed trust in the Supreme Court, the media, the police or the Knesset.

Secular Israelis show their resentment with their feet. Over the past 30 years, while the Jewish population of Israel has grown by 85%, the annual rate of marriage through the rabbinate has risen only 18%, Rabbi Gilad Kariv of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center said, citing government statistics. Some go abroad to marry; some simply move in together.

The ultra-Orthodox or Haredi community, while treating the rabbinate as a source of jobs and influence, never has accepted the chief rabbis as religious authorities. Their own sages fill that role. The one Israeli group that has backed the rabbinate traditionally is the religious Zionist community, especially the National Religious Party, which, like, Modern Orthodoxy in America, views the state rabbinate as an expression of Israel’s intrinsic religious value.

In recent years, however, the National Religious Party has seen its influence decline within the electoral college that chooses chief rabbis. The last rabbis it succeeded in electing were Mordechai Eliyahu and Avraham Shapira, both known for hard-line views on territories and settlements. Since they left office in 1993, much of the religious Zionist community has continued turning to them on religious issues, not to their successors.

In the last election, in 2003, the NRP backed Eliyahu’s son, Shmuel Eliyahu, and another political hard-liner, Ya’akov Ariel. Both lost to candidates backed by the Haredi bloc, with apparent support from secular electors who rejected the NRP rabbis’ hard-line political views. The two men chosen, Amar, the Sephardic chief rabbi, and Yona Metzger, the Ashkenazic chief rabbi, are both seen as obedient disciples of ultra-Orthodox sages rather than as religious authorities in their own right.

Their standing has been damaged further by scandal. This past April, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz wrapped up an investigation of Metzger for corruption, demanding Metzger’s dismissal but stopping short of prosecution. Metzger allegedly had accepted discounts from hotels and had mischarged the government for expenses. He is fighting his ouster in court.

Last year, Amar suffered embarrassment when his son was jailed for kidnapping and assaulting his sister’s suitor. The victim was a Haredi youth that Amar’s daughter had met through a chat room. Though the rabbi was not implicated, the attack took place partly in house, and his wife admitted knowing of it. At the least, the affair underlined that Amar belongs to an ultra-Orthodox world in which dating is beyond the pale.

Amar’s conversion policy apparently reflects the same allegiance. Modern Orthodoxy, Zohar said, stresses the value of Klal Yisrael, or Jewish unity. Observance is considered a Jewish obligation, but even without it one remains Jewish. In that worldview, concerns such as avoiding intermarriage may at least be a factor in accepting converts.

For the ultra-Orthodox, on the other hand, real Jews are observant ones. The new view that conversion remains conditional flows from that ideology. Protecting the true religious community trumps Jewish unity, and can make even Modern Orthodox Jews suspect if their conversion standards are too lax.

An RCA delegation is expected in Israel next week to meet with Amar. It remains to be seen whether the dialogue can paper over the practical differences. The gap in belief is almost certain to remain.

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