Shuki Friedman

Shuki FriedmanCommunity Contributor

Dr. Shuki Friedman is the director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Religion, Nation, and State, and a lecturer in law at the Peres Academic Center.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

Jews Worldwide Must Resist The Power Grab Of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate is becoming the Chief Rabbinate of the Jewish world before our very eyes — a development which is likely to have fateful consequences for the unity of the Jewish people. Within Israel, the Rabbinate’s strict halachic approach is causing societal rifts and marginalizing many of the country’s citizens. While the Rabbinate still holds influential power over Israeli citizens, this is largely a result of its legislative standing rather than its religious one. Israelis today rarely turn to the Rabbinate’s rulings for spiritual or religious guidance, but rather the Rabbinate has stayed relevant because of the laws that keep it in place.

Moreover, due to the unappealing stances the Rabbinate has taken in recent years, its public status and favorability have plummeted. Extending its authority to Jewry beyond Israel’s borders could have grave implications. Though the Chief Rabbinate has a political stronghold in Israel thanks to the ultra-Orthodox parties who support it, there are still ways to fight against the global imperialism it seeks to attain, and this is a battle that must be fought.

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate holds a monopoly — granted by state law — over the marriage and divorce of Jews in Israel, and enjoys considerable control of the conversion process both in the realm of who is considered a Jew and what a valid conversion looks like. This level of legal power enables the Rabbinate to determine whether a couple is officially married or divorced, and does so solely on the basis of its own terms and stipulations. While there are a growing number of parallel services that offer citizens an alternative path to marriage and divorce, conversion and kashrut licenses — as I mentioned in my previous article — the Chief Rabbinate still takes the cake in its ability to act as a puppet master in the lives of secular people.

Meanwhile, in the Diaspora, there is no single rabbinic authority. Each community acts in accordance with its own halachic beliefs and traditions regarding marriage, divorce and conversion, as the custom has been throughout Jewish history. In Jewish communities everywhere, both large and small, there are beitei din (halachic courts) that marry and divorce Jewish couples (in addition to the civil procedure of that specific community) and also perform Jewish conversion. In the past, community beitei din operated independently, with no central authority that either granted or denied them legitimacy. But this situation is now changing dramatically.

Step by step, the Chief Rabbinate is turning itself into the central source of halachic legitimacy not just within Israel’s borders but also beyond them, and becoming a global force through securing its power all over the Jewish world:

1) Recognizing confirmations of Jewishness issued by rabbis abroad. A Jew who moves to Israel and wishes to be married here must prove their Jewishness at the offices of the Chief Rabbinate. Even if an individual was born Jewish and raised Jewish in a Jewish community, even if they are Orthodox, consider themselves Jewish and are considered by all who know them to be fully “kosher,” they are still required to provide proof of their Judaism from a rabbi. Today, the Chief Rabbinate maintains no clear criteria for which rabbis are authorized to confirm their community members’ Jewishness. In recent years, the Rabbinate has refused to recognize a number of ultra-Orthodox rabbis abroad who are considered legitimate by the ultra-Orthodox community at large. A committee that was formed by the Chief Rabbinate to formulate such criteria is expected to produce an extremely stringent proposal.

2) Recognizing the legal actions of rabbis and beitei din abroad. A Jew who gets married or divorced abroad and moves to Israel requires confirmation of their marriage or divorce (if seeking to get married in Israel) from the Chief Rabbinate, and for this purpose, the Rabbinate maintains a list of approved foreign beitei din. In this circumstance, again, the criteria for which beitei din are and are not included remain entirely opaque. The above-mentioned committee has been charged with looking at this issue as well, but here, too, discouraging results are expected.

3) Setting up the “Jewish database.” The Chief Rabbinate and the Ministry for Religious Affairs have invested significant resources in creating a computerized database containing information about Jews all over the world. By collecting data from accessible foreign archives, and collating data on Israel’s Jewish citizens, they aim to lay out a single authoritative Jewish family tree. The implications of this undertaking are dramatic: If the Rabbinate succeeds, it will formulate a rigid, “one size fits all” system in which anyone who is not included in the database, even if for purely technical reasons, will not be recognized as a Jew, and will thus bear the burden of proof if they seek recognition as a member of the Jewish people.

4) Extending jurisdiction over divorce objectors. The Knesset is currently debating a bill that would allow the Chief Rabbinate to order the detention of a foreign citizen, whose wife is also a foreign citizen, if he is a divorce objector. This law can be of benefit, but it also extends the authority of the Rabbinical Court in Israel to such an extent that every Jew in the world can find themselves subject to its jurisdiction.

Rabbis in communities around the world, even those that have no close relationship with Israel, cannot ignore this situation. Even if they are in some remote corner of North America or Europe, there remains the possibility that one of their community’s members will move to Israel and have dealings with the Chief Rabbinate. They cannot allow themselves or their peers to suffer the indignity of being ruled illegitimate upon their arrival to the State.

The effect of these developments is that rabbis all over the world are falling in line with the Chief Rabbinate’s highly stringent halachic approach out of fear of becoming unfavorable and having their religious legitimacy taken away by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, and consequently by their community members as well. One could argue that in its attempt to seize even greater power, the Rabbinate holds a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the more control it has — in the case of agunot abroad, the creation of a Jewish database and rules of recognition — the more influence it gains on the world stage. On the other hand, the more the Rabbinate attempts to force its way into the lives of secular people who reject it, the more likely activists are to pave alternative paths that circumvent religiosity.

Rabbis in the Diaspora are becoming vassals of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, fearful of its overwhelming power. They know that if they veer away from its rigid rulings, or if their religious approach merits any disapproval, they are liable to find themselves beyond the pale. This state of affairs has serious implications both now and for the future. With a single ruling, the Rabbinate could strip entire communities of their legitimacy and therefore wield immense influence over the structure and unity of the Jewish people worldwide.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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Jews Worldwide Must Resist The Power Grab Of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate

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