Israeli Chief Rabbi Had ‘No Knowledge’ of ‘Blacklist’ of 160 Diaspora Rabbis
Aspokesman for Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau said Monday that the chief rabbi was “stunned” at the existence of a blacklist of 160 rabbis, including several prominent American Orthodox leaders, who appear to have been banned by the Chief Rabbinate from performing conversions or confirming the personal status of immigrants.
The unnamed spokesman said the chief rabbi summoned Moshe Dagan, director general of the chief rabbinate, to explain the existence of blacklist, and said the document was composed and published without Rabbi Lau’s knowledge or approval. The document disqualifies 160 Diaspora rabbis from testifying that immigrants to Israel are Jewish.
According to the religious Zionist Kipa news site, an advisor to Lau said the chief rabbi was “stunned to discover the existence of this list.”
“The results of this action are very serious,” the unnamed advisor wrote. “First of all, it is inconceivable for a mid-level cleric at the chief rabbinate to decide on his own volition which rabbis the Rabbinate accepts and who it doesn’t. Second, there is no need to spell out the very serious consequences and the harm to certain rabbis, and especially to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.”
Sunday, Rabbi Seth Farber, founder of ITIM: The Right to Live Jewish, said the group has demanded clarification of the rabbinate’s criteria for accepting a rabbi’s competency to certify conversions and personal status. Farber’s organization, a non-profit group founded in 2002 to help guide Israelis through Rabbinate-led bureaucracy during significant life-cycle events: birth, marriage, divorce, burial, and conversion, also told TPS that the group would petition the High Court of Justice if the Rabbinate refuses to spell out the criteria.
The blacklist is only the latest in a long string of scandals surrounding Israel’s relationship with Diaspora Jewry, and especially with non-haredi streams of Judaism. Last month, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu infuriated American Jewish leaders by freezing an agreement to expand an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, and in 2015 tried to remove Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a prominent modern Orthodox authority and founder of the West Bank town of Efrat, from his position as chief rabbi of that city.
The repeated fights with the chief rabbinate are too numerous to list, and have led many secular groups, and even some Orthodox ones, to call for the huge government bureaucracy to be dismantled. Others, however, say the organization has a critical role to play in Israeli society, but also say it needs deep reform.
“Israeli society is in the midst of an ongoing discussion about fundamental questions of identity,” says Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a prominent modern Orthodox halachic authority and head of the Hesder Yeshiva Amit Orot Shaul in Kfar Batya. “And when you are talking about questions of identity it is natural for there to be a new scandal every other day, because you are not talking about procedural questions.
Speaking to TPS by phone, Cherlow said there is an unwritten agreement between haredi politicians and the big secular parties granting haredim control of Judaism in Israel, in exchange for their support for political policies on national and diplomatic issues. In effect, that created a status quo that defines Judaism in Israel in halachic terms – a positive outcome, in Cherlow’s view, but he cautions that defining the “official” religion of Israel as Orthodoxy also carries with it critical responsibilities.
“I certainly can appreciate that an Orthodox rabbinate must define for itself who is considered acceptable to make decisions, and who isn’t. It makes sense that the Orthodox rabbinate must outline clear definitions [especially when you’re dealing with Jewish groups that do not consider themselves to be bound by the tenets of Jewish law].
“At the same time, however, if the Rabbinate is not as inclusive as possible – that is to say, if the Rabbinate doesn’t go as far as halachically possible in order to be inclusive, it has betrayed its mandate to be a Rabbinate for all Jews, or at least for those Jews who consider themselves to be bound by the dictates of Jewish law.
“So the state must find a balance: If the state demands the
existence of a Rabbinate that is faithful to Jewish law, it should also demand that that Rabbinate go as far as possible. Of course, there are limits that cannot be breached – we cannot declare babies born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother to be Jewish when the halacha on that matter is clear.
“But the State can care about that person, the State can include that person in the Law of Return, the State can offer a conversion possibility that is as user-friendly and inclusive as halachically possible,” Cherlow said.
A spokesman for Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau said Monday that the chief rabbi was “stunned” at the existence of a blacklist of 160 rabbis, including several prominent American Orthodox leaders, who appear to have been banned by the Chief Rabbinate from performing conversions or confirming the personal status of immigrants.
Also on the list of arbitrarily chosen rabbis slated to be blacklisted are Rabbi Yeshoshua Fass, the head of the Nefesh B’Nefesh organization. Rabbi Fass devotes all of this time, energy and resources towards bringing Jews of all backgrounds to settle in Israel
Rabbi Seth Farber, founder of ITIM: The Right to Live Jewish, said the group has demanded clarification of the rabbinate’s criteria for accepting a rabbi’s competency to certify conversions and personal status.
One of the diaspora rabbis on the blacklist of 160 was Rabbi Avi Weiss, of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Rabbi Weiss has been a longtime vocal activist for a panoply of Jewish causes.