Rabbi of World’s Largest Orthodox Synagogue Accuses Israel's Rabbinate of Blasphemy

Appearing before a Knesset committee, Rabbi Adam Scheier calls his blacklisting by the Chief Rabbinate an ‘irresponsible’ act that has diminished his reputation in Canada

Rabbi Adam Scheier, MK Elazar Stern and Rabbi Seth Farber in the Knesset, Jerusalem, February 19, 2018.
Aviad Weizman

The spiritual leader of the world’s largest Orthodox congregation launched a scathing attack on Israel’s Chief Rabbinate on Monday, accusing it of blasphemy (“chilul Hashem”) by blacklisting rabbis like himself.

Appearing at a special Knesset session, Rabbi Adam Scheier said: “The irresponsible blacklisting of my name, together with that of my colleagues, diminished my reputation and the reputation of my congregation. The Rabbinate has impeded my ability to serve the Jewish people.”

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Scheier’s name appeared on a list of 160 rabbis, made public last July, whose letters certifying the Jewishness of congregants seeking to marry in Israel had been rejected by the Rabbinate. Individuals registering to marry in Israel must provide proof that they are Jewish if their parents were not married under the auspices of the Rabbinate. Typically, such certification is provided by their congregational rabbis abroad.

Scheier is senior rabbi at Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, which is Canada’s oldest synagogue and had the late singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen as a congregant. According to Scheier – who is known to enjoy close ties with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – some 1,400 families belong to his congregation.

Scheier made a special one-day trip to Israel in order to address the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, which held a special hearing on the rabbinical blacklist.

More than two years ago, the Rabbinate promised to publish a full list of criteria for recognizing rabbis overseas. To date, no such criteria have been published. The committee established to draft the criteria has only convened once in the past year, it was recently disclosed.

Scheier told the panel that a letter he had written certifying that a woman who attended his congregation was Jewish and single had been rejected without any questions asked of him.

When he asked the Rabbinate why it had been rejected, he was told the letter was suspected of being forged. “But they never even called me,” he said. “Then later, they suggested it was another issue. But again they didn’t contact me – and I am the easiest person in the world to find.”

Scheier said he recently learned that other rabbis in Montreal had been advising members of the local community not to ask him to officiate at weddings because of his blackballed status.

“The Rabbinate has eroded my own community’s trust in my reliability,” he said. “This must end. The bureaucracy and exclusionary practices do not meet the basic standards of decency and professionalism.

“This is not a matter of religious standards,” he added. “It’s a matter of basic humanity. Diaspora rabbis deserve better, our communities deserve better and Israel deserves better.”

Among other names on the Rabbinate’s blacklist were Rabbi Avi Weiss, an Open Orthodox rabbi and the founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York; and Rabbi Daniel Kraus, the director of community education at Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan. The rabbi of this congregation, Haskel Lookstein, converted Ivanka Trump before she married Jared Kushner.

The special Knesset session was called by MK Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid), who said he harbored little hope the Rabbinate would change its ways. “They could care less about what the Knesset decides,” he said. “Our purpose here today is to let Jewish communities in the Diaspora know that the majority of us here are with you, and we will try to serve as your voice here.”

Rabbinate Director General Moshe Dagan told participants it was “demagoguery” to refer to a blacklist. “There is no blacklist of rabbis,” he insisted. “What was published was a list of rabbis whose letters were not accepted.”

He used the opportunity to apologize to Scheier for any harm caused to his reputation, insisting the reason the Canadian rabbi’s letter had been rejected was that the individual he certified was a divorcee, and it was unclear if she had undergone a proper religious divorce.

Dagan said the Rabbinate was in the “final stages” of preparing criteria for recognizing rabbis from abroad, and that initial drafts had been sent to representatives of Orthodox rabbinical organizations overseas for comment. The criteria would be voted on at an upcoming meeting of the Rabbinical Council, which Dagan said had yet to be scheduled.

Shlomo Riskin, the American-born rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Efrat, suggested that the Rabbinate recognize automatically all Orthodox congregational rabbis. “I want the Rabbinate to be respectful,” said Riskin, a prominent figure in Modern Orthodoxy, “and it does everything possible not to be.”

Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and executive director of ITIM, an organization that assists individuals in navigating Israel’s religious bureaucracy, provided updated figures showing that the Rabbinate continues to reject many rabbis from abroad.

“Over the past year, 627 individuals who applied to marry in Israel had their rabbinical letters of certification rejected,” he said. “That’s one in every four.”