Confirmed: Israeli Chief Rabbinate Does Keep a Secret List of Approved Rabbis From Abroad

Despite repeated denials, Haaretz obtained an internal document confirming Israel's top religious institution maintains a list of approved rabbis whose certification of conversion and marriage makes the cut

File photo: Chief Rabbinate officials in Israel.
Nir Kafri

Despite its repeated denials, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate maintains a list of approved rabbis from abroad, an internal document confirms. Citing this new evidence, a non-profit active in fighting the powerful Israeli religious institution issued it an ultimatum on Sunday: Either release the names with no further delay or brace yourselves for a lawsuit.

According to the internal document, the Rabbinate has kept this list of rabbis – only Orthodox rabbis, since it does not recognize the Conservative or Reform movements – for at least 25 and perhaps as long as 35 years.

Individuals from abroad who register 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. Congregational rabbis abroad also provide letters of certification for converts. For such individuals, knowing which rabbis appear on the approved list is, therefore, critical.

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The document notes that the list was compiled when Avraham Shapira and Mordechei Eliyahu served, respectively, as the chief Ashkenazi and Sephardi rabbis of Israel. The two held these positions between 1983 and 1993.

From left: Adam Scheier, Elazar Stern and Seth Farber , a Modern Orthodox rabbi and director of ITIM: The Jewish-Life Information Center, 2018.
Aviad Weizman

In July 2017, it was reported that the Rabbinate maintains a blacklist of 160 rabbis from abroad whose letters certifying the Jewish credentials of individuals marrying in Israel it does not accept. The Rabbinate denied at the time that it maintains such a blacklist and said that it evaluates each letter of certification it receives on a case-by-case basis. In other words, the list in question merely referred to individually rejected cases and did not mean that all letters written by those rabbis had or would be rejected. It added that its decisions are not influenced by the identity of the rabbi writing the letter, but rather, by other factors, such as the authenticity of the documents it receives.

The Rabbinate subsequently announced that it planned to publish a full list of criteria for recognizing rabbis from abroad. In a draft list of these criteria, recently circulated and obtained by Haaretz, it acknowledged – apparently inadvertently – that it already maintained a list of recognized rabbis. This list, according to the document, is regularly updated.

Its purpose, the draft list said, was “to facilitate” the work of rabbis in Israel who are required to validate the Jewish credentials of individuals from abroad interested in marrying in the country.

ITIM, an organization that advocates for immigrants and converts challenged by Israel’s religious bureaucracy, had submitted a Freedom of Information Act Inquiry several years ago demanding that the Rabbinate publicize its list of recognized rabbis. The rabbinate said in response that “this list that has been requested cannot be provided for the simple reason that it does not exist."

But its existence has been confirmed now through the draft criteria for recognizing rabbis. Making this list of recognized rabbis public is absolutely vital, ITIM wrote in its letter to the Rabbinate “so that Jews whose parents were not married in Israel or were divorced abroad, or individuals converted abroad, who are interested in marrying in Israel, will know how to prepare."

A spokesman for the Rabbinate said that just because such a list of rabbis exists does not mean there is any “blacklist” of rabbis. “Just because somebody does not appear on this list does not mean that he is disqualified." The rabbinate maintains that the list of recognized rabbis is not exhaustive, but ITIM argues that its mere existence insinuates that there is also a blacklist of rabbis who didn’t make the cut.

Many Orthodox rabbis were astonished to discover their names on the list, published in July 2017, of rabbis whose letters of certification had been rejected. News that such a list existed sparked outrage in the Jewish world.

Asked to comment, Rabbi Seth Farber, founder and executive director of ITIM, said that if the Rabbinate won't publish the names of the rabbis it recognizes, his organization will take legal action: “It is amazing that the Rabbinate can justify itself, on the one hand, saying there is no list, and then acknowledge, in their own document, that such a list has existed for decades, while claiming to be acting in the best interests of the Jewish people. The first step toward respect is honesty and transparency, and right now, we are going to use the courts to make sure there is honesty and transparency."