Israel's Chief Rabbinate came under fierce attack in the Knesset on Wednesday over recent revelations that it maintains a “blacklist” of Diaspora rabbis.
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Lawmakers spanning the political spectrum warned that by shaming and discrediting prominent rabbis outside the country, the Rabbinate risked jeopardizing Israel’s relations with the rest of the Jewish world.
The Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs held a special early-morning session to address the controversial blacklist, which has infuriated world Jewish leaders.
The blacklist contains the names of 160 overseas rabbis whose letters certifying the Jewishness of candidates for marriage in Israel have been rejected by the Rabbinate. It includes many prominent Orthodox rabbis.
“This list adds insult to injury,” said MK Nachman Shai of the oppositionist Zionist Union, citing two other recent government actions that have created an uproar in the Jewish world: the decision to suspend plans to build a new and permanent plaza at Jerusalem’s Western Wall for egalitarian prayer, and a controversial conversion bill, since put on hold, which would grant the Rabbinate a monopoly over conversions performed in Israel.
“The Chief Rabbinate has no authority in the Diaspora and no right to reject and disgrace Jewish communities abroad,” added Shai, who initiated the gathering as the chairman of the Knesset Caucus for Strengthening the Jewish People.
The committee members responded with astonishment after hearing the testimony of Rabbi Elan Adler, one of the blacklisted rabbis. Adler said he was “shocked and pained to see my name on a list of blemished rabbis, rabbis who are suspect at very least regarding their documents, and perhaps worse, deemed as unreliable and defective.”
Adler, who immigrated to Israel seven years ago, told the committee that as a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University in New York, he had served as an assistant to the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a seminal figure in modern Orthodoxy. Over the course of his 31-year rabbinical career, Adler served as the spiritual leader of three congregations in the United States, all certified by the Orthodox Union. “These congregations have a combined membership of 2,500 families,” he said. “If they can’t trust me, who can?”
Adler said that over the years, he had written numerous letters confirming the Jewish and single status of candidates for marriage in Israel as well as letters validating that conversions conformed with Jewish religious law. “Not in one single instance was I ever questioned by the Rabbinate about my status as an Orthodox rabbi and whether I was qualified to write such letters,” he said. “If there was ever any mistake in any of my documents, I was never notified by the Rabbinate nor questioned or called to find out about information missing or to clarify any details. It’s as if they knew better than I did about the people I knew and was writing letters for.”
Accusing the Rabbinate of lacking basic “derech eretz” (good manners), Adler lamented that his status as an Orthodox rabbi “was not sufficient to spare me from this shame and embarrassment.”
Representing the Chief Rabbinate at the meeting was its director-general, Rabbi Moshe Dagan, who argued that the controversial document was not a blacklist of unrecognized rabbis, but rather a list of rabbis who had at least one of their letters rejected. “The whole issue has been taken out of context,” he insisted.
The Chief Rabbinate, he said, was currently drawing up a list of criteria for determining which Orthodox rabbis abroad deserve recognition in Israel.
When pressed by the Knesset members to explain why a letter from an Orthodox rabbi would be rejected, Dagan said forgeries were one possibility. In other cases, he said, it was possible that the marriage certificate of the parents of the bride or groom (required evidence of Jewish lineage) was deemed invalid due to a “non-kosher” witness at their weddings. Another possible explanation, he said, was that the rabbi providing the letter was not certified to officiate at weddings.
“You are dealing with people’s lives here – this is not just a matter of documentation,” MK Yehuda Glick of the ruling Likud party admonished Adler. “You can’t start checking whether every rabbi has learned enough Talmud or has a beard that’s long enough. If a rabbi is good enough to serve as the leader of a congregation abroad, then the Chief Rabbinate here should welcome him with open arms.”
Rachel Azaria, from the center-right Kulanu party, which serves in the ruling coalition, said she was aware of religious Jews who were reconsidering plans to move to Israel out of fear they would not be recognized as Jewish in the country. “What you are saying,” she told Dagan, “is that the Chief Rabbinate is the only institution in the world that can determine who is Jewish. This was never the case in the past, and it certainly is not Israel’s role to determine which rabbis outside the country are legitimate and which are not.”
Aliza Lavie, of the oppositionist Yesh Atid party, accused the Rabbinate of turning itself into the “commissar of the Jewish people.”
The chief rabbis of Israel, it was decided at the conclusion of the meeting, would be invited to a follow-up session at which time the new criteria for vetting rabbis from abroad would be presented.
Dagan did not respond to questions from Conservative movement leaders, present at the meeting, concerning how the Rabbinate views non-Orthodox and progressive-minded Orthodox rabbis.
The blacklist was elicited from the Chief Rabbinate as a result of a Freedom of Information Act inquiry submitted by Itim, an organization that advocates on behalf of immigrants to Israel.