Secret Consultations Behind Israeli Chief Rabbinate's Blacklist of Diaspora Rabbis to Be Made Public

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Chief Rabbinate officials, Israel, November 1, 2009.
Chief Rabbinate officials, Israel, November 1, 2009.Credit: Nir Kafri

An Israeli court has ruled that the country's Chief Rabbinate must publish its correspondences with rabbinical authorities in the United States that served as grounds for blacklisting a group of Modern Orthodox rabbis.

It was based on such consultations that the Rabbinate rejected letters provided by these rabbis – generally of a more liberal orientation – to certify the Jewish credentials of individual marrying in Israel.

The ruling, handed down by the Jerusalem District Court last week, comes in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by Ne’emanei Torah V’Avodah, a progressive-minded Orthodox movement.

The ruling gives the rabbinate, which controls marriage and divorce for Israel's Jewish citizens, 60 days to hand over all relevant communications from the last four years with the Rabbinical Council of America, the main rabbinical association for the Orthodox movement in the United States, as well as with rabbis affiliated with it.

Israel's Chief Rabbinate building in Jerusalem, October 7, 2016.Credit: Lior Mizrahi

It stipulates, however, that the names of the blacklisted rabbis and the names of the rabbis in the United States who were consulted about them would remain classified. Only information that sheds light on the criteria that guided the Rabbinate in its decision-making process, according to the ruling, will be made public.

In response to public pressure, the Rabbinate agreed several years ago to publish a list of approved rabbis from the Diaspora. 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.

But when Ne’emanei Torah V’Avodah asked why certain Orthodox rabbis were not included in the approved list, the Rabbinate refused to share this information.

Among the prominent Orthodox rabbis in the United States whose letters of certification have been rejected by the Rabbinate are Haskel Lookstein, who oversaw the conversion of Ivanka Trump, and Avi Weiss, the founder of Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, a yeshiva affiliated with the more liberal “Open Orthodox” movement.  The Rabbinate does not recognize Conservative or Reform rabbis at all.

The court ruled that the Rabbinate must reimbuse Ne’emanei Torah V’Avodah for 10,000 shekels worth of legal expenses.

Attorney Assaf Benmelech, the chairman of the movement who also represented it in court, welcomed the ruling. “This is public information that should not be hidden,” he said. “In the past, decisions were taken without any transparency, causing disgrace to rabbis with moderate views and unnecessary intervention into the affairs of American Jews.” He said that his movement would use this ruling to demand information on rabbis who had been blacklisted outside the United States as well.

ITIM, an organization that assists individuals challenged by Israel’s religious bureaucracy, has spearheaded the fight to expose and end the blacklisting of Diaspora rabbis. “This is another step toward full transparency, which is a very positive thing,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and executive director of the organization, in response to the verdict.

The Rabbinate did not respond to a request for comment.

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