Israeli Chief Rabbinate Proposes Criteria for 'White List' of Overseas Rabbis

Committee reportedly decided on criteria in one meeting, without consulting affected rabbis abroad

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau. Was unaware of a blacklist in Israel's Chief Rabbinate.
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau. Was unaware of a blacklist in Israel's Chief Rabbinate.Credit: Emil Salman
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

Haaretz has obtained a document that for the first time proposes criteria that Israel's Chief Rabbinate will use in determining whether to recognize decisions by overseas rabbis.

The criteria, prepared by a Rabbinate committee, will be reviewed and voted on by the body in about six weeks.

The document stems from the storm that erupted in 2016 when a rabbinical court refused to recognize conversions performed by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, an Orthodox American rabbi famous for having supervising Ivanka Trump’s conversion to Judaism. That decision infuriated the Chief Rabbinate, leading Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau to state that he recognizes Lookstein’s conversions.

To resolve the dispute, a committee comprising representatives of both the Rabbinate and the rabbinical courts convened in December 2016 to set the criteria for which overseas rabbis’ decisions would be accepted by Israel’s religious establishment.

Sources involved in the issue told Hararetz that the committee drafted its recommendations in a single meeting, without consulting any rabbis outside of Israel.

The document states that recognition will be granted only to Orthodox rabbis who accept both the written Torah and oral Torah (the Bible and the Talmud) as well as halakha, or traditional Jewish law. The rabbis must also belong to a recognized Orthodox rabbinical organization, such as the U.S. Orthodox Union. Finally, they must belong to communities with permanent rabbinical courts that rule according to halakha, and whose decisions are accepted by the community and its rabbis.

A rabbi who doesn’t come from such a community will be evaluated individually based on his religious rulings and halakhic positions. This process will include consulting other rabbis from his community and reading the rulings.

Conversions and divorces will be recognized only if performed by regular rabbinical courts that operate year-round and have permanent judges. Ad hoc rabbinical panel convened by ordinary community rabbis won’t be recognized.

In order to join the list of recognized rabbis and rabbinical courts, new rabbis or courts will have to fill out a detailed application and then be tested by a committee appointed by Israel’s Rabbinical High Court. Rabbis already on the list will be periodically reevaluated, and will be removed if “real fault” is found.

Nevertheless, the document says, nothing in the above criteria “restricts the rabbinical courts’ authority to investigate and demand proof regarding certificates and approvals issued by recognized rabbinical judges or rabbis if the rabbinical court deems it necessary.” That clause largely makes the entire document moot.

Finally, it says, any decisions to include or exclude an entity from the list must be approved by the head of the Rabbinical High Court.

The rabbinate prepared its first “white list” of approved rabbis in the early 1990s and has periodically updated it, but since the list was never published, it was unclear who appeared on it. Moreover, it included no explanations for why certain rabbis were blacklisted. Even if a rabbi was on the white list, rabbinical courts could nevertheless reject his decisions.

On Sunday, the Rabbinate published its blacklist of overseas rabbis for the first time. Inclusion on this list doesn’t mean a rabbi’s decisions will be categorically rejected; it only means the rabbinate has rejected at least one decision the rabbi made at some point in time. The list includes some prominent U.S. Orthodox rabbis.

The blacklist sparked an unusually irate response from Chief Rabbi David Lau. “It’s inconceivable that an official in the Chief Rabbinate should decide on his own to publish [a list of] which rabbis are approved and which aren’t,” said an aide, speaking on Lau’s behalf. He added that the official in question – the head of the rabbinate’s department for approving conversions, Rabbi Itamar Tubul – would be reprimanded.

Yair Sheleg, head of the Israel Democracy Institute’s religion and state program, told Haaretz that “there’s a problem in principle with the Israeli Rabbinate’s desire to subordinate all rabbis worldwide to itself. Moreover, there’s a problem with the demand that rabbis who want to obtain recognition should have to undergo another exam on top of the one they passed when they were ordained as rabbis.”

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