Rabbinate's Discrimination of Orthodox Rabbis Abroad Prompts Emergency Knesset Meeting

Conservative and Reform movements increasingly demanding recognition of their conversions and marriages in Israel.

The Knesset’s Religion and State lobby will hold an emergency meeting on Tuesday on what it describes as the “split between Israel's Chief Rabbinate and the Jewish Diaspora,” which is worsening with the exposure of the Rabbinate’s policies against moderate Orthodox rabbis overseas.

Rabbinate officials have, in recent years, questioned the Jewish legal authority of a number of these liberal Orthodox rabbis abroad, and refused to recognize the conversions they have conducted. The latest case, involving prominent New York Rabbi Avi Weiss, has fueled suspicions that the Rabbinate maintains a secret "black list" containing the names of Orthodox rabbis from overseas.

The Knesset meeting was preceded by letters and protests from rabbis and various organizations in Israel, such as the Tzohar group of rabbis, the religious Zionist Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, the Shalom Hartman Institute and ITIM, an organization that helps people navigate the religious authorities’ bureaucracy in Israel.

It will take place amidst increasing demands of the Conservative and Reform movements abroad for recognition of their conversions and marriages in Israel, a central issue on the agenda of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, being held this week in Israel.

In the most recent case that sparked the anger of both Israeli rabbis and prominent American Jews, the Rabbinate cast doubt on the authority of Rabbi Avi Weiss, a well known and influential liberal Orthodox rabbi from New York. It rejected a letter by Weiss vouching for the Jewish credentials of an American couple seeking to wed in Israel (the Rabbinate routinely requires a letter from an Orthodox rabbi certifying one’s Jewish identity in cases of non-Israelis seeking to immigrate or marry in Israel). The couple was asked to bring a letter from a different rabbi.

Weiss, the spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, has been the subject of controversy in recent years for pushing the envelope when it comes to ordaining Orthodox women as clergy. After learning that his credentials were being challenged by the Rabbinate, Weiss penned an opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post earlier this month, calling on Israel to end the Rabbinate’s “monopoly on religious dictates of the state.”

The case added to suspicions that the Rabbinate has a black list of Orthodox rabbis from overseas, whom they consider too liberal or improperly ordained - including rabbis who belong to mainstream Orthodox organizations such as the Rabbinical Council of America. Weiss left the RCA - some say he was forced to leave - after being criticized for ordaining the first woman as an Orthodox community rabbi.

Prominent law professor Alan Dershowitz asked President Shimon Peres to intervene in the case of the apparent blacklisting of Weiss by the Chief Rabbinate. Dershowitz, a practicing criminal and constitutional lawyer, wrote to Peres on Monday saying: “Rabbi Weiss is one of the foremost Modern Open Orthodox rabbis in America and one of the strongest advocates anywhere for the State of Israel. As a person – I am deeply saddened by the pubic shaming of my friend, Rabbi Avraham Weiss, the leader of a flagship Orthodox congregation.

“As a Jew – I understand that today more than ever before there is a chasm between the Jews of the United States and the religious institutions in Israel. This is clearly expressed in the rejection of the most elementary and fundamental testimonies and confirmations. I am disturbed by this, and by its ramifications, and call upon the leaders of Israel to first understand that there is a serious problem which demands attention, and to understand that they mustn’t bend to baseless religious tyranny," wrote Dershowitz.

“As a lawyer – I am forced to see yet again how basic rights, such as the right to marriage, the right to self-definition and the right of religion, are trampled by none other than the Israeli democracy we value so. This is yet another result of the rather unsuccessful fusion of religious law and Israeli law, and the problem seems to only intensify over time."

Gil Cohen-Magen