Avi Weiss Is Not Alone: Israeli Rabbinate Disqualifies Another U.S. Rabbi

Educator Scot Berman says he was told only pulpit rabbis can confirm Judaism of non-Israelis.

Yet another North American Orthodox rabbi has been disqualified by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. The institution recently refused to recognize the authority of Rabbi Scot Berman, an ordained U.S. Orthodox rabbi and longtime religious educator, in vouching for the Jewishness of a woman from his community in Toronto who had come to Israel to marry.

The Israeli rabbinate’s rejection a few months ago of Avi Weiss, a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi in New York and founder of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school, has been widely covered in the Israeli and international Jewish media. The rabbinate disqualified Weiss from attesting to the personal status of members of his New York congregation who sought to marry in Israel, an act the Anti-Defamation League called a “witch hunt.”

Whereas in the case of Weiss, the rabbinate said there were doubts about his “commitment to customary and accepted Jewish halakha,” or Jewish law, Berman was apparently rejected as a witness because he is not a congregational rabbi - a hitherto unknown criterion. Berman is a member of the Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox organization that the Israeli rabbinate had previously accepted. His extensive professional resume includes stints at many leading Jewish education institutions in North America, including Yeshivat Ohr Chaim Bnei Akiva in Toronto.

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate clearly considers Weiss too liberal - he recently became the first Orthodox rabbi to grant ordination to women - Berman told Haaretz in a telephone interview he’s convinced that in his case the decision was not personal. He said he doesn’t think someone in the rabbinate said, “I know Rabbi Berman, he’s disqualified.” Rather, Berman said, he believes they decided that because he is not a pulpit rabbi he isn’t equipped to judge whether a particular individual is Jewish.

New York’s The Jewish Week quoted Berman as saying the rabbinate’s decision was “indicative of the Chief Rabbinate’s lack of understanding of the Jewish community in North America.”

In his interview with Haaretz, he declined to comment on the case of Weiss, but he did say the issue goes beyond a single incident.

The Chief Rabbinate routinely requires Jews from abroad seeking to marry in Israel to bring a letter from an Orthodox rabbi confirming that their are Jewish according to halakha. In the case of the Toronto woman, the rabbinate told her that Berman’s letter was unacceptable and she was forced to find another rabbi who could vouch for her.

Berman, meanwhile, has asked ITIM, an organization that helps Israelis navigate the rabbinic bureaucracy, to help him to understand why he was “blacklisted.”

In saying that Weiss was disqualified because he is not a pulpit rabbi, the Chief Rabbinate seemed to be contradicting a document it sent last week to MK Elazar Stern regarding Weiss, which said, in part, “In contrast to the rules in Israel, where rabbis can only be appointed by the Chief Rabbinate, abroad there are no standards for appointing rabbis, and every community has its own customs and acts according to its will. It is impossible to set criteria for rabbis who were appointed without any criteria themselves, and so the Chief Rabbinate handles each and every case separately.”

The Chief Rabbinate told Weiss it was continuing its investigation of him, including consulting with U.S. rabbis that it trusts.

In a letter to Weiss’ attorney, Chief Rabbinate legal advisor Harel Goldberg said the rabbinate had been contacted by rabbis known to it “who claim that Rabbi Weiss’ halakhic positions, as expressed in various incidents and under various circumstances, cast doubt on the degree of his commitment to customary and accepted Jewish halakha.”

A number of Orthodox organizations in the United States and in Israel have criticized the rabbinate’s position on Weiss, including the Israeli organizations Tzohar and Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah. This week, the Anti-Defamation League added its voice to the growing chorus.

In a letter to the Chief Rabbinate, leaders from New York’s Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, which Weiss led for decades, asked it to reveal its criteria for accepting or rejecting the testimony of Orthodox rabbis from abroad.

The building of the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem.
Alex Levac