Israel's Chief Rabbinate Postpones Signing Conversion Treaty With U.S. Rabbis

The rabbinate was to accept all conversions by a group of American Orthodox rabbis after controversially questioning the piety of one of its members.

The Chief Rabbinate this week postponed signing an agreement with the Rabbinical Council of America that was meant to prevent crises like the one that recently erupted over its refusal to accept testimony from a leading American Orthodox rabbi, Avi Weiss.

The signing ceremony was supposed to have taken place at noon on Monday in the rabbinate’s offices in Jerusalem. But shortly beforehand, the rabbinate announced that the ceremony had been canceled, without giving any explanation.

Sources in the rabbinate said that legal problems had arisen with the unprecedented agreement, because the rabbinate has legal authority only in Israel, yet the agreement would be signed with a non-Israeli organization.

Under the agreement, the rabbinate would automatically accept testimony from any of the RCA’s approximately 800 members. Such testimony is needed primarily when American Jews seek to marry in Israel, since in order to register with the rabbinate, they must prove that they are Jewish and unmarried.

The deal was reached in response to the crisis that erupted over the rabbinate’s refusal to accept testimony from Weiss, an RCA member, because it claimed it had doubts about his “commitment to Jewish law.”

But while the RCA announced the agreement with great fanfare two and a half weeks ago, the rabbinate never seemed equally enthusiastic. It refrained from issuing any similar announcement.

The deal also had detractors in America. Aside from the fact that it obviously excludes non-Orthodox rabbis, it also excludes many Orthodox ones. The RCA is the largest Orthodox rabbinical association in America, but it’s only one of several. Thus other rabbis, especially those from Orthodoxy’s liberal wing, were angry at the RCA’s willingness to sign a deal that discriminates against them. Other rabbis will still be able to testify on behalf of congregation members, but they will have to go through the existing vetting procedures rather than having their testimony accepted automatically.

Weiss himself is one of the deal’s opponents. In an op-ed published in the New York Times last week, he argued that it doesn’t solve the real problem: "the Chief Rabbinate’s far-reaching and exclusive control in Israel over personal matters like marriage, and its intrusion into the affairs of the Diaspora. It is time to decentralize the Chief Rabbinate’s power and to give Jewish communities greater say in what is acceptable for their members,” he said.

While the rabbinate was once seen as serving all Jews, he continued, “Today it is largely seen and experienced by many Jews in Israel and abroad as an intrusive and coercive religious body.”

Weiss is an advocate of “Open Orthodoxy,” which, while “committed to the detailed observance of the practices of Jewish law,” also believes “in an Orthodoxy that empowers women to be more involved in Jewish ritual and spiritual leadership; invites religious questioning; promotes dialogue across the Jewish denominations; welcomes all people regardless of sexual orientation or level of religious observance, and looks outward, driven by a sense of responsibility to all people,” he wrote. “The Chief Rabbinate, in contrast, has been turning inward, taking religiously extreme positions, consolidating and extending its power."

“One of the most vibrant aspects of Orthodoxy in America has been its decentralization and proliferation of many voices,” he continued. “It would be particularly distressing for Orthodoxy in America to reverse course and adopt the stifling hierarchical model of the Israeli Rabbinate. In a democratic Jewish state, options must be available...

“Coercion and religion do not mix,” Weiss concluded. “Religious choice would benefit all. When choice is available, religion in general and Orthodoxy in particular will fare better because people will have the freedom to embrace faith willingly. An imposed religion is a disservice to the people and a disservice to religion.”

Olivier Fitoussi and Uriel Koby / Wikicommons