Israel's Chief Rabbinate, it emerged this week, maintains a "blacklist" of 160 overseas rabbis whose rulings it rejects on the question of "Who is a Jew?" The list includes rabbis from around the world, including 62 from the United States, many of them ordained by the Orthodox movement.
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For those confused and concerned, here’s the good news: The list is not in any way official and has not been endorsed by Israel’s chief rabbis. In fact, it's likely to become irrelevant within the next month or two.
Even if your rabbi’s name does appear on it, that doesn't mean you're barred from moving to Israel or holding your wedding in the country.
Here are answers to some questions that have arisen since details about the blacklist were published...
The rabbi who converted me appears on the blacklist. Does that mean my conversion will not be recognized in Israel?
Not necessarily. The Rabbinate, it turns out, maintains several blacklists. The one published Sunday refers only to rabbis who have written letters certifying that individuals are Jewish enough to be married in Israel. It has nothing to do with conversions.
In order for individuals born overseas to marry in Israel, they must provide a letter from an Orthodox rabbi certifying that they are Jewish according to religious law (halakha). To qualify as Jewish halakhically, they must either have been born to Jewish mothers or have been converted by Orthodox rabbis approved by the Rabbinate. (The Rabbinate does not approve all Orthodox rabbis – especially those of a more progressive orientation – hence another blacklist.)
In response to the blacklist, a Rabbinate spokesman noted Sunday that just because a rabbi had a letter rejected for the purpose of marriage registration does not necessarily mean other documents produced by that same rabbi will or have been rejected.
So it's not out of the question the Rabbinate might rule that a conversion performed by an Orthodox rabbi is kosher, even if that same rabbi had a letter rejected for the purpose of marriage registration.
If my rabbi’s name appears on this list, does that mean I won’t be able to move to Israel and obtain Israeli citizenship?
It should have no effect whatsoever on your plans to move to Israel, and that’s because the Rabbinate has no say on decisions regarding who can and cannot immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return.
The Law of Return stipulates that any individual who has at least one Jewish grandparent, or has been converted by a rabbi in a “recognized Jewish community,” is eligible for Israeli citizenship. It is the Jewish Agency and Interior Ministry – not the Rabbinate – that determine whether applicants for immigration meet those qualifications.
In making their rulings, the Agency and ministry also rely on letters from rabbis abroad – but they do not care which movements the rabbis are affiliated with, as long as they are from “recognized Jewish communities.”
Therefore, as far as the Agency and Interior Ministry are concerned, a rabbi from a Conservative or Reform community in New York is as good a reference as an ultra-Orthodox rabbi for an individual applying to immigrate – because in order to move to Israel, you do not need to be a halakhic Jew.
If my rabbi’s name appears on the list, does that mean I can’t get married in Israel?
Heaven forbid – you simply have to know how to work the system. The list published Sunday provides the names of rabbis whose letters certifying the Jewishness of individuals seeking to marry in Israel have been rejected. (Incidentally, there are quite a few deceased rabbis whose names appear on the list.) That doesn't mean all the letters they have ever written on behalf of individuals seeking to marry in Israel have been rejected. It's enough that one letter was rejected for them to find themselves on the list.
It's important to remember that the Rabbinate will not even consider letters from Conservative and Reform rabbis. Therefore, individuals seeking to get married in Israel who are members of Conservative and Reform congregations must get Orthodox rabbis to vouch for them.
There's a good chance that some of the Orthodox rabbis whose names appear on the list had their letters rejected because they were written on behalf of Conservative and Reform Jews. The same rabbis could also have written letters on behalf of members of their own Orthodox congregations that were accepted. So, if your Orthodox rabbi is on the list and you are a member of his Orthodox congregation, the chances are that a letter from him on your behalf will be accepted.
If you don’t want to take any chances, it is recommended that you approach one of several Orthodox organizations in the United States that are considered trustworthy by the Rabbinate for such a letter. These include the Beth Din of America, the Chicago Rabbinical Council, the Rabbinical Council of California, the Council of Orthodox Rabbis of Greater Detroit, and Agudas Harabonim.
These organizations generally conduct a bit of research on the background of applicants, but they don’t go crazy. Strange as it sounds, rabbis whose letters have been rejected by the Rabbinate are sometimes used by these organizations as references. Lately, however, these organizations have been advised by those familiar with the Rabbinate not to provide any rabbinical references whatsoever in their letters, just to be on the safe side.
Didn’t I hear that the Ashkenazi chief rabbi was shocked to discover that the blacklist existed and distanced himself from it? How can that be if this list was published by the Rabbinate?
Welcome to Israel, where one hand often has no idea what the other is doing.
Here's some background on the list, why it was compiled and how it suddenly surfaced. The list was drafted by Rabbi Itamar Tubul, head of the Rabbinate’s personal status division. Tubul is essentially the official who determines who may or may not marry in Israel.
Following numerous complaints by individuals who were told they couldn't marry in Israel, but were given little, if any, explanation for the decision, ITIM – an organization that assists converts and immigrants challenged by Israel’s religious bureaucracy – filed a Freedom of Information Act request, demanding that the Rabbinate publish a list of Diaspora rabbis whose letters of certification it does not recognize.
Legally obliged to fulfill the request, Tubul passed along his list of 160 rabbis to ITIM. The problem was that he never notified his bosses that he was publicizing, let alone compiling, such a list.
So what's the upshot of all this? If an Israeli chief rabbi doesn't stand behind the list, is it worth anything? The Chief Rabbinate Council, which is comprised of 17 members (including the Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis), has been drafting a list of criteria that will determine which Orthodox rabbis outside of Israel will be recognized in the country for the purposes of marriage and conversion. It promises that letters from rabbis who meet these criteria will automatically be approved.
The criteria are expected to be published within a month or two when the council convenes for its next meeting. It could very well be that many of the Orthodox rabbis whose names appeared on the blacklist will turn out to be 100 percent kosher according to these new criteria.