Time for U.S. Rabbis to Fight Back?

As the Israeli Chief Rabbinate excludes more and more overseas rabbis, Orthodox rabbis abroad should consider pushing back - a boycott for a boycott.

When the Israeli Chief Rabbinate recently rejected letters, written by prominent American Orthodox rabbis, that certify the Jewishness of people wishing to marry in Israel, then we should all be concerned, not only North American Jewry. The emasculation of the North American Orthodox rabbinate is a problem in which Israel's government, particularly Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, should both be more seriously involved. 

The background to this latest round of the "Who is a Jew" controversy stems from the Israeli Rabbinate's monopoly on marriage in Israel, and particularly from the fact that the determination of who can marry and who can’t is made without there being appropriate checks and balances in place. By law, there is no civil marriage in Israel, and Jews who wish to marry must demonstrate their Jewish bona fides to the marriage registrar, who almost always is the Orthodox municipal rabbi. Those born in Israel generally produce their parents' marriage certificate (or ketubah), and this is considered sufficient proof (though I wonder how much longer this will remain true). 

An individual whose parents were not married through the Israeli Rabbinate must provide some other proof. For Jews coming from English-speaking countries, this usually means providing a letter certifying the individual's Jewishness from an Orthodox rabbi.

But here is where the problem begins. Amos Oz once quipped that the issue of who is a Jew really stems from the question of who is a rabbi. And for the Rabbinate, fewer and fewer "rabbis" are rabbis.

The Rabbinate argues that it isn’t easy to keep tabs on which rabbis around the world are kosher and which are not. The Rabbinate is interested in upholding – from their perspective - the integrity of the tribe. Accordingly, anyone who comes from overseas is considered suspect, including the rabbis.

The Rabbinate doesn’t have strict procedures for whom they trust and, generally, they only rely on people they have relied on in the past. This leaves all recent graduates out in the cold. But even rabbis who were accepted in the past are now being rejected with no reason provided. 

One can surmise that some letters are rejected because rabbis have taken controversial positions that, in the eyes of the Rabbinate, throw their credibility into question. But I believe it is essential to differentiate between an opinion one might have of a person's specific take on an issue, and the basic trust we have in him (or her). Halakhically, it is clear that we don’t need a rabbi to testify regarding one's Jewishness, and certainly not a rabbinical court (even though recently this is the preferred route for Israel's Rabbinate, as I have learned from experience).

And this is why the prime minister and his government have a big problem on their hands. At present, the overwhelming majority of the Jewish people outside Israel are not (and will not be) recognized as Jews by the Rabbinate.  This situation is intolerable and essentially undermines the character of Israel as a center for the Jewish people.

Israel is proud of the hundreds of thousands of students who have visited during the past decade.  But I think it is safe to say that more than 90 percent of them would have their Jewishness questioned by the Rabbinate.

During the last five years, ITIM has helped thousands of couples from overseas and immigrant couples navigate the labyrinths of the Rabbinate. But this is becoming harder and harder, as more and more rabbis are being told: “You’re not good enough.”

How long will it take for the North American rabbinate to call for a boycott of Israel?  It would be eminently reasonable for the North American rabbinate to say to Israel’s leadership, “If you don’t recognize me, why should I recognize you?”

It behooves the prime minister and religious services minister to get involved in this issue, and not simply to say that the Rabbinate can act as they please, since the law gives them that power.

Ignoring a festering wound doesn’t make it go away. And if Israel’s political leadership doesn’t put a cease and desist order on the delegitimization of rabbis abroad, then they shouldn’t be surprised if they find themselves delegitimized in the future.

Rabbi Seth Farber is the director of ITIM: Resources and Advocacy for Jewish Life.

Emil Salman