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Israel Is 'Blacklisting' U.S. Orthodox Rabbis to Defend Jewish Identity. We Should Back It

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Conversion court in the Israeli town of Kiryat Malachi
Conversion court in the Israeli town of Kiryat MalachiCredit: \ Alon Ron

When Israel's Chief Rabbinate recently announced the drafting of new rules which would recognize conversions only by specific diaspora institutions, rather than congregational rabbis, there was a predictable outcry.

Those rabbis not meeting the rabbinate's standards will not be able to authorize conversions that are subsequently recognized by Israel. That led to some calling the insistence on clear Orthodox standards as a "blacklisting" of rabbis who fail to meet this criteria.

It was the latest iteration in a debate about who defines Orthodoxy. But all the noise aside, it is a principled act by Israel's rabbinate to avoid the disastrous disunity of the Jewish community, and the fracturing of Jewish identity, that inconsistent conversion standards have wrought in American Jewish life.

Recently, a Yeshivat Chovevei Torah-ordained rabbi, Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld, certified a woman’s Jewish status and this was rejected by the rabbinate.

His lawyer called the rejection "scandalous", that it "reflects ignorance," that it delivers "a severe blow" to Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewry and "abandons the religious system in Israel to Haredi hands." The rabbinate, he asserts, based its rejection on the rabbi’s affiliation with "modern Orthodoxy." The lawyer himself, Assaf Benmelech, is chairman of Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, which in its own words seeks to promote "open and tolerant discourse" within Orthodoxy.

That assertion has led many to call out the rabbinate for its past insistence that, when evaluating the religious status of individuals regarding qualification for rabbinate-sanctioned marriages, it looks only at the trustworthiness of those vouching for the candidate, not his or her affiliations.

Another among the outraged is Rabbi Seth Farber, founder of a group called Itim, which seeks to help people counter the "fear, lack of knowledge, disgust, frustration, and anger" they feel in dealings with Israel’s rabbinic establishment.

He censured the rabbinate for, despite its past claims to the contrary, maintaining a "blacklist" and bowing to "the more extremist elements among them."

File photo: Israel's Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Rabbi David Lau (R), sits next to Israel's Sephardi chief rabbi, Rabbi Yitzhak Yossef.Credit: Emil Salman

I bear no brief for the Israeli rabbinate. I am an American rabbi and commentator with no relationship to that institution, and am privy neither to its policies nor its workings. The rabbinate can speak for itself.

But, even at my distance, I think that thoughtful Jews would do well to stand back and consider two germane facts here.

First, that Mr. Benmelech’s characterization of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah as  representative of "modern Orthodoxy" does a grave disservice to Jews and institutions that have proudly worn that latter label for decades.

The movement with which his client Rabbi Herzfeld is affiliated originally named itself "Open Orthodoxy." Of late, it has shed its titular skin and claimed the "modern" mantle.  But (to shamelessly mix wildlife metaphors) the leopard has not changed any of its spots.

The erstwhile "Open Orthodox" movement is, simply put, not Orthodox. That is to say that it is theologically indistinguishable from the early Conservative movement, and differs from it only in the fact that the latter movement’s founders were sufficiently honest to admit it was a new, divergent, endeavor.

The Rabbinical Council of America does not accept YCT’s rabbinic certifications; neither does the National Council of Young Israel. Rabbinic leaders from established Orthodox organizations and institutions ranging from Agudath Israel of America (for which I work) to Yeshiva University have all rejected the appropriateness of "Orthodox" as a descriptive of YCT. 

And second, that the word "blacklist" is an unnecessarily pejorative word for what is, in the end, an insistence on standards. 

Demonstrators protesting against the draft conversion law and cancellation of the Western Wall prayer space agreement, in Jerusalem, June 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Medical students who have not demonstrated the knowledge or ethos requisite to earning their accreditation have not been "blacklisted"; they have simply not made the grade. And if a national medical association considers a particular medical school to be deficient in its training of doctors, the school’s degrees will not be recognized. It hasn’t been "blacklisted"; it has simply not met the standard.

That standard is maintained by the institutions that Israel's Chief Rabbinate will recognize in matters of conversion: The Rabbinical Council of America, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis in the United States, the Conference of European Rabbis, the Rabbinical Centre of Europe, the Chief Rabbinate of the United Kingdom and the Chief Rabbinate of France.

And so, whether or not the rabbinate in Israel has in the past in fact rejected certifications of halakhic Jewishness due to a rabbi’s affiliation with a non-Orthodox institution, it has every right – and responsibility – to do so. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (who is duly cited by YCT leaders when they feel something in the great sage’s responsa comports with some position they espouse) was clear that a mere affiliation with the Conservative or Reform movement invalidates a rabbi’s ability to offer testimony (Iggrot Moshe Yoreh Deah 1:160).

There was a time, indeed for most of modern Jewish history, when individual rabbis’ testimonies were all it took to establish Jewish credentials, and when conversions overseen by any three rabbis were not challenged.

There were days, too, though, when halakha-observant Jews could judge the kashrut of a processed food by just reading the ingredients.

Today, though, Jewish life is more complicated. Products contain a laundry list of obscure colorings, flavorings and preservatives, from a plethora of sources. That’s why kashrut organizations were established, and why they are necessary. 

Rabbis today, too, come in different colorations and flavors. And, at least if halakha is to be respected, standards are not only important but an absolute necessity. Will those who don’t meet the standards be upset?  Surely. Will the Jewish people qua people benefit? Just as surely.

File photo: Chief Rabbinate-run conversion court in Jerusalem, May 23, 2004.Credit: Eyal Warshavsky

Because, rather than focus myopically on the present, we need to think about the future. The sad but incontrovertible fact is that, in America today, there are a multitude of "Jewish peoples" – a situation born of the variety of standards of Jewishness, itself sourced in different conceptions of Jewish identity, conversion – and Judaism itself. 

Whether one chooses to celebrate or bemoan that result of "religious pluralism," it has irreparably fractured the American Jewish community, rendering marriage between Jews from different backgrounds a fraught endeavor.

That is largely not the case today in Israel, due to the single standard upheld by the rabbinate, no matter how imperfect an institution it may be in some eyes. Were things otherwise, the largest Jewish community in the world, the one residing in an officially Jewish state, would be as divided and incoherent as the American one. 

Above all the umbrage-taking and political positioning, the specter of that future must loom, and we ignore it at the Jewish people’s peril.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is a blogger, a columnist for the American edition of Hamodia, and serves as Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs.Twitter: @RabbiAviShafran

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