The Chief Rabbinate has claimed that there are no specific requirements for Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora to be appointed to communal positions, and that such appointments are made in a haphazard manner.
The rabbinate was responding to an inquiry submitted by Hatnua MK Elazar Stern, in cooperation with the ITIM lobbying and religious services organization.
In his letter, Stern asked why the rabbinate was rejecting the authority of Orthodox rabbis in the US to reliably testify as to the Jewish and marital status of their former congregants.
Jewish immigrants to Israel frequently need a rabbi from their community abroad to testify that they are Jewish, and require their confirmation regarding their marital status before they can marry in Israel.
ITIM and other groups have reported an increasing number of incidents in which the credentials of Orthodox rabbis are being rejected by the Chief Rabbinate.
“In the Diaspora, there are no criteria for appointing rabbis, each community behaves in its own way, and appoints [rabbis] as it sees fit,” wrote rabbis Yitzhak Elharar and Refael Frank, both senior assistants to Chief Rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau.
“There is no possibility [for the Chief Rabbinate] to establish criteria [for approving Orthodox rabbis from abroad] who were appointed without any criteria,” the rabbis said.
They said that the rabbinate therefore conducts checks on all rabbis submitting documentation about former congregants.
They asserted that these checks are carried out in cooperation with rabbinical groups and courts in the Diaspora, and that the relationship between the rabbinate and Orthodox Jewry was productive and amicable.
Seth Farber, ITIM director and Orthodox rabbi, said that the letter demonstrated “the lack of understanding” the Israeli rabbinate has for Diaspora communities.
“Instead of recognizing the significance and standing of Orthodox rabbis and communities, the rabbinate is deepening the divide,” said Farber.
“Do they really believe that synagogues hire Orthodox rabbis without criteria? You cannot say that someone is acting in a flippant manner in one sentence, and then say that he is my partner in the next!” he said.
Additionally, the Ne’emanei Torah Ve’Avodah (NTA) organization, a moderate national-religious lobbying group, also criticized the Chief Rabbinate’s process for approving the credentials of Diaspora rabbis.
It said that it may file a petition to the High Court of Justice to demand greater transparency when dealing with such issues.
In October, it was revealed that the Chief Rabbinate rejected the authority, and credentials, of Rabbi Avi Weiss, from New York, to issue documentation confirming the Jewish and marital status of his congregants who wish to register for marriage in Israel.
NTA protested the rabbinate’s rejection of Weiss’s credentials and wrote to the rabbinate, demanding that it disclose the process through which such decisions are made.
The organization also criticized the rabbinate for having failed to contact Weiss personally on the matter.
“The rabbinate is still not accepting his testimony and everything [his rejection] is because of complaints whose origin is not known, and [the Chief Rabbinate] maintain the freeze despite our appeals, and those of others.
“The rabbinate is trying to present itself as conducting a legitimate process, while the process is completely illegitimate from an ethical standpoint.”
On Tuesday, NTA received a response in which the rabbinate said that it had been contacted by various rabbis in the US, whom it trusts – including rabbis from the Orthodox umbrella organization of the Rabbinical Council of America, of which Weiss is a member.
These rabbis said that they were concerned that Weiss did not adhere to an Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law.
The rabbinate said that in response to these reports it opened an investigation into Weiss and will contact him before any final decision is made.
NTA criticized this decision, saying that it was worrying that the Chief Rabbinate disqualified Weiss from providing documentation about his congregants due to “claims whose content and motivation was unknown.”
“The decision to disqualify Rabbi Weiss shows that those associated with the Modern Orthodox movement, who are trying to deal courageously with the challenges of our generation within the boundaries of Jewish law, are not welcomed by the Chief Rabbinate,” NTA said on Thursday.
“The very existence of the process described [by the Chief Rabbinate] should frighten anyone who is concerned about a divided culture [in Israel] and of the Jewish character of the country,” the organization said.
Furthermore, they said that while debate on the boundaries of Jewish law and the authority of rabbis was important, it should be conducted “publicly and in the open.”
Rabbis Asher Lopatin and Dov Linzer, the president and dean respectively of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York, an Orthodox institution that was established by Weiss, criticized the rabbinate for rejecting Weiss’ credentials.
“If the rabbinate was receiving any equivocal information, it is time for them to question their sources in America, and not Rabbi Weiss,” said the rabbis.
“His Orthodoxy and scrupulous adherence to Halacha, both in his professional life and in his religious leadership, is absolute and beyond any doubt.
“Questioning Rabbi Weiss’ Orthodox credentials casts a pall not over him, but over the entirety of American Orthodoxy,” they said.
Weiss is a well respected, and well known, Orthodox figure in the US and serves as the rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a synagogue.
Some of his activities and positions have however aroused controversy in Orthodox circles in the US, particularly his establishment of a seminary for women – to gain rabbinic ordination called Yeshivat Maharat.
The rabbi has himself said that he believes the original rejection of documentation supplied by him regarding a couple who were formerly part of his congregation was politically motivated, by his detractors in the US, specifically relating to some of the organizations he is involved with, such as Maharat.
Weiss is not the only rabbi whose credentials have been questioned by the Chief Rabbinate of late, and the phenomenon is reportedly increasing.
Modern Orthodox groups in Israel such as ITIM have warned that the rejection by the Chief Rabbinate of the Orthodox credentials of rabbis abroad could seriously harm relations between Orthodox Judaism in Israel and the Diaspora.