The rabbis of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate.
(photo credit: CHIEF RABBINATE)
The Council of the Chief Rabbinate and the rabbinical judges of the Supreme Rabbinical Court convened Wednesday and established a joint committee to draft criteria for recognizing the weddings, divorces and conversions of rabbis in the Diaspora.
The step comes after years of scandals in which Orthodox Jews who have immigrated to Israel have faced severe difficulties in having their conversions and personal status recognized by the Chief Rabbinate.
In numerous cases, Orthodox converts have been rejected outright, as have the credentials of Orthodox rabbis, particularly from the US.
During the meeting, Chief Rabbi David Lau presented a document of basic principles he suggested should form the basis for the final criteria of recognizing Diaspora rabbis.
Lau suggested that rabbis approved by the Chief Rabbinate must work where there are “established and organized rabbinical courts that work in accordance with the principles of Jewish law and whose status is accepted by the community rabbis.” He cited the rabbinical courts in London and Paris as examples.
In addition, Lau said rabbis who operate under the authority of rabbinical associations and rabbinical courts that are approved by such associations would be another criteria, citing organizations such as the Rabbinical Council of America; the US Agudath Harabonim and the Conference of European Rabbis.
Finally, the chief rabbi suggested that in instances where there is no “organized rabbinate,” the individual rabbis and their “path in Jewish law” must be examined by the Chief Rabbinate’s department with the rabbis of the community in question, along with an examination of the rabbi’s ordination and his decision making in Jewish law.
The joint committee will be comprised of rabbinical judges Rabbis Aharon Katz, Shlomo Shapira and Yitzhak Elmaliach, along with Council of the Chief Rabbinate members rabbis Yitzhak Ralbag and Yehuda Deri.
Elmaliach was one of the rabbinical judges who rejected a conversion of the respected Modern Orthodox leader Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of New York in a Supreme Rabbinical Court appeal case in July, a ruling that generated outrage among elements of the Modern Orthodox US rabbinical leadership.
Rabbi Seth Farber, director of the ITIM organization, which led efforts to create standardized criteria for recognition of foreign rabbis, was cautiously optimistic about Lau’s criteria, saying they contained a certain amount of recognition that Orthodox Judaism in the US is diverse and not a monolithic body.
He said, however, that the compatibility of the new criteria with US Jewry would depend on the way in which terms such as “an organized rabbinical court” are defined.
Farber also expressed concern about what reliance solely on rabbinical associations would do to the rights of US Jews who were married, divorced or converted by Orthodox rabbis in individual communities that are not part of the rabbinical associations.
In addition, the rabbi said thousands of Jewish converts who were converted by Orthodox rabbis in the past on an ad hoc basis and not through an “organized rabbinical court” might be called into question if the criteria for recognized such rabbis is particularly rigid.
“For 70 years of American history, rabbis were doing conversions on an ad hoc basis. Organized rabbinical courts are a phenomenon of just the last few years, the entire system in America was decentralized for the entire 20th century and part of the 21st century,” Farber noted.
Even today, he continued, Orthodox conversions are conducted outside of the auspices of the main rabbinical associations.
Attorney Asaf Ben-Melech of the Ne’emani Torah Va’Avodah religious-Zionist lobbying group was more critical of Lau’s document, saying it was purposefully vague to allow the Chief Rabbinate continued freedom of action in personal status issues.
Ben-Melech, who has represented New York-based Rabbi Avi Weiss in Israel when his credentials were rejected by the Chief Rabbinate, said the principles set out by Lau would allow the Chief Rabbinate to exclude rabbis such as Weiss and others who are Orthodox and committed to Jewish law from recognition, but who have a more lenient and open attitude than the Chief Rabbinate.
Ben-Melech also said that the way in which the Chief Rabbinate decides which rabbinical associations are recognized and which not would be “politicized” with Orthodox groups such as the International Rabbinical Fellowship, cofounded by Weiss, likely to be excluded.
“The Chief Rabbinate wants to impose its haredi norms on the US Jewish community, in opposition to its current norms of being modern and open,” said Ben-Melech.