Thousands of converts in diaspora face non-recognition by Chief Rabbinate

“It’s about power, institutions and centralization, and it’s unprecedented in Jewish history."

Ivanka Trump prays as she touches the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City May 22, 2017 (photo credit: HEIDI LEVINE/POOL/REUTERS)
Ivanka Trump prays as she touches the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City May 22, 2017
Criteria published by the Chief Rabbinate on Tuesday for recognizing Orthodox rabbinical courts for the purposes of conversion and divorce mean that thousands of Orthodox converts will likely not be recognized in Israel.
The Chief Rabbinate also published a list of 69 Orthodox rabbinical courts that are currently recognized around the world for conversion, as well as another 83 rabbis in the US who work in cooperation with the Rabbinical Council of American and the Beth Din of America – whom the Chief Rabbinate recognizes – and 84 courts which are recognized for divorce.
The ITIM religious services organization has fought for six years to force the Chief Rabbinate to disclose how it determines which Orthodox rabbinical courts it accepts to perform critical personal status procedures, such as conversion and divorce, and the body has now finally made those criteria public.
ITIM Director Rabbi Seth Farber strongly criticized the criteria, saying they were not based on Jewish law but rather had been designed to create a political monopoly over Jewish personal status issues.
“It’s about power, institutions, and centralization, and it’s unprecedented in Jewish history,” Farber said.
The issue of recognition of Orthodox rabbinical courts in the Diaspora has become a significant issue in recent years, as numerous cases have occurred in which conversions performed by prominent and respected Orthodox rabbis have been rejected by the rabbinical courts in Israel in accordance with its undefined and opaque criteria.
The most high-profile case was when a convert who converted with Rabbi Haskel Lookstein in an ad hoc rabbinical court was rejected by the Supreme Rabbinical Court, calling into question the conversion of Ivanka Trump, daughter of US President Donald Trump who also converted with Lookstein.
The incident was deeply embarrassing for the Chief Rabbinate, which subsequently issued a statement in which it took the unusual decision of explicitly declaring that Ivanka Trump’s conversion would be approved.
Lookstein was included on the list of approved rabbis published on Tuesday, although both chief rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef have already affirmed his credentials.
The new criteria stipulate in particular that only permanent rabbinical courts “which convene on a regular basis and with three permanent rabbinical judges” will be recognized, despite the fact that the majority of rabbinical courts in the Diaspora are ad hoc, not permanent, and do not fit the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria.
This means that the many conversions which have been and still are performed in the US by ad hoc Orthodox rabbinical courts in local communities will not be recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate and will not be eligible to marry in Israel.
In addition, people who divorced through such courts, of whom there are likely also thousands will not be considered divorced by the Chief Rabbinate.
This situation has the potential to create havoc for Orthodox converts and divorcees from the Diaspora, and their descendants who try to immigrate to Israel.
Children of divorcees who divorced in an ad hoc rabbinical court and then remarried could well be deemed illegitimate, a highly problematic status in Jewish law with severe personal repercussions for those involved.
The new criteria also make it extremely difficult for any new rabbinical court which is established in the future to obtain recognition by the Chief Rabbinate, and stipulate that no new rabbinical courts established in a city where there already exists a rabbinical court will be recognized, except in rare circumstances.
And should existing rabbinical courts which have until now not received recognition from the Chief Rabbinate then seek it, their rabbinical judges will need to travel to Israel and be examined by rabbinical judges from Israel’s Supreme Rabbinical Court.
Passing the exams might not be enough to obtain recognition, since the criteria state explicitly that a special committee will decide whether or not to approve the application in accordance with the exam results “and the impression of the committee of the qualifications of the rabbinical court to serve as rabbinical judges.”
Farber pointed out that this stipulation means that there are still no concrete criteria for recognizing rabbinical courts, since “the impression of the committee” is a subjective standard.
Recognition will also be dependent on a consultation with rabbinical courts in the vicinity of the court applying for approval, which Farber said reinforces a centralized monopoly of Chief Rabbinate-approved courts.
“The criteria are imposing realities on the ground which are not in line with needs of local Jewish community,” Farber said. “I don’t expect the Chief Rabbinate to understand the nuances of every community, but they do need to understand that creating monopolies is bad policy and anti-halachic.”