The Chief Rabbinate has reversed a major policy decision made back in 2018 when, after a protracted legal struggle, it published a list of rabbinical courts abroad whose authority to perform conversions and divorces it recognizes.
In a decision made last month but not made public, the Council of the Chief Rabbinate decided that all conversions and divorces performed in rabbinical courts abroad must be approved by the Chief Rabbinate’s Department for Marriage and Conversion.
The new policy was outlined in a letter dated March 22 sent by the Secretary of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate Rabbi Yitzhak Daniel to the council’s marriage committee chairman Rabbi Yitzhak Ralbag. The letter was obtained by the Itim religious services organization and seen by The Jerusalem Post.
The latest decision has once again raised concerns that the Chief Rabbinate is rowing back its previous commitment to such transparency and equitable treatment of all Orthodox rabbinical courts and rabbis.
Itim director Rabbi Seth Farber strongly criticized the policy change, describing it as a power grab to re-centralize the Chief Rabbinate’s authority over conversions. He demanded that the change be reversed.
The Chief Rabbinate said in response that unspecified problems surfaced with the approval of conversions following the initial policy change in 2018 that required the oversight of its marriage and conversion department.
In 2018, after a six-year legal battle waged by Itim, the Chief Rabbinate finally published a list of Orthodox rabbinical courts abroad which it recognizes as competent to perform critical personal status procedures such as conversion and divorce.
The step was seen as a major breakthrough for obtaining transparency in the Chief Rabbinate’s treatment of Orthodox converts from abroad, and other Jewish olim (immigrants) to Israel who require its services.
It allowed state rabbinical courts and marriage registrars to utilize the Chief Rabbinate’s list and streamline the marriage registration and divorce processes.
Prior to the decision, numerous converts and others ran afoul of the opaque policies of the Chief Rabbinate for recognizing the authority of Orthodox rabbinical courts around the Jewish world.
This led to a situation in which conversions and decisions of authoritative and respected Orthodox rabbis in the US and other parts of the Diaspora were rejected by the Chief Rabbinate.
The criteria published by the Chief Rabbinate in 2018 for recognizing rabbinical courts abroad state explicitly that “For rabbinical courts that have been approved by the Chief Rabbinate in the past, there is no need for additional examinations or investigations,” into the conversion or divorce documents they produce.
Farber says that because of the publication of the criteria and the list of recognized rabbinical courts, the situation improved significantly, but the policy reversal by the Council of the Chief Rabbinate in March would appear to upend that progress.
In Daniel’s letter to Ralbag on March 22, the former notes the Council of the Chief Rabbinate decided to adopt the body’s marriage committee proposal during a round of phone calls with the members of the body on March 18.
The formal proposal which was adopted states that: “If a document concerning conversion or divorce conducted abroad arrives at a marriage registrar or a rabbinical court, whether or not the court in question was included in the lists of rabbinical courts recognized by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the document will be transferred to the Department for Marriage and Conversion of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.”
A document detailing the new procedure was recently disseminated to marriage registrars around the country.
“The directive is a sweeping policy reversal without legal basis, and represents a clear attempt by the Chief Rabbinate to consolidate power at a time when its authority over conversion issues is under threat,” said Farber.
“The Rabbinate has redoubled its efforts at centralization. In its drive to retain its monopoly over conversions, and to serve as the sole authority that determines who is a Jew, the Rabbinate is using converts as political pawns.”
The Chief Rabbinate said in response that, “In the period that passed since the principles were established, representatives of the Chief Rabbinate were exposed to errors stemming from a failure to implement the principles relating to checking conversions in a particular manner.
“Therefore it was decided that alongside the mechanism for recognizing rabbinical courts abroad, which will remain in place, the Department for Marriage and Conversion will require that local rabbinates transfer all divorce or conversion documents to the Chief Rabbinate so that it can ensure that conversion and divorce were conducted in a correct manner."