Fight over Chief Rabbinate’s attitude toward American Orthodox rabbis reaches Knesset

MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua) accuses Chief Rabbinate of alienating Jews in Israel and abroad by its policies.

Chief Rabbi David Lau at opening of Pantry Packers 370 (photo credit: Hadas Parush)
Chief Rabbi David Lau at opening of Pantry Packers 370
(photo credit: Hadas Parush)
The Knesset Caucus on People, Religion and State held a hearing Wednesday intended to address growing discord between Orthodox North American rabbinical organizations and the Chief Rabbinate.
But non-Orthodox leaders at the session spoke out against the modern Orthodox proponents of the hearing who have raised concerns with the behavior of the Chief Rabbinate, arguing that the fundamental problem with religious relations in Israel was the “Orthodox monopoly.”
The session was proposed by the ITIM advocacy and religious services advisory group to deal specifically with what the organization has claimed is an increasingly restrictive Chief Rabbinate attitude as to which rabbis in the Diaspora, and particularly in North America, it accepts as authorized to provide documentation on matters of Jewish and marital status.
Caucus chairman MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua) accused the Chief Rabbinate of alienating Jews in Israel and abroad by its policies.
“Regardless of the differences between us here, that which joins us together is the understanding that the current situation and the behavior of the State of Israel and its institutions distance Judaism [from the public] and shrink the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora,” said Stern.
ITIM director Orthodox Rabbi Seth Farber noted that while concerns over the Jewish status of immigrants from the former Soviet Union were understandably complicated due to the Communist regime’s suppression of religion, “now they are casting doubt on American Jewry, but in this instance we’re talking about a great and thriving community with great Torah sages at its head.”
Farber said the issue was creating “a huge divide” between Israel and American Jewry.
ITIM is proposing as a solution that any Orthodox institute more than 10 years old and with 50 or more members be accepted by the Chief Rabbinate as able to authorize issues of Jewish and marital status, with those institutions being able to de-authorize their own members if they so wish.
In response to the criticism, the Chief Rabbinate, which did not send a representative to the hearing, issued a statement including the criteria by which it evaluates Orthodox rabbis abroad.
As first published by The Jerusalem Post on Monday, the rabbinate says that it first determines if the rabbi who signed the documentation was ordained by a recognized Orthodox Jewish institute; if the rabbi and the institutions of his community operate in accordance with Jewish law; and if the rabbi in question has the requisite information, skills and knowledge to sign such a document.
While most of the discussion dealt with this issue, non-Orthodox rabbis, as well as some of the MKs present, criticized the modern Orthodox movement abroad and in Israel for nevertheless seeking to preserve an Orthodox monopoly instead of embracing pluralistic alternatives.
Reform Movement director Rabbi Gilad Kariv spoke out in particular against the Rabbinical Council of America, one of the largest Orthodox umbrella groups in the US, for having this week endorsed the Chief Rabbinate as the “pillar of fire at the front of the global Orthodox Jewish camp illuminating and guiding the way.” Kariv was referring to a statement of cooperation issued by the Chief Rabbinate and the RCA this week in Berlin.
“You have anointed over yourselves the Chief Rabbinate, which is going through a process of haredification and brutalization,” said Kariv, pointing out the “absurdity of the situation in which they are today coming to the Knesset to say this upsets them.”
Kariv continued that “since the RCA has regrettably turned this addiction to the Chief Rabbinate’s abuse against Orthodox Judaism abroad into a tradition,” cooperation and discussion would be increasingly difficult between non-Orthodox Jewish denominations and the large Orthodox organizations in the Diaspora.
Executive director of the RCA Rabbi Mark Dratch said he thought Kariv “over-spoke.”
Dratch acknowledged that there are “issues” in need of resolution between the Chief Rabbinate and the Orthodox North American rabbinical groups, but said that there was no crisis in the relationship.
He also expressed optimism, based on recent conversations with the chief rabbis this week, that solutions to the issues would be reached in the very near future and that they were on the path to strengthened ties.