A major North American Jewish organization is taking a brave and important stand to tackle the marriage crisis in Israel.
As Gary Rosenblatt of the Jewish Week reported, the Jewish Federations of North America are preparing to launch a new campaign to support groups that foster diversity of religious expression in Israel with a special focus on issues of personal status – marriage, divorce, conversion, and burial.
It is appropriate and important that they do so.
The Orthodox monopoly over Jewish marriage in Israel affects not only Israelis, but is causing a crisis between Israel and the diaspora Jewish communities. In recent decades, the Israeli Rabbinate and religious courts that hold a monopoly over marriage in Israel have grown increasingly preoccupied with casting aspersions on the Jewishness of individuals from Jewish communities abroad, mostly from the Former Soviet Union but also from other countries. At the same times, the Rabbinate’s marriage registrars and Rabbinical Court judges increasingly cast doubt on the sincerity of converts to Judaism and the Jewishness of their children whenever they do not conform to their exacting religious standards.
As a matter of policy, Jews from abroad who wish to marry in Israel must produce a letter from their rabbi attesting to their Jewishness. Jewish immigrants from the Former Soviet Union and other places, as well as their children, routinely find their Jewishness scrutinized by the rabbinate, and are referred to a formal process called a “Jewishness Investigation” to ascertain their Jewish ancestry. Currently, there are just four “Jewishness Investigators” who are appointed by the State of Israel’s Rabbinical Courts Administration to decide on the Jewishness of all cases of immigrants or their children who wish to marry in Israel. Individuals who underwent a non-orthodox conversion abroad or even those whose parent converted are frequently turned away and not allowed to marry unless they first submit to an arduous and uncertain preceding before a Rabbinical Court (Beit Din).
The recent refusal of a letter that American Rabbi Avi Weiss wrote for his congregant exposed the contemptuous manner in which the Israeli Chief Rabbinate treats foreign rabbis, even orthodox rabbis, who are critical of its practices. A recent Times of Israel article revealed that a single mid-level bureaucrat is responsible for deciding which rabbis can attest the Jewishness of their congregants and for maintaining the Rabbinate’s secret list of trusted rabbis. Naturally, only Orthodox rabbis are accorded any standing before the Israeli rabbinate.
Because of the zealous scrutiny over the Jewishness of marrying couples according to Orthodox halacha, a large percentage of Diaspora Jews are excluded from marriage in Israel altogether or can expect serious bureaucratic hurdles should they wish to marry in Israel. There is also evidence that Orthodox rabbis abroad are afraid to speak out against the practices of the Israeli Rabbinate for fear of losing the ability to serve their communities by vouching for the Jewishness of their own congregants.
The bitter irony is that the Israeli Rabbinate claims to be taking these strict measures for the sake of the unity of Israel. However, by erecting unnecessary bureaucratic barriers around religious marriage in Israel for the sake of excluding those who are not Jewish enough in their eyes, the Israeli Rabbinate is tearing the Jewish people apart, and causing untold suffering to young couples.
It must be clear that the conflict is not one between orthodoxy and non-orthodoxy, but between a vision of Judaism built on the shared identity among diverse Jewish communities in Israel and all over the world, versus a vision of Judaism as governed by the centralized authority of a handful of rabbis in Israel over all the rest. It is vital that the world’s Jewish communities stand up and demand an end to the practices of the Israeli Rabbinate that are pushing young couples away from any chance of marriage in Israel. It is good that the Jewish Federations of North America intends to lead in this effort.