The Supreme Rabbinical Court of the Chief Rabbinate is in the midst of deliberating whether to overturn or accept the ruling of a Petah Tikva rabbinical court that rejected the validity of the conversion of a woman who was converted by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a prominent US Modern Orthodox rabbinic leader.
The case revolves around the question of whether or not Rabbi Lookstein is on a Chief Rabbinate list of approved rabbis. The Petah Tikva court claims that it checked with Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, the head of the state conversion system, who said that Lookstein was not on the list. But the Chief Rabbis themselves have said that he is on the list. So why not just check the “list”? Apparently, there isn’t one central list that can be accessed by everyone. The “list” is a bit of a mystery.
In my own experience, when I went to the Rabbinate offices in Tel Aviv to register for marriage, I presented the rabbinic registrar with a copy of my parents’ ketubah (religious marriage document), which was signed by the officiating rabbi, a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi from Lakewood (before Lakewood was “Lakewood”). The registrar, a distinguished looking rabbi with a grey beard, examined the document and then took out a small, old, worn black book filled with names. It was “the list,” or at least “a list” of approved rabbis in the US. Luckily, the rabbi who married my parents was on the list. Relief.
Unfortunately, the process doesn’t always go as smoothly for immigrants who try to register for marriage with the Israeli rabbinate, especially if they come from non Orthodox homes and don’t have the required documentation to present. One of the documents you need to present is a letter from an Orthodox rabbi attesting that you are Jewish. Of course, the rabbi has to be on “the list”. What if you don’t have an Orthodox rabbi, because you aren’t Orthodox? You got trouble.
I know one female olah from Germany, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, who presented a letter from her Orthodox rabbi in Germany when she registered for marriage. Unfortunately, the rabbi was not in good standing with the Chief Rabbinate, for matters relating to some kosher supervision dispute (hard to believe, right?). So they refused to register her. The fact that she’s tall and blonde and doesn’t have a particularly “Jewish look” probably didn’t help her case. She ended up registering in another town, run by a more “enlightened” Chief Rabbi.
In fairness to the Rabbanut, it is trying to fulfill what it believes to be its role as the protector of Judaism and the “purity” of the Jewish People, which has never been an easy job. But back in the “good old days,” if someone said that they were Jewish and acted Jewish (use your imagination), you believed them. I mean, why would anyone want to be considered Jewish and expose themselves to the persecution and anti-Semitism that came with it, if they weren’t.
But times have changed. In America being Jewish is almost as cool as being Buddhist (but apparently not to all the Jewish Buddhists). In Israel being Jewish is a requirement for lots of government and social benefits, including automatic citizenship. It also requires you to be married and buried (no, I’m not comparing them) under the auspices of the Rabbanut.
For the first time in modern history people are actually anxious to be recognized as Jews. Unfortunately, not all of them have undergone conversions acceptable to traditional Jewish law. That’s a problem for those who do follow traditional Jewish law, since they or their offspring might end up marrying someone who they assume is Jewish, but really isn’t — according to their standards of belief.
The Israeli Rabbinate has assumed the duty of making sure that any Jew who marries in Israel is Jewish according to traditional halacha. The problem is that they’ve taken their duty a bit too far and introduced requirements that are simply unrealistic for some to fulfill, which throws a negative light on a task that is fundamentally positive.
If the Rabbinate insists on having a list, then it should include, at the very least, every Orthodox congregational rabbi in the Diaspora who has been ordained by an Orthodox institution (that includes Modern Orthodox, not just Haredi).
So the case of the Lookstein convert should be a simple matter of breaking out the official list and checking for his name, which according to the Chief Rabbis should be there. But it’s obviously not simple because there apparently is no single, approved list. That situation needs to be changed. Just put the “official” list online for all to see, and fight about.