Once again, this hotly debated question has reared its head. Rabbi Avi Weiss, a longtime passionate advocate for the State of Israel, Soviet Jewry, and now increased women’s participation in Orthodox Judaism, has had his letter certifying someone’s Jewish identity rejected by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. This kind of thing happens when a rabbi isn’t on “the list,” a list that no one’s ever actually seen and that no one seems to know how you get on it. There are usually about three reasons that a rabbi might be off the list, bureaucracy, being unknown, or actual ideological rejection. I’ve had this happen to me before as well, and I’m almost positive it’s because no one in the Office of the Chief Rabbinate knows who I am (nor should they).
I wanted to take a step back and share some pragmatic, experiential, and theoretical thoughts on the situation as it now stands, in the hopes that it will help foster a productive discussion, clear up confusion, and also help American Jews better navigate what is surely a broken system.
First, it’s important to note the distinction between standards for aliyah (moving to and becoming a citizen of Israel) and standards for marriage and the like. Aliyah is governed by the Law of Return and the Ministry of the Interior. They accept as Jewish for the purposes of moving to Israel anyone recognized as Jewish by a recognized rabbi of any of the major streams of Judaism, including Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox. A letter from just about anyone’s rabbi is enough for aliyah; even I’ve written three just this week.
Religious services, however, most prominent among them marriage, are run by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, not the Ministry of the Interior. Practically speaking, if you want to get married in Israel, you have to register with the Rabbinate (the brand new Tzohar bill just made that easier for Israeli Jews) and prove that you are both Jewish and fit for marriage (single/legally allowed to be married). This is decided by the Rabbinate according to particular Orthodox interpretations of Jewish Law. Our discussion doesn’t touch upon aliyah, but rather the question of who can be married in Israel.
Now, the idea that the Israeli Rabbinate, so far removed from diaspora rabbis and diaspora Judaism, can effectively put together a comprehensive and inclusive “list” of qualified diaspora rabbis is just plain silly. Distance, both geographically and culturally, suggests that this is impossible. How are the lists to be updated? Who’s to be included? Is it based on where a particular rabbi received his ordination? Is it about the fitness of his current theological worldview? Rabbi Avi Weiss has suggested that the latter might be one reason he’s now apparently off the list. I don’t have a better alternative, but we should definitely drop the idea of a list.
Oh, and when congregants find out that their rabbi is not on the list, and get a letter from the official Rabbinate of the Jewish State rejecting their Jewish identity, some take it personally, feeling as though their Jewish identity has suddenly been impeached by a faceless bureaucracy. That shouldn’t be surprising, and the practice should stop. It is the unnecessary cause of serious damage and distancing between Jewish people and the leaders of their faith. The most frustrating part of the whole thing is that the Rabbinate doesn’t usually mean to offend, it’s simply that most American rabbis are not on the list, and they’re merely following procedure. Everyone means well, but American Jews are repeatedly victimized by a poorly designed procedure.
Pragmatically, there is an “answer” to this crisis. The Beth Din of America is a professional and superbly run Jewish court located in the heart of Midtown Manhattan. I had the pleasure of serving as an intern there for more than two years. During my years there, the interns were largely responsible for producing Teudot Ravakut v’Yahadut, certificates affirming Jewish identity and single status, with the approval of the Menahel (Lead Administrator) Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann and his talented staff. There’s a small fee for the process, and requests from all types of Jews from the United States and beyond were and are handled with professionalism, diligence, humanity, and compassion. No one is denied their Jewish identity for bureaucratic or political reasons, and the staff make every effort to ascertain whether someone is Jewish. Best part of all, they have streamlined certificates accepted and known to the Rabbinate, and will handle claims from all over the country.
A personal confession – every time I read about these kinds of identity issues, I become so frustrated I want to pull out my hair. The Beth Din’s letters are never denied, and they can help absolutely anyone who is legitimately Jewish, aiding them through the process. Rabbi Weissmann and the Beth Din are patient, methodical, thorough, and kind, and frankly one of the best assets the community has. For anyone who’s struggling with the Rabbinate, I have a simple message; if you want to have your problem taken care of in a straightforward and clear manner, by people who will treat you kindly and respectfully, call (212) 807-9042.
For many, though, the fact that the BDA does what it does is beside the point. Local rabbis should have the autonomy to decide if their congregants are Jewish, without having to submit to the authority of national agencies, no matter how well run, the thinking goes. It is most definitely true that the authority of local rabbis is actively being eroded in favor of stricter and less flexible national standards. This is certainly true of conversions, where the system used for generations has been overhauled in favor of a standardized and less flexible approach. It is also true of the kosher supervisory industry, where “national standards” have replaced local supervision.
This is a dangerous trend for Judaism, as local need, leniency, and the very humanity of the people we deal with are ignored in a brave new world of bureaucracy and artificial insecurity. I think it’s fair to suggest that Rabbi Weiss and others see the denial of his letter as just one more front in an ongoing war.
My thoughts are as follows: Rabbis are right to feel threatened, and ought to be advocating for renewed autonomy in religious decision-making. It’s this diversity and humanity that contributes to the greatness of the Jewish tradition. Centralization, however, isn’t always a bad thing, and is sometimes necessary on a larger scale. While the fight is being waged, the entire American Jewish community ought to be aware of the fine upstanding work being done by the folks at the Beth Din of America, and make use of their talents. The system may not be ideal, and there are surely obvious reforms to be implemented, but it can function much better if we’re aware of the resources we have. We hear way too many of these tragic stories, none of which have to happen, even under the current system.