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‘My rabbi didn’t make the Rabbinate’s list. Now what?’

The Chief Rabbinate’s 'whitelist' demonstrates its disdain for most Jews, and its departure from Judaism's love of the convert
Illustrative. Israel's chief rabbis convene an emergency meeting with religious Zionist rabbis, against a proposal to overhaul the conversion to Judaism system in the country on June 3, 2018. (Courtesy of the Chief Rabbinate/File)
Illustrative. Israel's chief rabbis convene an emergency meeting with religious Zionist rabbis, against a proposal to overhaul the conversion to Judaism system in the country on June 3, 2018. (Courtesy of the Chief Rabbinate/File)

To complement last year’s blacklist of non-Israeli rabbis whose authority it rejects, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate this week issued a “whitelist” of rabbinical courts around the world whose conversions to Judaism and divorce proceedings it recognizes. The publication of the whitelist is the result of ITIM’s battle over many years to make the workings of the Rabbinate transparent, and to help thousands of families clarify their official Jewish status in Israel. ITIM has held dozens of meetings, filed petitions, initiated Knesset hearings, threatened lawsuits, and more, to pressure the Chief Rabbinate to draft such a list, and to make the criteria used to create it public.

I welcome the news of the list’s publication, and am gratified that ITIM’s steadfast advocacy work has brought it to fruition. But I am also troubled, because the Chief Rabbinate’s attempt at increased transparency reveals its desire for monopolization, and reflects its disdain for Jewish diversity.

Even if we accept that a list produced by the current Chief Rabbinate would include only Orthodox rabbinical courts, the list has obvious omissions, outdated information, and inconsistencies. The name of one rabbi, whose authority the Chief Rabbinate has rejected numerous times in the past, appears on the list. Major Orthodox rabbinical courts that the Rabbinate has previously recognized do not. Some rabbis listed no longer live in the communities they are meant to serve. Others appear twice.

But the real disgrace of the whitelist is the conspicuous lack of concern it demonstrates for the tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of Jews who have converted or divorced through rabbinical courts that, according to the Chief Rabbinate, are unacceptable. Since the list was published, I have received, on average, one message every half-hour from someone who converted under the auspices of a rabbi or rabbinical court that did not make the list, asking, “Where does this leave me?” The list has wreaked confusion and inflicted fear.

In producing this whitelist, the Rabbinate has demonstrated its dismissive, exclusionary, and isolationist approach, made a travesty of halachic [Jewish legal] thinking, and violated Jewish tradition, which teaches us to embrace those who choose to join the Jewish people. It has also driven yet another wedge between Jews in Israel and around the world. The Rabbinate’s deliberate politicization of conversion highlights its attempt to extend its monopoly on Jewish life — oppressive enough within Israel’s borders — to the rest of the Jewish world, where, overwhelmingly, it is not wanted, and, in all likelihood, not needed.

In the coming months, ITIM will take every possible practical step to improve the whitelist: we will file petitions on behalf of rabbinical courts who should be included on the list; we will assist individuals concerned about their official Jewish status in Israel. And unlike the Chief Rabbinate, we will work to protect the future of Israel and the Jewish people by acting in the spirit of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which calls for a state that is “open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of the exiles…based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.”

About the Author
Rabbi Seth Farber is Founder and Director of ITIM, the leading advocacy organization working to build a Jewish and democratic Israel in which all Jews can lead full Jewish lives. ITIM is committed to helping people participate in central features of Jewish life in Israel, such as gaining official recognition as Jews, marrying as Jews, and converting to Judaism, and to improving government policies that impede access to these fundamental Jewish life passages.
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