In what can be called nothing short of revisionism, Rabbi Seth Farber, director of the ITIM organization, attempts to deflect criticism of him and ITIM on the part of Chief Rabbi David Lau. I am afraid that Rabbi Farber’s depiction of the situation in Chief Rabbi Lau: Laying blame will get us nowhere is more fantasy than fact.
Rabbi Farber writes:
On October 23, Rabbi David Lau, Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, sent a letter to the Chief Rabbinate Council, the decision-making arm of the Chief Rabbinate, summarizing his five-year tenure as its head. In the letter, Rabbi Lau acknowledged that the state religious establishment is facing public pressure: ‘It is no secret that the standing of religion in the State of Israel in general, and that of the Rabbinate, specifically, is not at its height.’
But rather than take responsibility for the Rabbinate’s decline in the eyes of the public, Rabbi Lau attacked those working to improve the state’s regulation and administration of Jewish life, including me. He wrote: ‘They are seeking to weaken the Chief Rabbinate… [by operating] an independent conversion authority… and they arrogantly claim that they are the successors to the path of Rabbi Kook… [They] use any means and do not lack any financial resources to fight against and denigrate the Chief Rabbinate… and the Chief Rabbinate is forced to fight this trend.’
Rabbi Farber then states:
As founder and director of ITIM, an organization committed to building a more inclusive religious establishment, and of Giyur K’Halacha, Israel’s largest, non-governmental conversion court network, I take issue with Rabbi Lau’s comments. Neither ITIM nor Giyur K’Halacha seek to denigrate the Chief Rabbinate… Israel’s chief rabbis have a historic opportunity to revitalize Jewish religious life in Israel, and to connect Jews around the world with one another. But they will only be able to do so if they commit to working with others in the spirit of mutual respect, the highest expression of the living covenant with God. Laying blame will get us nowhere. It’s time to listen and to cooperate so we can build a shared future for our nation and our people.
In other words, according to Rabbi Farber, ITIM and other organizations have been seeking to work amicably with the Chief Rabbinate in a spirit of cooperation that will enhance Jewish life and the religious future. “Neither ITIM nor Giyur K’Halacha seek to denigrate the Chief Rabbinate.” The work of Rabbi Farber and ITIM is purely constructive, for the sake of togetherness and religious growth, in the spirit of shalom. Thus asserts Rabbi Farber.
Now for the truth.
For years, Rabbi Farber and ITIM have been publicly attacking the Chief Rabbinate and seeking to undermine its authority and standards. For example, Rabbi Farber defended non-halachic marriage in the State of Israel, as he attacked the Chief Rabbinate in the New York Times and wrote that:
I have the dubious distinction of being an Orthodox rabbi who has sued the chief rabbinate in Israel’s Supreme Court — six times.
Attacking the Chief Rabbinate in the Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Farber harshly assailed the Chief Rabbinate’s rule that gentiles not have unmediated access to kitchens under its kosher supervision, writing that:
Essentially, the rabbinate hangs a proverbial sign in every kitchen which says ‘non-Jews not welcome.’
This disingenuous broadside was a swipe at the Chief Rabbinate for enforcing very basic kosher protocol, but was depicted by Rabbi Farber as a form of ethnic discrimination by the Chief Rabbinate. Rabbi Farber should be ashamed.
In that same article, Rabbi Farber denounced the Chief Rabbinate’s use of the Shirat Hayam registry, which is a database of individuals’ personal halachic status (e.g. is someone halachically Jewish, halachically married or divorced, etc.?). In an age of immense confusion regarding these issues, which threaten to destroy the halachic integrity of the Jewish People, it is stunning that someone who calls himself an Orthodox rabbi would issue a blistering attack on the widespread use of this registry. In his article entitled Big Brother and the Rabbinate, Rabbi Farber writes:
Databases which contain personal information about all of us are dangerous in the hands of criminals, but they might even be more dangerous in the hands of ideologues who believe that it is acceptable to use the information to advance their agenda… The most intriguing part of 1984 and the fact that “Big Brother is watching” is that everyone goes about their business as if this is a good thing for society.
Last year, Rabbi Farber lambasted the Chief Rabbinate in Times of Israel, the Forward and JTA for allegedly maintaining a blacklist of rabbis who were deemed invalid to testify about people’s Jewish status. Upon closer examination, it turned out that Rabbi Farber and ITIM fabricated the whole thing – it was a total hoax. As revealed during a Jerusalem Post interview, what really happened was that the Chief Rabbinate compiled a list of unauthenticated letters of attestation to Jewish status, called in Hebrew a “Reshimat te’udot she’lo ushru” — “List of certification letters that were not authenticated/accepted“. It was not a list of rabbis deemed to be invalid or unreliable.
As David Benkof wrote in Jewish Journal’s There’s No Blacklist of Rabbis:
In one case I know of (in a previous year), the rabbinate rejected a proof-of-Judaism letter because it was signed by a rabbi whose name was not on the stationery. In another case, a supposedly blacklisted rabbi had one of his letters rejected but others accepted. Sure, the rabbinate may have also rejected some letters because of antagonism toward the rabbi who wrote them. But it hasn’t said so, and that as-yet-unproven possibility does not justify scandalous headlines. I hesitate to use a 2017 cliché like “fake news,” but this is an entirely manufactured controversy, and we know who manufactured it: Rabbi Farber…
By asserting that the Chief Rabbinate’s list of unauthenticated letters consisted of rabbis deemed to be invalid would be to totally misrepresent the document. But that is exactly how Rabbi Farber proceeded to label the list in the course of the Jerusalem Post interview, after which he declared that the rabbis’ letters — which he never even saw or investigated – “were just rejected out of hand”. Then, in the same interview, Rabbi Farber turned to a document issued by the Chief Rabbinate two years prior regarding rabbinic qualifications and conflated it with the list of rejected documents, arguing that the Chief Rabbinate has unfairly rejected the documents in the list due to the qualifications of their signatories. This was totally unsubstantiated conjecture, presented by Rabbi Farber like a prosecuting attorney waving a smoking gun covered with the fingerprints of the accused. Rabbi Farber jumped past the interviewer’s targeted questions and twisted the facts into a pretzel to conform to his agenda. Please tune in to the interview and see for yourselves.
It is important to note that during the Jerusalem Post interview, Rabbi Farber was asked about rabbis whose standards for Jewish identity do not conform with Halacha. Rabbi Farber maintained that letters of Jewish personal status should be accepted from these rabbis as well – contrary to Halacha. For an Orthodox rabbi to take such a position is inexplicable.
As an Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Farber should welcome unified, unquestionable halachic standards for conversion and other personal status issues. Were a real “blacklist” of rabbis whose halachic standards are deemed unreliable to be created, it would be a very positive thing. The Chief Rabbinate has a quality control job, and this would be the way to do it. (Please see Rabbi Avi Shafran’s excellent article on the topic.)
Rather than work with the Chief Rabbinate, Rabbi Farber has publicly attacked and sought to undermine it – and basic halachic standards – at every move. Rabbi Lau’s remarks were more than justified.