The rabbinical training school founded in Riverdale nearly two decades ago by Rabbi Avi Weiss stopped calling itself an “Open Orthodox” institution last year. But Israel’s religious establishment still is not open to the rabbi’s liberal brand of Orthodoxy.
A document written by an official of Israel’s Orthodox-controlled religious court system seems to confirm what its critics have long alleged — that the Israeli religious establishment rejects the authority of Rabbi Weiss and of rabbis ordained by his 19-year-old Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT).
That’s the opinion of Rabbi Seth Farber, an American-born activist in Israel who this week released the two-month-old correspondence from Rabbi Asher Ehrentreu, a senior official of the rabbinical court system.
The document, which Rabbi Farber obtained during the course of his advocacy work, states that rabbis ordained by Rabbi Weiss “call themselves Modern Orthodox” and “are not recognized by the Rabbinate of Israel.”
Immigrants in Israel who marry under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate (there is no civil marriage there) must prove they are Jewish by presenting a letter from a communal Orthodox rabbi in their country of origin.
The ruling appears to affect 124 rabbis ordained by the yeshiva, and could be seen as excluding other Modern Orthodox rabbis.
A spokesman for the Chief Rabbinate insisted that rabbinic letters that attest to an individual being a Jew are decided on a case by case basis and that such letters from graduates of YCT have been accepted.
While Rabbi Ehrentreu’s opinion refers to his refusal to recognize the Jewish status of a woman whose Jewishness was verified by a YCT rabbi (her Jewish identity was subsequently recognized after a rabbinical court in the United States vouched for her), it largely reflects the views of the like-minded Chief Rabbinate, Rabbi Farber told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview from Israel.
“In most cases the Rabbinate defers to the rabbinic courts” in such areas of personal status as marriage, divorce and conversions, said Rabbi Farber, whose Itim nonprofit organization guides Israelis through the country’s religious bureaucracy.
The case cited by Rabbi Ehrentreu’s document dealt with the certification of a woman’s Jewish status issued by Rabbi Akiva Hertzfeld, formerly of Portland, Maine, who has since made aliyah.
“This is the first time we have black-and-white proof that someone related to a particular institution is blacklisted because of his affiliation with a particular institution,” Rabbi Farber said. “It also shows that there is a policy to discriminate against the Modern Orthodox. It affirms what we’ve been claiming all along.
“It’s really an indictment of the Israeli religious establishment that had been claiming that they do not blacklist anyone without looking into [the details of] the case” and do not prejudge the qualifications of a supervising rabbi.
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YCT issued a rejoinder and call for an apology in a statement on Wednesday that said: “For years we have watched with concern as senior members of the American rabbinate such as Rabbi Haskel Lookstein and Rabbi Avi Weiss have had their credentials questioned by a number of rabbis in Israel associated with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. (Since then Rabbi Lau, the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi in Israel, has stated that those who questioned the credentials of Rabbi Weiss and Rabbi Lookstein had erred.)
“Now, after the inexcusable letter from Rabbi Ehrentreu, an employee of the Chief Rabbinate, has become public, we are gratified that the Chief Rabbinate has now acknowledged that it accepts letters and documentation by YCT rabbis, and that it has done so over the years. However, as our graduates presently serve tens of thousands of Jews around the diaspora, we insist that an apology to all our rabbis and their communities be issued that makes clear in no uncertain terms that the legitimacy of our rabbis’ letters will not be questioned in the future.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated on May 30.