(JTA) — Israel’s official Jewish religious authority has published a list of rabbis it trusts to perform Jewish conversions. They are all Orthodox.
Advocates for religious reform in Israel said the publication of the list of 69 rabbinical courts was a mixed bag: While they are happy to see a measure of transparency, they said the list raises more questions than it answers, such as why some courts were omitted.
The Chief Rabbinate, a governmental body controlled by haredi Orthodox rabbis, governs all recognized Jewish conversions, marriages, divorces and burials in Israel. In other words, if the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize someone’s Jewish conversion, that person would not be able to get legally married or divorced in Israel, or buried in a Jewish cemetery there.
The Chief Rabbinate has never recognized Reform and Conservative converts or religious ceremonies. In recent years, it has even rejected the authority of leading American Orthodox rabbis, such as liberal Orthodox Rabbi Avi Weiss and Modern Orthodox Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, both of New York City.
This is the first time the Chief Rabbinate has published a list of Diaspora rabbis whose authority it does accept on conversion. True to form, they are all Orthodox, many of them haredi. The list, published Nov. 21 on the Chief Rabbinate’s website, includes dozens of rabbinical courts throughout the world, half in the United States. The American courts are in major cities like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles.
“What it means is we have something to work with now,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, director of Itim, an Israeli organization that advocates for greater transparency in the Chief Rabbinate’s bureaucracy.
Through freedom-of-information requests and legal proceedings, Itim has repeatedly coaxed the Chief Rabbinate into providing information on its internal processes.
“Until now, the whole thing was shrouded in secrecy,” Farber told JTA. “We kept saying we want the list. … Now the Jewish world can look at it, and it’s no longer shielded in darkness. It’s out there.”
Along with the list, the Chief Rabbinate established criteria for which rabbinical courts meet its standards, according to Kobi Alter, the Chief Rabbinate’s spokesman. The criteria, first published as a draft earlier this year, mandate that the courts operate year-round, demonstrate fealty to Orthodox Jewish law and tradition, and be endorsed by a major Orthodox organization. That means non-Orthodox courts will not make the cut, along with some liberal Orthodox courts and those that meet on an ad hoc basis to serve smaller Jewish communities.
“It was published now because the criteria were approved now and this was part of that issue,” Alter wrote JTA in a text message. “The list includes those that were approved.”
Alter left room for other bodies to qualify.
“Of course, if a rabbinical court does not appear [on the list], that does not mean that it’s not accepted. That is why we set criteria,” he said.
Many Israelis and some American Jews have long protested the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over Jewish religious life in Israel. Surveys consistently show that large majorities of Jewish Israelis want to institute civil marriage in Israel and liberalize conversion policy there, along with a slate of other reforms.
American Jewish leaders, likewise, have called for Israel to recognize Reform and Conservative rabbis and religious ceremonies. But the issue does not resonate as much among rank-and-file U.S. Jews. A recent poll commissioned by J Street, the liberal Israel lobby, showed that only 17.5 percent of U.S. Jewish voters in 2018 know about the Orthodox monopoly over religious policy in Israel and are unhappy about it.
(The recently published list of approved rabbis, it should be noted, is unrelated to the so-called “blacklist” of Diaspora rabbis released by the Chief Rabbinate last year. That list was of rabbis whom the Chief Rabbinate did not trust to confirm the Jewish identities of people who were born Jewish. This list concerns rabbis trusted to perform conversions.)
“The list of rabbinical courts that was published is one step forward and two steps back,” Shmuel Shattach, executive director of Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, a group that advocates for more freedom of religious choice in Israel, said in a statement.
“The fact that the current list does not include important rabbis and communities abroad is a source of profound concern,” he said. “We expect and hope to see a completion of the process of recognizing rabbis abroad, which can lead to the mending and healing of the great crisis between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.”