Fresh Skirmish In ‘Who Is A Jew’ Wars

Chief Rabbinate rejects letter from leading U.S. Orthodox rabbi vouching for couple’s Jewishness.

10/16/13
Israel Correspondent
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Jerusalem — In a slap in the face to diaspora rabbis, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has rejected the word of one of American Jewry’s most well-known Orthodox rabbis, who in a letter was attesting to the Jewishness and single status of an American Jewish couple wishing to marry in Israel, The Jewish Week has learned.

The rejection of the letter written by Rabbi Avi Weiss, longtime spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, appears to be the Chief Rabbinate’s latest attempt to be the sole arbiter of “Who is a Jew” — not only in Israel but in the diaspora as well. 

Several years ago the Chief Rabbinate secretly decided it would no longer automatically recognize conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis in the diaspora. That decision led to a standoff with the Orthodox establishment in the U.S., which ultimately relented to the rabbinate’s demands to establish regional conversion courts and to severely limit the number of rabbis who can perform conversions.  

Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM, an organization that helps people deal with Israeli government bureaucracy related to marriage and other issues, said Rabbi Weiss’ letter was one of “about 10” rejected letters from Orthodox rabbis that have come across his desk in the past six months. He could not estimate how many other rejections the rabbinate has issued.
ITIM, which runs a service for couples wishing to register for marriage in Israel, filed the couple’s paperwork with the local Jerusalem rabbinical court before the start of the summer, Rabbi Farber said. The letter, required by every couple wishing to marry in Israel, has been a mandatory part of the application for decades.

Rabbi Farber recalled that the local rabbinical court “sent us back a letter saying it had checked with the national rabbinate office and that Rabbi Weiss is not registered for the purposes of certifying Jewishness and single status for people who are born Jewish.” 

This despite the fact that the rabbinate had, in the past, accepted “countless” such letters from Rabbi Weiss, one of the most visible rabbis in Modern Orthodox Jewry today, according to the Riverdale rabbi.

When ITIM realized that the rabbinate wouldn’t budge, it scrambled to find someone the rabbinate would recognize to certify the couple in time for their wedding day. 

When The Jewish Week asked the Chief Rabbinate on what grounds Rabbi Weiss’ letter had been rejected, Ziv Maor, a rabbinate spokesman, consulted with Rabbi Itamar Tubul, who for the past few months, since the installation of the new chief rabbis, has been the secretary in charge of personal status matters and people converted abroad.

Within a couple of hours Rabbi Maor called back and said, “We checked and found that three rabbis from Riverdale” were recently approved for the purposes of marriage registration “and that Weiss was not one of them.” If Rabbi Weiss’ letter was rejected, Rabbi Maor continued, “it means he’s been checked and his document was not found valid.”

Rabbi Maor said he did not know how Tubul determined that Rabbi Weiss and the other rabbis could not be trusted to vouch for a person’s Jewishness.

Rabbi Maor said that “basically, what is being checked is the beit din [rabbinical court] that issues the certificates” attesting to marriage and marital status. “Even if you are born in Israel you still have to prove you are a Jew, even if you are haredi.”
The spokesman insisted the rabbinate “does not maintain a black list” of rabbis. “We check every case separately, checking again and again,” even if a letter from the same rabbi was approved earlier the same day.” 

In fact, Rabbi Farber faxed The Jewish Week part of an “approved rabbis list” he was able to obtain.

Rabbi Farber added that the rabbinate has never before relied exclusively on diaspora rabbinical courts to certify someone’s Jewishness and that “halachic sources are exceptionally clear that no beit din is required for certification. Throughout Jewish history,” he said, “local community rabbis have always been trusted to certify the status of their community members.”

Rabbi Farber believes that the new chief rabbis’ transition teams “have taken it upon themselves” to make the demands more stringent, and that the Orthodox Jewish community overseas “must put pressure on Israel’s religious establishment to have their rabbis recognized.”

If the Orthodox world does not fight the new measures, “I’m concerned that this will cause a greater fissure between the religious establishment of Israel and diaspora Jewish communities,” Rabbi Farber warned. 

Having spent considerable time in the Chief Rabbinate offices in recent months, Rabbi Farber noted, “my overwhelming sense is that the list of Orthodox rabbis who are recognized is shrinking considerably, particularly regarding newly ordained rabbis,” even if they graduated from Yeshiva University and/or serve in major synagogues.

“The rabbinate is heading in the direction where they will no longer accept any community rabbi and will instead insist on rabbinical courts certifying someone’s Jewishness, a situation that is completely unmanageable in North America,” Rabbi Farber said.

“ITIM can continue fighting one case at a time, but ultimately we need to change the system,” he said. “It is inexcusable that “Who is a Jew” is being decided in this way.”

ITIM is considering legal measures in order to make the issue of Jewishness certification more transparent. Before the close of the last Knesset session, the organization put a position paper on the table of the Knesset calling upon the rabbinate to go public with its list of accepted rabbis.

Speaking from New York, Rabbi Weiss said he had agreed to go public “not to bring pressure so that my letters will be accepted. It is rather to raise a voice against a policy that affects many rabbis” while the rabbinate “is making decisions based on politics: talking to different people who whisper in their ear something about the rabbi in question. This policy brings shame to the Chief Rabbinate.”

Rabbi Weiss said that although he has no specific information, “my hunch is that it’s political, having to do with the institutions I’m involved with.” Those include Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the liberal Orthodox rabbinical school he founded and, until recently, led; Yeshivat Maharat, a seminary for Modern Orthodox women; and the International Rabbinical Fellowship, a Modern Orthodox rabbinical association founded as a liberal alternative to the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA).

Rabbi Weiss remains a controversial figure in American Orthodox circles. His decision to ordain women as “rabbas” was condemned by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA)

Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the RCA, said, “We are aware of this from time to time and using our

relationship with the Rabbinate to resolve specific issues and also the general problem.”

When necessary, the RCA asks the Beit Din of America to assist, he said.

Rabbi Dratch said that rejections also occurred under the leadership of the former Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar.

Although the RCA has been able to resolve “almost all” of the Rabbinate’s queries, Rabbi Dratch said, the lack of clear rabbinate guidelines on “who is accepted, whether they require a letter from a beit din or the word of an individual rabbi” is

causing unnecessary stress for the couples and certifying rabbis. 

Rabbi Dratch said the Rabbinate “is certainly entitled to ask questions and verify information to its satisfaction,” but that it must be done in an organized and compassionate way, based on specific criteria.   

He said the RCA and rabbinate “are having conversations” about the fact that the Rabbinate does not automatically accept the authority of RCA-affiliated rabbis.

Other prominent Orthodox rabbis whose letters have been rejected “were equally outraged and surprised,” Farber said, but declined to be interviewed.

“The issue is not me,” Rabbi Weiss insisted. “The issue is primarily the wonderful people with whom I have contact.” The couples, he said, “have to seek letters from others rather than their own rabbi.”

Rabbi Weiss said the Chief Rabbinate’s rejection of “respected” Orthodox leaders “is deeply insulting to these rabbis and even more importantly, to their own communities.”

Diaspora Jews “frankly don’t’ know why the State of Israel allows the Chief Rabbinate to undermine the credentials of religious Zionist rabbis who are among the staunchest and most vocal supporters of the State of Israel,” Rabbi Weiss said.

editor@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

01/08/2014 - 20:01

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This article seems to be a Rabbi Avi Weiss fan club puff piece, with no serious examination of why the Rabbinate might have problems with Rabbi Weiss. The writer opens by stating that Rabbi Weiss is well known. This, of course, is irrelevant -- a function of celebrity, not religion or rabbinics. While not examining what the problem might be from the perspective of the Rabbinate, the article does provide Weiss's own musings: "Rabbi Weiss said that although he has no specific information, 'my hunch is that it’s political, having to do with the institutions I’m involved with...' ”
Had the write dug deeper, she might have found that the truth is the reverse of what Weiss stated -- that the reasons of the rabbinate are religious, and Weiss's involvements with these institutions is political and contrary to halachic norms. For a serious, excellent analysis of the religious problems that the Rabbinate (and all normative Orthodox Jews) might have Avi Weiss, check out the op-ed by Rabbi Avraham Gordimer on Artuz 7 --(http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/14349#.Us2UgNIW09Y). It will be an eye opener for those who think the Rabbinate merely "has it in store" for diaspora Rabbis.

To gain credability to your claim, please bring another example. Bringing the case of Rabbi Weiss is harmful to such an important and justifiable cause.

In Megilat Ruth, Ruth states to her mother in law Naomi " wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you lodge, I will lodge, your people are my people and your god is my god."
The simplicity, purity and sincerity of those words encompasses Ruth's "conversion" to Judaism.
If Ruth went before a Jewish court today, her conversion would be denied.
Most Ashkenazi Jews come from a relative who converted many generations ago. In that case, maybe those making the rules are themselves " not Jewish" by their own definition. The Torah clearly states " do not add and do not subtract from a mitzvah. The problem is, we 'be accepted that adding and making the rules more strict is better..... That it makes you a better Jew. Clearly, we need to take a step back and "think". I know that thinking and reason have become "bad" words when it comes to Halacha. But reLly, think about whether a god would want this strife, hatefulness, and judgmental attitudes that pervade Orthodox Judaism today. Ruth converted with a few simple sentences. Let's keep it that way and not allow people who think they can speak for god, tear us apart. That is not what "Hashem Kel Rachum Vechanun" would want. I learned that we should strive for " ohev shalom vrodef shalom".... To love peace and pursue peace.

After having read the article and the comments, my main impression is one of sadness. Our religion has experienced so many challenges historically and in the present. Many of our forefathers and mothers would not have been considered Jewish by today's orthodox standards. We need to maintain certain standards while embracing people who want to be part of our community. Creating an obstacle course with what often seem arbitrary rules and regulations as well as the turf wars does more to divide us when we need a format that brings us closer together. At the end of the day, the Torah is a paradigm of how we are to live, defined by our relationships with each other, the world around us and our creator. We need to do better

I am not sure why people are making Aliyah just to get abused by the Ultra Orthodox establishment or get blown up by suicide bombers, this couple have no one to blame but themselves, they could marry in the States without any problems. I feel the same about Americans that visit Iraq and then getting kidnapped.

You love Israel? Good ! So go visit it is a nice country! but to live there and be abused? Pleez!

that is 1 of the most idiotic comments i ever read.....the writers ignorance shines thru

To the contrary, she is absolutely correct. Why move to a country that is going bankrupt supporting a misanthropic minority that manifests contempt for everyone outside of its fold, while gradually commandeering every aspect of that country's political discourse? I can think of no reason apart from reasons of faith, which I consider to be invalid.

Since we all know how intertwined religion and politics are in Israel, only when the Israeli political establiahment feels enough pain will it order the Rabbinate to toe the line.

How does one make Israeli politicians feel pain, by threatening to cease funding AIPAC. Loyalty is a two way street, American Jewry owes no loyalty or allegiance to a country that exhibits neither loyalty nor allegiance with it.

Being brought up in the Zionist movement I cannot understand that Israel is letting the orthodox rule the country. Where are the zionists? They are supposed to be running Israel not the orthodox.They are ruining Israel and surprised that Netenyahu and his peers are allowing this.

Israel is a Zionist country so why do they let the orthodox rabbis rule the country. I cannot understand this. I went to a Zionist Jewish school in New York City for six years and learned about the bible in Jewish called the Chumash and the Torah in Hebrew. And Palestine as the country was called that,

As a sibling of two sisters who teach at SAR academy in Riverdale, NY (Beth Pepper and Jennifer Pepper) and who has intimate knowledge of R.Weiss' business and tactics, It is ridiculous that orthodox Jews invent and create this labyrnth of rules to give themselves something to debate endlessly (like the torah) and make others jump through their hoops.Who the heck cares about the bloodline? What SHOULD matter is if you believe the tenets of Judaism. How's this for you? I was born to a protestant mother and adopted at birth by Conservative Jewish parents. I do not partake in ANY religion. So, What am I? As far as I am concerned I do not hold the prerequisite beliefs of JUdaism so I am not a Jew. Some have told me that since I had a Bat Mitzvah, I am a Jew. Others mentioned that I had a Mikvah and a conversion ceremony as a wee baby, so I am a Jew. Does it even matter what I THINK I AM? Personally, I sit back and laugh and laugh at the problems that you create for yourselves. I bet that I will be told that since I was converted via CONSERVATIVE Judaism my conversion was null and void. Therein lies the problem. Jews need to stop the infighting and dogmatic civil wars and learn to get along with EACH OTHER. Then and only then will you have success and respect in the REAL world.

Kovner- Please do your research before shaming someone in public. You're mixing up your Rabbi Farbers. On is Seth Farber and one is Zev Farber.

Rabbi Weiss has left halachic Judaism so I am not at all surprised by the decision. I would assume that the rejection of Rabbi Weiss has something to do with his ordination of a woman or the fact that he has non orthodox clergy teaching in his Chovevei Torah school

The RCA has proven to be a biased, unethical and lying institution. They accept a fee for their court, make assurances certain issues will be heard and everyone will be able to testify and then they don't fulfill any of the commitments. They say one thing and do another

It is an old boy network and this is just one example.

I can't imagine a responsible Orthodox Rabbi relying on anything Avi Weiss or his colleagues at YCT have to say about anything related to Judaism. He has been working for many years to undermine the standards of Orthodox Judaism and has the chutzpah to complain that they no longer trust him. It is amazing that they ever accepted his letters.

The CHIEF RABBINATE is a remaining from the Ottoman Rule in Eretz Israel and should be shut down as a danger for the Jewish State. There is a rabbinical opinion that the simple fact that some one is settling in Israel is sufficent for acknoledge him as Jew. The Chief Rabbinate does not know that to be Jews is not only a Faith but also a fate. In their so called "wisdom" the rabbis in the Jeshivot did not bother to learn the lesson of Shoah times. Every German corporal knew who was a Jew, the rabbis no.

Kovner, You got yuour facts wrong. The Rabbi Farber of Itim is Rabbi Seth Farber. Te one you most assuredly are referring to, is Rabi Zev Farber. Apologize!

What this article, this manifestation of 'righteousness,' this continuous strife and stubbornness of 'Jew against Jew' is very frightening. Is this not exactly what our sages have written about the destruction of civilization before Noach? And the First and Second Temples?
Maybe this indeed is a road toward the coming of Moshiach... the disunity among Jews, indeed the increasing shrinkage of those who call themselves Jews and those who want to be known as Jews [indeed born and practicing] but are rejected by the "ruling authorities" in Israel, does not bode well for our struggle to maintain Judaism in the diaspora.
Please consider the sheer immorality you are exemplifying, Chief Rabbinate of Israel and your followers.

With all due respect to Rabbi Weiss, I am not surprised that his letter was rejected. The Chief Rabbinate in Israel is well-aware of what goes on in the USA and they know of Rabbi Weiss' involvement in Yeshivat Chovevei, which they certainly frown upon. So, despite all of the protests that it's not really Rabbi Weiss himself, it actually is him.

While Rabbi Weiss holds some views that are not in agreement with those of certain other Rabbis, this is not sufficient grounds to disrespect him or distrust his testimony regarding the Jewishness of his baal habatim. There is no evidence showing Rabbi Weiss is an untrustworthy person or one who is disqualified to be a witness in a Beth Din. The Talmud records thousands of halachic disputes between Rabbis. Those on the losing side of these arguments remain respected authorities in their own right and their opinions are sometimes followed in other areas of Jewish Law. What is going on is a serious sin and brings Judaism and halachah into disrepute.

Exactly why marriage MUST be a civil contract. These guys turn it into a commodity and bargain with it.

Why does the the State of Israel "allows the Chief Rabbinate to undermine the credentials of religious Zionist rabbis"? Because the citizens of Israel have not yet risen up to insist that the Chief Rabbinate be dismantled. They will. The Chief Rabbinate itself is seeing to it that it will happen by making it clear, over and over again, that it long ago ceased to be the rabbinate of _k'lal Yisrael_ and became the rabbinate of an obscurantist enclave community.

maybe it is time for the Modern Orthodox world to rethink and perhaps reject the foolish and anti-Torah approach of Zionism, just as the rest of the Orthodox world has, except for these few right-of-center oddballs who run the Rabbinate, who don't fit in the Haredi world (because they are zionist) and don't fit into the Modern Orthodox world (because they are crazier than any regular Haredim I know)

I find it quite ludicrous for R' Farber to complain about the Chief Rabbinate not relying upon American rabbis. He recently published views that are clearly heretical according to mainstream Orthodoxy, including the Chief Rabbinate. His views are also those of many members of Chovevei Torah. How does he expect the Chief Rabbinate to trust him?

You are mixing up two different Rabbis-Rabbi Seth Farber mentioned in this article from ITIM and Rabbi Zev Farber who wrote the article to which you refer.

It is obvious that the Israeli rabbinate has studied the methods of the Teamsters Union in the US. Only our "drivers" can make a delivery. It doesn't matter that your "drivers" belong to a different Local. You must hire one of our "drivers" to ride with your "driver" (or pay one of our "drivers" if you don't want him in your "truck". Just as the OU extorts food establishments, so does the Israeli rabbinate extort fees from conversions. Shame of them!

I really do not care what the rabbis in Israel do, I do NOT recognize their authority in matter of Judaism. As is a fact of life in Israel, the rabbis are just part of the huge nepotism system and nominated to these positions based on who they know and not what they know. Their poor, uniformed and biased judgements DOES NOT apply to the Jews in the world.

The Jewish Week has got it wrong. This is most certainly not about "Israeli rabbis vs. diaspora rabbis", although that makes for better headlines. This is about certain rabbis, be they in Israel or the diaspora, who are outside the mainstream. You see, Weiss may be a "leading US rabbi", and he may be "Orthodox", but he most certainly is not a "leading US Orthodox rabbi" because he is at the left fringe of orthodoxy. And just as the RCA would not automatically accept the attestation of any given rabbi from Israel, or France, or Moldova, the Chief Rabbinate in Israel is not obligated to accept attestations from all rabbis in the US.

Shame on the Israeli Rabbinate - the ones who are being hurt here are those who can least fight for themselves - the converts. Aren't we supposed to take extra care and respect when dealing with them? Hasn't the Rabbinate in israel studied Tora?

I am glad that this issue is finally being recognized. When I went to get married, I encountered the same problem-that my orthodox rabbi (who certified my aliyah) was not good enough for them. My husband had his parents' divorce form issued from their offices and they demanded to see the ketubah (which of course had been destroyed). Then they proceeded to tell him that even though it came from their offices, it was from another office across the street and he needed to bring another certification completely. This was two weeks before the wedding and I had managed to get a day off from the army to settle issues and I told them I couldn't return to their office during working hours, to which they replied. That's your problem. I left completely crushed that this type of religious corruption represents the Jewish face of Israel.

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