Abolish the Chief Rabbinate

What would you think if you and your children were registered as Jewish citizens of Israel, but when your daughter applied to be married, she was told that in the eyes of the Chief Rabbinate she was not Jewish? And not only that, but – oops –  you yourself were not legally married? It happens.

Israel’s taxpayer-supported Chief Rabbinate maintains a list of Israelis who may not be officially married by a rabbi in the country, because they are not recognized as Jewish or for some other halachic reason. Recently, the Rabbinate decided that it had the right to review the files of people that had been previously recognized as Jewish and to add them to the list, and in the past two years has added 900 persons to it. Here are some examples provided by ITIM, an organization founded by Seth Farber, an Orthodox rabbi who assists people in dealing with Israel’s religious bureaucracy:

One case involves an American-born woman who married an Israeli in a civil ceremony in Florida in 1984. The couple moved to Israel that year, and the woman and the couple’s oldest child converted to Judaism the following year. Both were subsequently registered as Jewish in the Population Registry, as were two daughters later born to the couple. A few years ago, the oldest daughter applied to marry in Israel. In the process, her mother was notified by a representative of the Chief Rabbinate that her marriage was no longer valid because she was not Jewish. Her daughter subsequently decided to marry in a civil ceremony in Cyprus. The couple’s other daughters were notified that their names had been added to the blacklist until further clarification.

A second case involves a family of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Recently, a relative of theirs who applied to get married in Israel was rejected because he could not provide sufficient proof that he was Jewish. After he was rejected, all his family members, who had already been registered as Jewish, were notified that their Jewish status was now pending clarification.  …

[Another] case also involves a family of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. In this particular case, an investigation was launched when a member of the family sought to divorce her husband, citing domestic violence. The estranged husband, in response, claimed that his wife had converted to Christianity. Based on this claim, which the woman categorically denied, the Chief Rabbinate notified relatives, who had already been registered as Jewish, that their Jewish status was now pending clarification.

The Rabbinate has complete control of marriage and divorce for Jews in Israel. It also holds a monopoly on kashrut certification for restaurants, and other aspects of Jewish life. There have been numerous complaints of corruption, and two former Chief Rabbis have received jail sentences. Even where there is no obvious fraud, the Rabbinate has been criticized for acting slowly, arbitrarily and expensively (both for the state and for those who require its services).

I can personally attest to this in connection to my daughter’s marriage, which was delayed for months while the Rabbinate evaluated (or didn’t bother to look at) the American documentation of her parents’ Jewishness (in the interest of full disclosure, she received assistance in the process from Rabbi Farber of ITIM).

Conversion is particularly problematic. For years the Rabbinate monopolized conversions in Israel. Since March 2016, private Orthodox conversions in Israel have been recognized by the state for the purposes of the Law of Return, but a bill is in process that will invalidate non-Rabbinate-approved conversions in the country (the state currently recognizes both Orthodox and non-Orthodox conversions abroad and the bill won’t change this). But what the state recognizes and what the Rabbinate demands for the purposes of marriage are far apart.

Conversions under the Rabbinate have always been difficult and slow, and it has even withdrawn recognition that converts are Jewish after they were caught failing to observe the commandments to its satisfaction! It also maintains a “blacklist” of Orthodox rabbis outside of Israel whose conversions it will not recognize (needless to say, no non-Orthodox conversions are recognized under any circumstances).

The Rabbinate is dominated by Haredim, and when it is not corrupt, it operates according to the strictest possible interpretation of Jewish law. Non-Haredim who deal with it often report that they are treated with contempt and/or neglect. It is one more source of friction between the observant, “traditional,” (those who don’t live a strictly observant lifestyle but consider themselves Orthodox in their beliefs), and secular populations.

There is a simple solution: abolish the Rabbinate. There is no need for it in Jewish law and alternatives abound for everything that it does. Kosher certification for restaurants can easily be provided by private organizations, and prospective customers can decide for themselves which agencies they trust. Solutions could be found for administration of cemeteries and mikvahs. The Chief Rabbis also are considered religious authorities on matters of halacha; but whether a rabbi is respected and his judgments taken seriously doesn’t depend on his position but on his reputation. There are no popes in Judaism!

Marriage and divorce are probably the areas where most Israelis come into contact with the Rabbinate, and a major source of frustration. Here the solution is simple, if drastic: The state should provide civil marriage and divorce, and those who want to avail themselves of religious ceremonies (which in Jewish law do not even require a rabbi, only witnesses) can do so. It is absurd that 20,000 Israelis each year fly to Cyprus to marry in a civil ceremony, a marriage that is then recognized by the state (although not by the Rabbinate, which may later create difficulties when the children want to marry).

Uncontrolled marriage will supposedly allow a flood of non-Jews to overwhelm our culture. In the future, it’s said, nobody will be able to tell who is Jewish and who isn’t. But throughout history there has always been a certain number of non-Jews joining the Jewish people by marriage. It’s highly unlikely that allowing civil marriages within Israel will produce a flood of, for example, Jewish-Muslim intermarriages. What it will do is permit those without documentation, like many Russian immigrants, to regularize their relationships.

It’s also argued that allowing private conversions will open the door to uncontrolled immigration. Reform rabbis, it is said, will convert thousands of illegal immigrants to Judaism so that they will be able to obtain citizenship. There are simple ways to prevent this: for example, require proof of legal residency before the state recognizes a conversion. Standards for conversion could be set by a rabbinical commission made up of rabbis from all streams of Judaism (Haredim would have to choose between joining the commission or forfeiting their influence on its product).

Supporters of the Rabbinate say that it provides a national standard for kashrut. But this isn’t true. Very observant people will check to see which rabbi issued the certificate, regardless of whether it is certified by the Rabbinate. Competition between certifying agencies would reduce the cost to restaurant operators as well as provide the public with choices based on the standard of kashrut with which they are comfortable.

This is an institution whose time is clearly past. Israel’s 6 million Jews do not all observe the same form of Judaism, and most of them are far from Haredi Orthodoxy. The institution of Chief Rabbinate is pointless for that reason, and the coercion of the non-Haredi public that results from its excessive, arbitrary and sometimes corrupt power is unacceptable.

It’s not kosher. Abolish it!

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