Who's a Jew?

The Chief Rabbinate Proves Jews Would Be Better Off without It

10.21.13 2:30 PM ET

The legitimacy index of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has just taken another plunge. That is, the state rabbinate has reduced the number of rabbis from outside its own bureaucracy whom it considers legitimate, and the number of people whom it trusts as being legitimately Jewish.

And, in the process, the Chief Rabbinate has shown yet again that there is no legitimate reason for its own existence.

The latest development: As reported in the New York Jewish Week, the Chief Rabbinate rejected a letter from prominent American Orthodox rabbi Avi Weiss affirming that two U.S. Jews wanting to marry in Israel are indeed Jewish and single. In the past, the rabbinate accepted Weiss's letters. No longer. Speaking to the Jewish Week's Michele Chabin, Weiss said the rabbinate's reduced-trust policy affected "many rabbis"—by which he surely meant Orthodox rabbis, since the Chief Rabbinate already treated letters from non-Orthodox clergy as paper rendered worthless by the ink on it.

Weiss also speculated that he'd personally been blackballed because of "politics," meaning his role in pushing for a more religiously liberal form of Orthodoxy. (Among other things, Weiss had the beautiful chutzpah to ordain Orthodox women.) It's also possible that Weiss just doesn't appear on a Chief Rabbinate whitelist of rabbis deemed sufficiently terrified of accidentally certifying a non-Jew as Jewish.

The Chief Rabbinate wields a monopoly on legally recognized marriage of Jews in Israel, and has long required proof that the bride and groom are Jewish and unattached. But its standard of proof has steadily gotten stricter for anyone whose own parents weren't married through the state rabbinate. Jews born abroad, or in Israel to immigrant parents, can find themselves in a mad genealogical chase for evidence that rabbinic courts will accept. (I once described the process in The New York Times.) An American-born Orthodox rabbi, son and grandson of rabbis, told me of his shock when a rabbinate registrar told him he had insufficient proof he was Jewish. A letter from the dean of the Israeli yeshivah where he'd studied eventually satisfied the rabbinate registrar. An American Jew whose only proof is her own testimony that her mother's mother was born in a shtetl and spoke Yiddish will have a harder time.

Several years ago, the Israeli rabbinate successfully pushed the Rabbinical Council of America, the main association of Orthodox rabbis in the United States, to adopt a more restrictive policy on accepting converts. Critics in the RCA said the policy made conversion a bureaucratic process and denied them discretion in accepting converts. A leading modern Orthodox rabbi told me at the time that he didn't like the change but went along with it. If he were marked as a rebel, he feared, people he'd already converted during his long career might not be accepted as Jews by the Israeli rabbinate. Note the process here: Orthodox rabbis abroad want their converts to be recognized in Israel; they therefore submit to the Chief Rabbinate's demands. Nonetheless, the rabbinate can decide later that it doesn't believe they are strict enough.

Likewise, it can decide a once-trusted rabbi isn't careful enough in checking that people who say that they're Jews from birth really have Jewish mothers. A liberal Orthodox rabbi once expressed to me his faith that if, here or there, someone who's not actually a Jew according to religious law is accepted as one, the Master of the Universe could cope. The Chief Rabbinate today is run by men of lesser faith. Rather than take the chance that God will have to work out how to deal with one non-Jew who slipped by and joined the family de facto, they are willing to shame and exclude many Jews. As a Jew committed to halakhah, I admit I do not understand this calculus. But the rabbinate believes it is simply maintaining standards.

Here's the heart of the matter: Historically, the ideological advocates of the state rabbinate have been religious Zionists in Israel and their rough equivalent abroad, modern Orthodox Jews. Their claim is that the rabbinate maintains Jewish unity. With the Chief Rabbinate setting one Orthodox standard for marriage, divorce and conversion—so they claim—Jews all know who's Jewish, Orthodox Jews can marry other Jews, and we remain one people.

In the real world, though, Jews don't agree who's Jewish and haven't for a couple of centuries. Nor do people calling themselves Orthodox agree at all on who's Orthodox. With its ever more obsessive standards, the rabbinate is attacking the bona fides of its last defenders: doubting their Jewishness, delisting their rabbis.

The rabbinate cannot impose non-existent consensus on Jewish identity, and there's no reason for the state to sponsor such an effort. Rather than protect Judaism, the rabbinate puts it to shame. Seeking excessive proof from everyone, it has proved again that it must be shut down.