Who's a Jew?

The Chief Rabbinate Proves Jews Would Be Better Off without It

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

And, in theprocess, the Chief Rabbinate has shown yet again that there is nolegitimate 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 yearsago, the Israeli rabbinate successfully pushed the Rabbinical Councilof America, the main association of Orthodox rabbis in the UnitedStates, to adopt a more restrictive policy on accepting converts.Critics in the RCA said the policy made conversion a bureaucraticprocess and denied them discretion in accepting converts. A leadingmodern Orthodox rabbi told me at the time that he didn't like thechange but went along with it. If he were marked as a rebel, hefeared, people he'd already converted during his long career mightnot be accepted as Jews by the Israeli rabbinate. Note the processhere: Orthodox rabbis abroad want their converts to be recognized inIsrael; they therefore submit to the Chief Rabbinate's demands.Nonetheless, the rabbinate can decide later that it doesn't believethey are strict enough.

Likewise, it candecide a once-trusted rabbi isn't careful enough in checking thatpeople who say that they're Jews from birth really have Jewishmothers. A liberal Orthodox rabbi once expressed to me his faith thatif, here or there, someone who's not actually a Jew according toreligious law is accepted as one, the Master of the Universe couldcope. The Chief Rabbinate today is run by men of lesser faith. Ratherthan take the chance that God will have to work out how to deal withone non-Jew who slipped by and joined the family de facto, they arewilling to shame and exclude many Jews. As a Jew committed tohalakhah, I admit I do not understand this calculus. But therabbinate believes it is simply maintaining standards.

Here's the heartof the matter: Historically, the ideological advocates of the staterabbinate have been religious Zionists in Israel and their roughequivalent abroad, modern Orthodox Jews. Their claim is that therabbinate maintains Jewish unity. With the Chief Rabbinate settingone Orthodox standard for marriage, divorce and conversion—so theyclaim—Jews all know who's Jewish, Orthodox Jews can marry otherJews, and we remain one people.

In the realworld, though, Jews don't agree who's Jewish and haven't for a coupleof centuries. Nor do people calling themselves Orthodox agree at allon who's Orthodox. With its ever more obsessive standards, therabbinate is attacking the bona fides of its last defenders: doubtingtheir Jewishness, delisting their rabbis.

The rabbinatecannot impose non-existent consensus on Jewish identity, and there'sno reason for the state to sponsor such an effort. Rather thanprotect Judaism, the rabbinate puts it to shame. Seeking excessiveproof from everyone, it has proved again that it must be shut down.