Such is the poor state of affairs with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate that its release last week of an index of approved Diaspora rabbis for performing divorces and conversions seems like a major step forward. It isn’t. The release of the list of some 70 “approved” Orthodox rabbinical courts came after a three-year battle by an Israeli advocacy organization. The list was grudgingly given and the rabbinate is clearly as entrenched and self-insulated as ever.

The haredi Orthodox-controlled rabbinate is a state body which governs such personal status matters as conversion, marriage and divorce. In Israel, if the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize someone’s Jewish conversion, that person cannot “legally” marry a Jew in Israel or be divorced from a Jew in Israel, or be buried in a Jewish cemetery in Israel. 

According to the Chief Rabbinate, in order for a rabbinic court to receive “certification,” it must demonstrate fealty to Orthodox Jewish law and tradition, and be endorsed by a major Orthodox organization. (Even that is a potential sore point, because the “law and tradition” criteria has to accord with the haredi interpretation, which excludes many modern Orthodox practitioners in the Diaspora.)

Time and again action by the rabbinate shows just how out of touch it is with Diaspora Jewry, whose affinity with Israel as the source of support and aliyah are negatively affected by the rabbinate’s doctrinaire, close-fisted ruling hand. All of this adds to the discomfort of seeing the rabbinate’s archaic ways of doing business supported by the Israeli government’s anti-pluralism policies. Those “Orthodox only“ positions alienate non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews, and also put Orthodox Jews who support pluralism in an uncomfortable position.

A good example of the rabbinate’s dysfunction is the new list, published in Hebrew, which shines a light on concerns about the rabbinate’s records and other shortcomings, and how they could impact the people whose personal status the rabbinate controls. Included within the list of approved Diaspora rabbinical courts is the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington. But the list provides an incorrect address and phone number for the agency, and lists as the council’s judge Rabbi Kalman Winter, who passed away more than six years ago. So much for the rabbinate’s verification process and attention to detail — in a business that is supposed to focus upon complex and minute details.

In truth, Israelis don’t care much about these things. They are more concerned with economics and security, and find ways around the rabbinate. But it really shouldn’t have to be that way, and if we are to be a unified world Jewish community, things are going to have to change. 

Change takes time. We understand that. But Diaspora Jewry is running out of patience. It’s time for Israel’s leadership to take a hard look at the work of its rabbinate and insist that it enter the 21st century. JN

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