Who is a Jew? And who gets to decide?
Those questions are at the center of an increasingly bitter fight between Israel’s chief rabbinate and Jews all over the world over the most fundamental of human life cycle events: birth, marriage, and death. The two sides have long feuded over who gets to be a citizen of the Jewish State.
That debate has now moved to the Israeli parliament, where lawmakers used a special session last week to grill Israel’s chief rabbinate about why the country’s religious authorities created a blacklist of more than 160 rabbis around the world they considered untrustworthy. The disclosure of that list immediately sparked a new divide between Israel and Jewish communities around the world.
That’s because when a small group of religious leaders claim the right to define who is considered a Jew, it infuriates all those left out. The current fight is part of a broader debate within Israel over how much control the government-sanctioned religious authorities have over ordinary Israelis. The dispute has real-world implications for Jews living outside of the country as well.
Israel is a democracy whose population is overwhelmingly secular, but the chief rabbinate, which has long been dominated by Orthodox rabbis, controls all matters concerning marriage, conversion, birth, and death for Jewish citizens. They are elected by a selection of politicians and religious leaders, but the process has been widely criticized as undemocratic (there are few women involved in the process, for one).
Over the past two weeks, Jews around the world have been up in arms about the discovery that the Israeli rabbinate maintains what’s been called a blacklist of Jewish religious leaders from 24 countries including Canada, the United States, South Africa, and Australia. The rabbis on the list hail from all over the world, and from different sides of the spectrum of Jewish religious identity: They are Orthodox and conservative, reform and progressive. What unites them is not their level of observance, nor their outlook, but instead it’s that each of these rabbis had their religious authority to affirm Jewish identity effectively undermined by their inclusion on the list. (Notably women rabbis were left off the list, an omission that some took to mean all women were on the list.)
That this conversation is taking place in Knesset, or Israeli parliament, underscores the fundamental tension of a nation that is both a democracy and a Jewish state.
“In essence it all adds up to a chief rabbinate that is trying to maximize control and authority,” says Steven Bayme, director of contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee, a global social service advocacy organization.
The moves of the rabbinate — which effectively has the full weight of the Israel government behind them — are now sparking anger not just within their own country, but outside of it as well. And the timing, unfortunately, couldn’t be worse for the already tense relationship between the Jewish State and Jews around the world.
Many Jews around the world feel rejected by Israel
It’s been a difficult summer for Israel’s relationship to the global Jewish community. Divisions between the Diaspora, as Jews who live outside of Israel are known, and the Jewish religious leadership of Israel are at an all-time low.
The problems of summer 2017 began with a debacle over prayer at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, in Jerusalem. Late last month Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backtracked on a decision to set aside a sliver of the Wall where men and women could pray side by side. (Currently, men and women pray at the wall in sharply divided single-sex sections.) For four years progressive Jews had worked on a deal with the Israeli government to expand access to the Western Wall. And then, with pressure from ultra-Orthodox groups, that plan collapsed.
“It took time, but we have succeeded in persuading the government to cancel the deal, which damaged the Kotel and the Jewish status quo,” Uri Ariel of the right-wing Jewish Home Party crowed in a statement, using the Hebrew name for the Western Wall.
The collapse of the agreement on the wall was met with widespread consternation among Jews across the Diaspora, the vast majority of whom are not Orthodox.
But that wasn’t all. Soon after the Western Wall deal fell flat, the Israeli Knesset floated an enormously divisive bill, which would have granted full control over conversions to Judaism within Israel back to the ultra-Orthodox chief rabbinate (they lost that authority one year ago). Netanyahu shelved the bill, for now, but its very existence further ruffled the feathers of reform and conservative Jews.
Then came the discovery of the blacklist of the 161 Diaspora rabbis, and with it a wave of anger from Jerusalem to Montreal to New York. The fight over the Wall has nothing concretely to do with the blacklist. But both connect to the reality that many Jews want to practice their religion, and live their lives, in ways that conflict with the ultra-Orthodox’s dictates.
“It brings up a deep sadness in me,” said Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, a Washington-based conservative rabbi who is on the list. “It is a total ossification and narrowing of what Judaism is and has been for thousands of years.”
Orthodox rabbis are just as angry.
"As an Orthodox rabbi, I believe that the existence of this list is an affront to the hard work and devotion of so many of my colleagues — of all denominations," Rabbi Adam Scheier of Montreal said on NPR. "To delegitimize rabbis — and, accordingly, their communities — without due diligence or process is simply an abomination."
The chief rabbinate, for its part, has denied that this is a blacklist. Instead, they said rabbis made the list for merely technical reasons, and the controversy is overblown. “It is the documents that were presented which are unrecognized, not the rabbis,” said Moshe Dagan, director general of the rabbinate, in a letter translated and reprinted by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Knesset members were unimpressed, noting that the rabbinate’s move has an impact on people’s lives. It could, in theory, literally stop a marriage.
Israel’s two chief rabbis have a large amount of control. There is no civil marriage in Israel. Individuals can only marry within their own faith. That routinely forces Israelis to leave their own country to get married, a source of growing public anger at home and, increasingly, abroad.
To marry as a Jew — the only option for Israeli Jews unless they marry outside the country — all potential brides and grooms must present proof of Jewish identity to the religious authorities in Israel. That means, to begin with, presenting evidence of one’s parents’ Jewish marriage contract and a supporting letter from a rabbi, or evidence of conversion by a recognized rabbi. But this isn’t just a conversation about conversion: That literally means even Jews by birth have to present a letter vouching for their identity. (The full process is incredibly extensive.)
The rabbis on the new blacklist list had all affirmed the Jewish identity of a candidate for marriage, and seen that decision rejected by Israel’s chief rabbinate. The chief rabbinate’s move, apparently made behind closed doors and subject to no government review, is making people very, very angry.
“Israel has to work this out,” says Rabbi Seth Farber the founder of Itim, a nonprofit organization that helps new immigrants navigate the religious restrictions that dictate marriage, burial and conversion in Israel.
Itim submitted a Freedom of Information Act request in Israel to understand why some people were rejected in their marriage applications; the blacklist came from that search.
“What is at stake is Jewish peoplehood,” Farber added. “This isn't really about the rabbinate or rabbis. It is about what kind of Jewish state the government of Israel wants to have.”
Steve Bayme, of AJC, adds, “The chief rabbi should have a spiritual influence on the moral conscience of the state, rather than exercising state authority.”
Jews don’t have a pope. That’s relevant here.
The far reaching power of the chief rabbinate, which was established in 1921 well before the State of Israel was founded, is unusual for a lot of reasons. The biggest is this: Judaism is a religion without a hierarchy. There is no pope. Each Jew has his or her own relationship to God. Rabbis are spiritual teachers, guides, leaders. Jewish history is filled with arguments over texts with, often, multiple teachers, arguing over single sentences from multiple angles.
Jewish identity, too, was long based on trust rather than sworn affidavits. In other words, those who claimed to be Jewish were accepted as Jewish, unless there was reason to suspect otherwise.
“Trust was the default position. One reason was that Jews were a persecuted people; no one would claim to belong unless she really did,” Gershom Gorenberg wrote in a remarkably detailed 2008 New York Times magazine story on the increasingly difficult efforts to prove Jewish identity for the purpose of marriage in Israel.
That changed with the birth of the state of Israel.
Over the course of the nearly 70-year history of the modern state of Israel, the chief rabbinate has come to play a role unique in Jewish history. It has unusual power to dictate norms for Jewish observance, and guidelines for Jewish identity.
That power has its roots in 1947, the year before Israel’s independence. That year David Ben Gurion, one of Israel’s founding fathers, gave the ultra-orthodox chief rabbinate control over what’s called “personal status” issues (marriage, birth, and death). And he decided marriage, birth, and death would be handled under religious law, and dictated by the chief rabbinate. The deal came to be known as the “status quo” agreement. Until that point, religious groups were skeptical about supporting the creation of a Jewish State; this helped them come on board.
Ironically the agreement was first made to protect the religious. The Orthodox, decimated by the Holocaust, were a distinct minority when the state was established and there was genuine concern the community would disappear.
These days the religious groups hold tremendous political power. The men who are making these decisions are a part of a crucial puzzle for Netanyahu’s coalition building efforts with ultra-orthodox parties in parliament. And the demographics of the ultra-Orthodox community, with birth rates far higher than that of the secular community, mean their political power increases every year.
That means this latest fight isn’t simply a spat over religious identity, as vital an issue as that is. Instead, it’s a battle over whether Israel will retain its secular identity or gradually adopt more characteristics of a theocracy.