JERUSALEM – To be married in Israel, immigrants must prove their Jewish ancestry to the country’s chief rabbinate.
Couples can solicit a letter from their hometown rabbis or present their parents’ Jewish marriage contracts. Sometimes they even bring a Yiddish-speaking grandmother before a rabbinical court.
In the end, every claim has to pass through one man: a midlevel bureaucrat named Itamar Tubul.
The soft-spoken 35-year-old is the rabbi who heads the chief rabbinate’s personal status division. That’s a job that places him at the center of a crisis brewing between the chief rabbinate and the modern Orthodox community in the United States.
|Itamar Tubul, the head of the Israeli chief rabbinate’s personal status division, decides which American rabbis are qualified to vouch for the Jewishness of Israeli immigrants.|
In October, Rabbi Tubul rejected a proof-of-Judaism letter from Avi Weiss, the liberal Orthodox rabbi who leads the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx. The move sparked widespread outrage because Rabbi Weiss, a longtime leader who had vouched for the Jewishness of many Israeli immigrants in the past, suddenly found his reliability called into question.
Rabbi Tubul rejected the letter from Rabbi Weiss after two members of the Rabbinical Council of America, the modern Orthodox rabbinic organization of which Rabbi Weiss is a longstanding member, questioned Rabbi Weiss’ commitment to Orthodox Jewish law.
“They said there were problems with his worldview,” Rabbi Tubul said. “His system raised doubts regarding his non-deviation from what is accepted in matters of proof of Judaism and personal status.”
The chief rabbinate says it is considering whether it can trust Rabbi Weiss, who has pioneered a number of controversial innovations in the Orthodox world, most recently with his decision to ordain women as clergy through a new religious seminary called Yeshivat Maharat. Critics say the process for evaluating American rabbis lacks transparency and objective standards.
To make his recommendations, Rabbi Tubul relies on a network of personal contacts. His first step is to confer with judges on nine U.S. rabbinical courts approved by the chief rabbinate. If the judges don’t know the rabbi in question, or if they doubt his credentials, they refer Rabbi Tubul to local colleagues.
After soliciting their recommendations, Rabbi Tubul accepts or rejects the letter.
“There aren’t enough checks and balances in the system,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder of Itim, an Israeli organization that guides couples through the chief rabbinate’s bureaucracy. “This is all capricious. It’s all who they happen to know. That’s not a way to run a state.”
Rabbi Tubul said that he corresponds with at least three rabbis about every American letter he investigates, and that he never rejects a letter based solely on an initial negative recommendation.
“We check every possibility to complete the puzzle,” he said. “If someone says you can’t trust [a letter], we don’t reject it. Sometimes there are interested parties that we don’t want to deal with, so we investigate further.”
In the wake of the Weiss decision, the chief rabbinate has entered negotiations to give the RCA more say in the evaluation process. According to a draft agreement obtained by JTA, the chief rabbinate will consult with the RCA on every questionable letter before making a decision.
In addition, the RCA would provide the chief rabbinate with a list of rabbis accredited to give proofs of Judaism, marriage, and divorce.
“For the chief rabbinate to rely more formally on the RCA for approval of these letters is a question of helping the process along,” Rabbi Mark Dratch, the council’s executive vice president, said. “Cooperation will help both sides be able to serve more appropriately and prevent the kind of embarrassment that exists from time to time.”
The RCA does not have the power to override Rabbi Tubul’s decisions. Ziv Maor, a spokesman for the chief rabbinate, said that the RCA will be a partner in the process, but final authority will still rest with Rabbi Tubul.
Nothing in the draft precludes individual rabbis within the RCA from conveying their concerns about other rabbis directly to the chief rabbinate. And while Rabbi Dratch said that the organization stands by Rabbi Weiss’ authority to vouch for Jewishness, he acknowledged that most of the group’s members do not support Rabbi Weiss’s innovations.
“A majority of RCA members feel that some of his decisions are pushing the halachic red line or beyond that,” Rabbi Dratch said. “Our goal is to be able to support the rabbis of the RCA, to be able to make sure that their letters are accepted by the chief rabbinate’s office.”
It’s unclear whether the reforms being developed will satisfy the chief rabbinate’s critics, Rabbi Weiss included. His lawyer in Israel, Assaf Benmelech, said that formalizing the process even more could result in the creation of more unnecessary bureaucracy.
Better, Mr. Benmelech said, for the chief rabbinate simply to take a wider view of who counts as Orthodox.
“When you have a known rabbi who knows Jewish law, he should be trustworthy,” he said. “To place formal boundaries is stupid. It’s all about personal trust.”
JTA Wire Service