Rabbinical court in Israel rejects ‘liberal’ American rabbis

Students attend a lecture at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, located at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Photo courtesy of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

JERUSALEM (RNS) – Israel’s rabbinical court system no longer recognizes the authority of more than 120 rabbis ordained at a modern-Orthodox rabbinical school in New York, a recently discovered document has revealed.

The document, a letter written in March by Rabbi Asher Ehrentreu, a senior administrator in the rabbinical court system, holds that rabbis ordained at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in the Bronx “call themselves Orthodox” but “are not recognized by the Rabbinate of Israel.”

Yeshivat Chovevei Torah was established in 1999 by Rabbi Avi Weiss, who has pushed the envelope of Orthodoxy by creating rabbinical-type roles for women and launching the rabbinical school, which has been described as “Open Orthodox.”

Ehrentreu’s letter, obtained through freedom of information requests by the advocacy group ITIM, provides the first written proof that the court system is refusing to recognize an entire cohort of American rabbis based on where they were ordained, according to Rabbi Seth Farber, founder and director of ITIM. 

Rabbi Avi Weiss. Photo courtesy of HIR

The rabbinate has consistently denied the existence of any blacklist. “It even claimed in court that it doesn’t delegitimize a rabbi’s credentials based on his institutional affiliation,” Farber told RNS. 

“This is a smoking gun,” said Farber. “For years the rabbinate has refused to recognize the authority of certain individual Orthodox diaspora rabbis. Now we see that this extends to an entire group of rabbis.”

During a parliamentary session on Monday (May 28), Moshe Dagan, director of the Chief Rabbinate, denied that the rabbinate maintains a blacklist.

Ehrentreu’s letter came to light after the rabbinical court refused to recognize the Jewishness of an American woman who wished to get married in Israel.

To obtain a marriage license in Israel, couples must bring letters to the marriage registrar attesting to their Jewishness and their single status.

Earlier this year, when the woman presented a letter from Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld, who graduated from Chovevei Torah in 2007, the court rejected it. 

Herzfeld, who had served at a Portland, Maine, synagogue where the woman attended, “knew three generations of this woman’s family, so he was the person best suited to write this letter,” Farber said. “The Israeli rabbinical establishment’s continued and broadening refusal to recognize the authority of diaspora rabbis is creating a wedge between Israel and diaspora Jewry.”

American-Israeli Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder of ITIM. Photo courtesy of ITIM

Farber said the rabbinate stopped recognizing the authority of Weiss, Chovevei Torah’s founder, a few years ago, deeming him too religiously liberal, but that it had recently recognized the authority of several Chovevei Torah rabbis.

Farber’s organization, which helps people navigate through the rabbinate and rabbinical court system, was able to obtain a letter attesting to the woman’s Jewishness from a rabbinical court in Boston, and the marriage registrar accepted it.

Herzfeld said in a statement that he was “saddened to see that the decisions of who is accepted as a rabbi are in the hands of a few small-minded individuals who don’t understand what is really going on in North America. I wrote a letter knowing the individual was Jewish and was shocked when she received a phone call saying that the Rabbinate knew better.”

“Their behavior is inexcusable,” he said.

(Michele Chabin is RNS’ Israel correspondent.)

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Michele Chabin