Israel’s conversion muddle

Israel’s conversion muddle

Israel’s chief rabbinate system has long been known as inflexible about strains of Judaism that do not match its approved brands of Orthodoxy. The bureaucracy and chosen path of the rabbinate has alienated ordinary Israelis from Judaism and complicated the lives of those who get tripped up on its increasingly narrow strictures. Having become a stronghold of haredi Orthodoxy, the rabbinate has, in effect, become a non-Zionist institution, working not to preserve the unity of the Jewish people, but intent instead on drawing an increasingly smaller circle around those who can be part of the Jewish people.

The bureaucracy of the rabbinate also appears not to communicate well with itself. That was made clear in the recent case of a U.S.-born convert who wished to marry an Israeli man. The rabbinical court in Petach Tikvah, where the man lives, ruled in April that his fiancée’s conversion was invalid. The woman was converted by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a prominent New York modern Orthodox rabbinic leader. After a protest, the head of the chief rabbinate’s department of personal status and conversion, Rabbi Itamar Tubul, wrote the Petach Tivah rabbinate, saying the conversion certificate was “approved by the chief rabbinate of Israel.” Nonetheless, the Petach Tikvah rabbis in June again rejected the conversion, on the grounds that Lookstein’s name was not on the rabbinate’s list of approved rabbis.

So is Lookstein on the list or not? Keep in mind that the issue is only about Orthodox rabbis. Rabbis from other streams of Judaism aren’t even considered for the list, and are struggling just to be recognized in Israel.

According to Itim — an Israeli group that is critical of the chief rabbinate, is supporting Lookstein’s convert, and which sued in court to get a copy of a list of Diaspora rabbis certified by the rabbinate — Lookstein and other major Orthodox rabbis in the United States are not on the list.

“The right arm doesn’t know what the left is doing,” Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder of Itim, told JTA. “Sometimes the rabbinical court says yes and Tubul says no. Sometimes Tubul says yes and the rabbinical court says no. There’s absolutely no transparency.” And there is no predictability either.

An increasing number of Israelis who are frustrated by the exclusionary policies of the rabbinate have chosen to get married outside the country and away from the “control” of the rabbinate. That’s great for them. But what about those who both take their religion seriously and see Israel as the promised Jewish homeland? For those Jews, many of them born outside of the country, the exclusionary policies of the rabbinate cause Israel’s promise to fall short.