According to the rabbis, because of their liberal opinions, the State of Israel's Rabbinate is treating them as if they were Reform or Conservative, and they are considering petitioning the High Court of Justice.
The rabbis say that recently the Chief Rabbinate has been rejecting letters in which they attested to the Jewishness and marital status of congregants, in addition to an older policy – which has already received legal backing – not to recognize conversion certificates.
One of those hurt by the Rabbinate's attitude, and the only one to express his feelings publicly, is Rabbi Avi Weiss, who heads a large community in northern New York. There are dozens more who are afraid to come forward. They are all rabbis affiliated with the Orthodox stream but considered very liberal.
Harsh criticism against Rabbinate
Rabbi Weiss wrote on his blog on the Times of Israel that he was amazed to discover that the State of Israel does not recognize him as an Orthodox rabbi, and therefore does not trust his halachic judgment in regards to his congregation members. "This is an intolerable situation," he said.
"Penning these harsh words about Israel’s Chief Rabbinate is not easy for me," Rabbi Weiss wrote. "I grew up in a home that venerated the Chief Rabbinate. After my parents made aliyah, my father served as rabbi of Shikun Vatikin in the outskirts of Netanya, Israel. There he worked with Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, then Chief Rabbi of Netanya who went on to become Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi. Over the years I’ve met with many chief rabbis. I found them individually to be not only learned but caring.
"But for some time, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Chief Rabbinate as an institution just doesn’t work. Built into the very fabric of the institution is the principle of kefiyah, rabbis overlording the citizenry, forcing their religious dictates down their throats. Indeed, the Chief Rabbinate has become a subject of scorn amongst the grassroots public in Israel."
The blog post became the talk of the day in some parts of the US rabbinical community.
Rabbi Weiss is a graduate of Yeshiva University. Among the most influential Orthodox rabbis in America (and perhaps in the world), he is probably the most liberal.
Weiss is known as the founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah for the ordination of rabbis and Yeshivat Maharat, which is the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as clergy – a move which was one of the causes of the serious dispute between him and the central stream of modern Orthodoxy in the US.
One of the symbols of his permissive worldview, according to his critics, is his definition of a woman graduating from Yeshivat Maharat as a "rabba" – as the Reform and Conservative do – rather than as a "rabbanit."
Several rabbis serve under him in his New York congregation, which includes senior officials like the American secretary of the treasury and AIPAC heads pray. One of those rabbis is a woman.
Amid the dispute, Weiss quit the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and is competing against its rabbinic ordination institutes. In his blog post, he slammed the RCA for failing to back the community rabbis against the Chief Rabbinate, and even implied that his rivals in the US rabbinate had turned their colleagues in Israel against him and his colleagues, as if they were not necessarily part of Orthodox Judaism.
Alan Dershowitz joins struggle
Following his personal experience, Weiss is calling on the State for the first time to end the Rabbinate's monopoly and recognize Reform and Conservative (as well as civil) marriages and conversion.
"As in America, it should be left to the general public – if they wish, in consultation with their local rabbis – to decide whether to accept or reject these conversions and wedding ceremonies," he wrote.
"Such an open attitude is not only important for non-Orthodox Jewry, but for Orthodoxy as well. When Orthodoxy is presented as the only option, when it’s forced upon people, it turns people off. A spirit of openness will make Orthodoxy more attractive."
A series of organizations have joined Rabbi Weiss' struggle against the Rabbinate's policy, including religious-Zionist movement Ne'emanei Torah Va'Avodah, the Shalom Hartman Institute and the ITIM Institute. Prominent Jewish American lawyer Alan Dershowitz is helping out too, and may represent Rabbi Weiss and his colleagues against the State and law authorities.
The Ne'emanei Torah Va'Avodah movement said it viewed the alleged "arbitrariness" in approving or rejecting testimonies from Diaspora rabbis about the Jewishness and personal status of congregants as extremely severe, and was considering taking legal action on the matter.
"From a halachic aspect, there is no difference between one rabbi and another in Israel and abroad," the movement said in a statement. "This seems to be a further step of aggressive elements taking over the rabbinic establishment, in a way which excludes entire populations in Israel and outside Israel against the Halacha.
"We call for the adoption of the communal model of religious services and the transfer of the authorities to the different communities."
'It's all being run like a shtiebel'
Rabbi Dr. Shaul Farber, a friend of Rabbi Weiss, told Ynet: "The issue here is not him or his dozens of friends, but how Orthodox rabbis from North America are approved and mainly not approved.
"There is no list of the recognized and unrecognized rabbis or any clear criteria. This entire issue is not regulated in the law. It's all being run like a shtiebel (communal Jewish prayer place)."
According to Farber, the main problem is that the Chief Rabbinate is treating all rabbis with growing suspicion, unless proven otherwise – instead of having basic trust in everyone.
"It wasn't that way several years ago. The tone has changed," said Farber. "There is no problem that a certain rabbi is not recognized or that there are doubts about him. But instead of rejecting, why not talk to him, ask him for an ordination certificate and proof that he serves in an Orthodox institute?"
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, said he was glad that the challenges faced by the Jewish people from the Chief Rabbinate were stirring a public discourse.
"Nonetheless," he added, "it's important to remember that the diversity is not just inside Orthodoxy. We are a people divided in its Jewishness, and it's unthinkable that there is one rabbinate representing all of us.
"If the State of Israel aspires to be the national home of the Jewish people, and not another neighborhood synagogue, it must internalize the need to appoint many chief rabbis who will properly reflect the religious diversity in the Jewish people, both in the State of Israel and around the world."
Rabbinate: Same examination for every rabbi
The Chief Rabbinate said in response that the department in charge of personal status matters and people converted outside of Israel, headed by Rabbi Itamar Tubul, examines each case and each rabbi individually, does not hold a list of Diaspora rabbis who are recognized or unrecognized by the Rabbinate, and that there is no instruction to step up procedures on the matter.
The Rabbinate said it holds a triple and uniform examination for each of the rabbis – whether he has a recognized Orthodox ordination, whether he and his institutions act according to Halacha, and whether he has the knowledge and tools to investigate trace documents and testimonies and to determine the personal status of a member of his congregation.