Thousands of converts, divorcees face non-recognition by Chief Rabbinate

Hundreds if not thousands of Orthodox conversions and divorces performed in the Diaspora, particularly North America, may not be recognized by the Chief Rabbinate if proposed criteria are approved by the Council of the Chief Rabbinate.

Critics have described the criteria as “a declaration of war on the unity of the Jewish people,” and an attempt to “widen the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly” over marriage, divorce and conversion in the Diaspora.

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A committee has been working for nearly 18 months on the criteria, which are designed to clearly establish which Orthodox rabbinical courts in the Diaspora will be recognized by the Chief Rabbinate for the purposes of conversion and divorce.

Broadly speaking, the draft criteria published on Tuesday will greatly limit the number of rabbinical courts that are recognized, and create tough conditions for the establishment of any new rabbinical courts.

The criteria stipulate in particular that only permanent rabbinical courts “which deal with divorce and conversion every day of the year” will be recognized. The overwhelming majority of rabbinical courts in the Diaspora are ad hoc, not permanent, and do not fit the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria.

Many conversions that have been and continue to be performed in the US by ad hoc Orthodox rabbinical courts would not be recognized by the Chief Rabbinate, meaning that many such converts would not be deemed Jewish by the Jewish state, would not be eligible to immigrate here and would be unable to marry here as well.

In addition, people who divorced through such courts, of whom there are likely also thousands, would not be considered divorced by the Chief Rabbinate.

This situation has the potential to create havoc for Orthodox converts and divorcées from the Diaspora, and their descendants, who try to immigrate to Israel. Children of divorcées who divorced in an ad hoc rabbinical court and then remarried could well be deemed to be mamzerim, a highly problematic status in Jewish law with severe personal repercussions for those involved.

The proposed criteria would also make it extremely difficult for any rabbinical court that is established in the future to obtain recognition by the Chief Rabbinate, and stipulate that no new rabbinical courts can be established in a city where one already exists.

And should existing rabbinical courts that have until now not received recognition from the Chief Rabbinate seek such recognition, their rabbinical judges will need to travel to Israel and be examined by rabbinical judges from the Supreme Rabbinical Court.

The criteria do, however, stipulate that Diaspora rabbinical courts approved by the Chief Rabbinate in the past will not need to be reexamined, and that Israeli rabbinical courts and marriage registrars will be able to automatically approve conversions, divorces and other personal statuses affirmed by those Diaspora courts.

Rabbi Seth Farber, director of the ITIM religious services advisory and lobbying group, castigated the Chief Rabbinate for the criteria, saying that it showed a “fundamental ignorance to the dynamic of Orthodox Jewish life in North America.”

Said Farber: “The document seeks to superimpose the Israeli centralized model on Diaspora Jewry; and rather than respecting the diversity of Orthodoxy around the world, the rabbinate is trying to create a monopoly.”

He also condemned the clause requiring Diaspora rabbis to undergo examination by Israeli rabbinical judges to obtain recognition for existing rabbinical courts.

“It is an absurdity to assume that senior rabbis who have been converting for longer than the chief rabbis have been alive and whose conversions are universally accepted would have to submit themselves and humiliate themselves to take an exam of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. This represents a further expression of the arrogance and ignorance that unfortunately characterizes some corridors of the Chief Rabbinate.”

Dr. Shuki Friedman, director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Nationality, Religion and State, described the criteria as “extremely problematic” and said they would affect millions of Jews around the world.

“The principles establish de facto that the rabbinate is broadening its monopoly on marriage, divorce and conversion in the entire Jewish world, because many Jews, especially those who see themselves with a connection to the State of Israel and who may immigrate to Israel, will prefer to marry and divorce in courts recognized by the establishment in Israel,” said Friedman.

“If these stringent criteria are accepted, it is possible that Jews who divorced in a Diaspora rabbinical court and immigrated to Israel will not be recognized as a divorced couple; their children [born] after they divorced could be mamzerim; and many Jews who converted in an Orthodox court will not be recognized for the right to immigrate to Israel in accordance with the Law of Return, or as Jews for the purposes of marrying in Israel.”

Friedman also noted that remote Jewish communities without permanent rabbinical courts would face extreme difficulties receiving basic religious services such as marriage registration and divorce proceedings.

Rabbi Marc Dratch, executive director of the Rabbinical Council America, a large Modern Orthodox rabbinical association in the US, was supportive, however, of the criteria.

“We have had conversations with the rabbinate concerning the status of courts in the Diaspora in matters of conversion and divorce,” said Dratch. “We are pleased that the RCA-affiliated courts are recognized by the Chief Rabbinate and that we can properly serve our constituencies in these areas as they relate to matters of concern to the rabbinate.”