Wednesday, April 16, 2014 Nisan 16, 5774

Meet the Bureaucrat Who Decides Who Can Marry in Israel

January 7, 2014 By:
Ben Sales, JTA
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A couple marries in a Reform wedding ceremony in front of the Knesset, Israel's parliament in Jerusalem, to protest the Orthodox Rabbinate's monopoly on marriage licensing and the lack of civil marriages in Israel. Photo from Flash90.

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.

Tubul, 35, is the soft-spoken rabbi who heads the Chief Rabbinate’s personal status division — a job that places him at the center of a brewing crisis between the Chief Rabbinate and the American Modern Orthodox community.

In October 2013, Tubul rejected a proof-of-Judaism letter from Avi Weiss, a liberal Orthodox rabbi. The move sparked widespread outrage that Weiss, a longtime synagogue leader in New York who had vouched for the Jewishness of many Israeli immigrants in the past, was suddenly having his reliability called into question.

Tubul rejected the letter from Weiss after two members of the Rabbinical Council of America, the Modern Orthodox rabbinic organization of which Weiss is a longstanding member, questioned Weiss' commitment to Orthodox Jewish law.

“They said there were problems with his worldview,” 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 Weiss, who has pioneered a number of controversial innovations in the Orthodox world, most recently with his decision to “ordain” women as spiritual leaders 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, 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 doubt his credentials, they refer Tubul to local colleagues.

After soliciting their recommendations, 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.”

Tubul said that he corresponds with at least three rabbis regarding every American letter he investigates and 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 into negotiations to give the RCA more say in the evaluation process. According to a draft agreement obtained by JTA, the rabbinate will consult with the RCA on every questionable letter before making a decision.

In addition, the RCA would provide the 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 Marc 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 Tubul's decisions. Rabbinate spokesman Ziv Maor said that the RCA will be a partner in the process, but final authority will still rest with Tubul.

Nothing in the draft precludes individuals within the RCA from conveying their concerns about particular rabbis directly to the Chief Rabbinate. And while Dratch said that the organization stands by Weiss' authority to vouch for Jewishness, he acknowledged that most of the group's members do not support the various innovations by Weiss.

“A majority of RCA members feel that some of his decisions are pushing the halachic red line or beyond that,” 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, Weiss included. His lawyer in Israel, Assaf Benmelech, said that further formalizing the process could end up creating unnecessary bureaucracy.

Better, Benmelech said, for the Chief Rabbinate to simply 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.”

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