The Clerical Capriciousness of the Israeli Rabbanut

Back when I was a pulpit rabbi in New York, I used to write letters of Jewishness for congregants and friends about to make aliyah under the law of return. There had been no issues with the letters I had written, so it was a bit of a surprise when I made aliyah in 2014 that the letter that was written on my behalf was initially rejected.

I joked at the time that it was a conspiracy, but in truth, I assumed it was more of a bureaucratic paperwork problem1 and something I’d have to get used to once I got to Israel.2

For a few years, this made for a funny story I’d share from time to time about the quirks of the aliyah process and the bureaucracy of the Israeli government. But on June 15th, 2020, I received a phone call that was far less amusing.

I had gotten married in Jerusalem on June 7th. In theory, “The Rebbitzen”3I would not have objected to a “rogue wedding,” but we decided that to avoid state and status issues it would be best for our new family in the long run to get married within the system. We had met with a government-approved rabbi to officiate and provided all the paperwork required for getting married in Israel. This included a photo of my parent’s ketuvah and two more letters of Jewishness, including one signed by the rabbi under whom I served as a rabbinic intern in Washington Heights. 

Our officiating rabbi signed off on the all of our paperwork, assured us everything that needed to be handled was handled. Thank God we were most fortunate to have a lovely wedding in an unpredictable 2020,4 and everything went off with only one hitch.5

On June 15th, I received a phone call from a Rabbanut marriage office asking questions about my paperwork. The office (or at least, the person representing the office) was not going to approve our marriage license until he could validate my Jewish identity. What was the problem? He did not recognize the people who wrote letters on my behalf, nor did he know the witnesses who signed my parent’s ketuvah or the beit din that oversaw their marriage. 

The letters were easier to resolve because the rabbis were both based in Israel and included their contact information. My parent’s ketuvah, however, was another story.

Jewish marriages in the US are generally only overseen by an individual officiating rabbi and not by a formal beit din. Setting aside that someone empowered with validating the halakhic authenticity of ketuvot ought to be familiar with this basic practice of American Judaism, my parents were married nearly fifty years ago. How this person expected to validate witnesses or an officiating rabbi from a nearly fifty-year old American ketuvah – assuming they were even still alive – was besides the point. Because he personally didn’t know if my parent’s ketuvah was valid, he could not be assured of my halakhic Jewishness, and therefore he could not sign off on my marriage.6

After an animated discussion with the rabbanut marriage office and with the help of our officiating rabbi, we resolved the issue and finally received our marriage license this past week.7 I cannot say for certain what ultimately solved the problem, but I am under the impression that the Power that Be was able to contact someone he recognized who could vouch for me, and by extension, my family. In fact, at one point during our heated discussion, the office asked if there was anyone in the Rabbinical Council of America who knew who I was who could validate my Jewishness. To this I replied that my father is himself a member of the RCA…and so am I.

I’m sharing this story for two reasons. First, while everything worked out in the end, it should never have been an issue in the first place because the wedding office did not follow its own rules. I had followed the protocol established by the state and vetted by one of their approved rabbinic officiants. That I happen to be able to argue halakhah with the office or that my family may be familiar to favored figures in the US is immaterial; these criteria cannot be expected of the average immigrant in order to get married in Israel.

Second, those who continuously insist that the Israeli Rabbanut is essential for preserving halakhic integrity should be aware of how its agents operate in practice and if they are in fact operating halakhically. In this case, the question is if the Rabbanut in practice actually follows halakhic standards when it comes to determining Jewishness and accepting (or questioning) the validity of witness testimony.8

The state-sanctioned authority of the Israeli Rabbanut is hotly debated in Israel and the diaspora. Any conversation about this important subject must address how the Rabbanut functions in its daily decisions that directly affect people’s lives. I understand if people have an idealized image of the Rabbanut based on how it ought to function, but the reality of the Rabbanut cannot be ignored, especially if they are beholden to neither the laws of the state nor the laws of Israel.

My personal situation ultimately resolved favorably and costing nothing more than an annoyance. But there are many, many other stories of others who have been subject to clerical capriciousness of the Israeli Rabbanut with much worse outcomes. As more of these stories become public, we might be able to have a more serious conversation about the civil and halakhic validity of the Israeli Rabbanut.

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Notes

  1. Note to rabbis: In my experience, the secret to writing acceptable letters of Jewishness is to say as little as possible. Just write who you are, where your ordination is from, synagogue affiliation, in what capacity you know the aliyah applicant, and attest that the person is halakhically Jewish. The problem I’ve noticed is that the more someone writes, the more with which a bureaucrat can find a problem, and if one detail is off, the entire letter can be rejected. I know brevity is anathema to many rabbis, but trust me when I say it’s to your constituent’s advantage in this case.
  2. My grandfather ah”s was much less understanding. In one of the few times that I ever heard him upset, he demanded, “You tell them your grandparents were married by the Klausenberger Rebbe!”
  3. My wife requested a code-name and settled on “The Rebbitzen.”
  4. As it happened, our wedding date fell between the first and second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks in Israel.
  5. This is a joke I’ve been making for years.
  6. The person in the office insisted he wasn’t trying to impugn my status, only that he needed better verification for confirmation. I replied that this is a distinction without a difference.
  7. “The Rebbitzen” didn’t want me to publicize this story until we finally received our marriage license. She’s often much wiser than I am. Also, while everything was resolved with the office on July 8th, that it took almost five months to finally receive our marriage license should not surprise anyone familiar with the unhelpful combination of Israeli bureaucracy and our comically terrible postal service.
  8. See in particular Sanhedrin 23a, Rambam Eidut 12, Shulhan Arukh H.M. 34:25
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