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The Rabbinate gets a lesson in transparency

By ReligionMarch, 2016January 19th, 20245 min read

It was very gratifying to read the latest developments regarding the Rabbinate’s recognition of the Jewish status of Diaspora Jews. Recently, I found myself in the middle of exactly the sort of case that led to the Jerusalem Court ruling.

The daughter of a friend and business associate (in Melbourne Australia) is engaged to an Israeli gentleman, and they are set to marry in Israel, and he was quite concerned as he approached me for assistance. He didn’t understand why and how his daughter had to ‘prove’ that she was Jewish and single — the process seemed very demeaning and asymmetric.

The Rabbinate provided him with a list of names of local Melbourne rabbis, and required that one of them ‘testify’ as to his daughter’s Jewishness and eligibility to marry. The list itself consisted to several rabbis from one particular synagogue, all of whom were either retired or dead, plus a couple of other rabbis, including some associated with the local Beth Din.

Melbourne is a large (over 50,000) and diverse Jewish community, and my friend did not know any of the rabbis in the list. More importantly, none of them knew him!

The first thing I did was take the time to explain the process and the reasons for it. No one had bothered to do this either for my friend or his daughter. While most people view the role of a rabbi in a Jewish wedding to be ceremonial, the most important thing a rabbi must do as part of the process is to ensure that the two parties are Jewish. It is this function that guarantees the integrity of the Jewish nation.

I told him of an actual case of a young woman who had assisted a friend for immigration purposes and entered into a civil marriage for a period of time as they lived together. While in her eyes, this was a sham as they were ‘just’ house-mates sharing accommodation, this had serious implications when she ultimately became engaged to the love of her life (someone else entirely). Her rabbi needed to organize a gett from this previous (sham) marriage so that her marriage to her ‘real’ husband to be would be valid according to Jewish law. Issues like this can and do happen, and are usually dealt with discreetly by rabbis in the lead up to the wedding itself.

“Ahhh”, exclaimed my friend. He now understood the why and how important this was. But still, he was in a quandary. Who could he find that knew his family and could attest to their Jewishness to the satisfaction of the Rabbinate in Israel? The two Melbourne rabbis who did know him were not on “the list.”

My own questions went deeper. How was their list constructed in the first place? Why was it mostly composed of rabbis who were no longer in Melbourne (or no longer anywhere)? Surely this happens regularly. What is the Rabbinate’s process for maintaining a register of trusted rabbis in other jurisdictions?

I put my friend in touch with the one person on the list who I felt was most likely to be able to help, or to know someone else who could. While his daughter was furious and wanted to take this up with the Rabbinate, my counsel was to be pragmatic, and do whatever was needed to satisfy them, and not dare put the wedding plans at risk. Fortunately, they were able to work things out, and an additional rabbi was added to the Melbourne list who certified her Jewishness.

The “don’t fight City Hall” approach is, sadly, what perpetuates institutional problems like this. The people in need of these services are going through important life-stage transitions (marriage, conversion, immigration), and don’t have the time or the resources to take up a fight with a dysfunctional bureaucracy.

It was gratifying to see the court stepping in and calling this out as a “Chillul Hashem.” Institutions must remember that their purpose is to serve their constituents, rather than the other way around. People who deal with them deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Doing so is not just a “KIddush Hashem”; it is a basic standard of decency.

David Werdiger discusses the recent ruling by an Israeli court mandating the Rabbinate to be more transparent regarding which Rabbis in other jurisdictions are acceptable.

This was also posted at [Times of Israel].

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