Blacklists and Bureaucrats, Resistance and The Rabbinate

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Elli Fischer

The recent “news” about the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s so-called “Blacklist”—”a list of overseas rabbis whose authority they refused to recognize when it comes to certifying the Jewishness of someone who wants to get married in Israel”—has brought to my mind an aphorism known as Hanlon’s Razor. Hanlon’s Razor cautions: “Never ascribe to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence.” This close-cousin of Ockham’s Razor presumes that problems have single causes—either malice or incompetence. In reality, things are rarely so simple, but it is still a useful way to think about problems. The temptation to attribute malice (or intention more generally) to the effects of incompetence can be hard to resist, as it is less than satisfying to attribute one’s victimization to mere ineptitude. The rage feels so much more righteous when there is a “bad guy.” When the narrative of malice is shaped and propagated by organizations whose success depends on it, reinforced by media outlets that repackage press releases as click-bait, it can indeed be hard to overcome Hanlon’s Razor.

And here’s the problem. If we hope to solve the challenges of Israel’s religious establishment, like those manifested in the process by which the Chief Rabbinate evaluates attestations by Diaspora rabbis concerning applicants’ Jewish birth, bachelorhood, or conversion, then we need a proper diagnosis of it, as misdiagnosis will result in the wrong course of treatment. Therefore, although I have not been shy about my defiance of Israel’s deeply-flawed Chief Rabbinate, and despite my agreement about the presence of a deeply-rooted problem, I have been profoundly disappointed by the facile, uncritical, and altogether lazy treatment of this issue by the media, which has consistently attributed to the Rabbinate a much greater degree of intent, principle, and comprehensiveness than is warranted.

Consider the first news article, by JTA author Ben Sales, which launched the latest Orwellian Two Minutes Hate against Chief Rabbi Emmanuel Goldstein: its first sentence informs us that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate is “Ultra-Orthodox dominated” and frames the issue as one of “trust.” The next paragraph mentions Rabbi Avi Weiss, a rabbi who has made a career of pushing the leftward boundaries of Orthodoxy and halakhah (“advocates a ‘more open and inclusive Orthodoxy,’” as the Associated Press article on the subject helpfully informs us), and whose mere mention frames the issue as one of ideology and Orthodox boundary-making. The photograph accompanying the news item in several major news outlets is of Rabbi Weiss. Later in the first article, the rejection of documentation provided by specific rabbis is attributed to “antipathy” and “mistrust”—words that convey intentionality.

Or, the article published on July 16 (likewise, by Ben Sales), about the lack of women on the “Blacklist.” The absence of women on the “Blacklist” suggests that the Rabbinate, in fact, accepts attestations proffered by women rabbis, or at least that none were rejected in 2016. The article does not cite even one woman rabbi whose letters were rejected, and quotes Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin as saying that her letters to the Rabbinate have been accepted in the past. The article, in short, does not present a shred of evidence that the Rabbinate discriminates between men and women rabbis in this regard. Every word of the article is true in the sense that the people it quotes presumably said what is ascribed to them. Nevertheless, the bulk of the article is given to those who maintain that the Rabbinate is so anti-women that they would not deign to recognize women rabbis, even by blacklisting them. As articulated by Rabbi Rachel Ain, “If they put names of women rabbis on that list, they’d have to acknowledge that women can be rabbis, and I think that’s not a step they’re willing to take publicly … They’re not willing to put my name on the list because they don’t consider me a legitimate rabbi.” 

Rabbi Newman Kamin, whose letters, by her admission, have been accepted in the past, is in this case willing to ascribe the rare instance of the Rabbinate getting something right to mere clerical oversight: “A woman rabbi is like a unicorn, so why would you include a unicorn on the blacklist? … We’re not even on their radar screen.” These attempts to interpret even the most benign evidence to fit preconceptions of nefarious behavior remind one of Tal Nitsan’s infamous thesis that the rarity of IDF soldiers raping Palestinian women is attributable to Israeli racism and dehumanization of Palestinians.

Consider also the term “Blacklist”: The term implies that there is some list kept by the Rabbinate, which it consults to determine whether a particular rabbi has been pre-rejected. However, this list was created to fulfill a Freedom of Information Request by an organization called ITIM. The names of all rabbis who appeared on documents rejected by the Rabbinate in 2016, for any reason were compiled and given to ITIM, whereupon the organization released it to the media and called it a “Blacklist.” That is, the list exists because its compilation was demanded by ITIM, the very organization that did much to shape the “Blacklist” narrative.

All rejections, of all types of attestations, for whatever reasons are scoured for names of rabbis, which are then written on a piece of paper, and voila! There’s your blacklist! ITIM has asserted for over a decade that the Rabbinate maintains blacklists or whitelists of rabbis it trusts to determine Jewish status, demanding the release of these lists in the name of transparency. Yet, each list that ITIM has produced has differed significantly from the one before it, and by now there are examples of various arms of the religious establishment mistrusting other arms. This is clear evidence of dysfunction, not of a rabbinic conspiracy to systematically determine which rabbis can be trusted and which cannot. Nevertheless, ITIM keeps crying wolf, with no loss of credibility. On the contrary, it has only thickened the organization’s media profile.

Some op-eds on the “Blacklist” issue do not masquerade as news, but rather are platforms for various rabbis to express pride in being included on the list or volunteered to place their own names on the list in “solidarity” with their colleagues. Being blacklisted by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has become a sort of status symbol (as we saw in the case of the women rabbis who insist that they are blacklisted even though they are not on the “Blacklist”). It has become proof as being one of the “good guys” (notwithstanding that one listed rabbi, who died in 2011, was convicted in 2009 for sexual offenses).

This makes sense if the “Blacklist” had any systematic or ideological rhyme or reason. However, if, as Hanlon’s Razor urges us to consider, the problem is primarily one of dysfunction and incompetence, then being “Blacklisted” can be a source of neither pride nor shame. If one’s mail is delivered to the wrong address, is that a reason to be proud? Should one burn their driver’s license in solidarity with a friend who was failed by an examiner having a rough day?

So let’s take a step back and ponder the root of the dysfunction that plagues Israel’s religious establishment. Throughout history, rabbis have had authority, but have rarely had power. This is a crucial distinction. Authority is conferred informally, and its enforcement mechanisms, when they exist, are social. Some of the personnel at the Chief Rabbinate may have themselves earned and accumulated their own personal authority, but the institution itself has very little, if any, authority. On the other hand, the Chief Rabbinate has actual power, conferred upon it by a modern, sovereign state, enshrined in legislation, and enforced, when necessary, by police and by state-sanctioned violence.

Take Rabbi Itamar Tubul, the Rabbinate clerk responsible for evaluating documentation from rabbis abroad. He is invested with government power, not rabbinic authority. Having met Tubul several times over the past half-decade or so (he was hired under the previous chief rabbis), I can say confidently that he is unprepared to handle his position. He speaks one language, Hebrew, and refuses to avail himself of the numerous online genealogical research tools and databases that could allow him to easily corroborate evidence of an applicant’s Jewishness or bachelorhood. He does not understand the structure or makeup of communities outside of Israel (part of a broaderand certainly mutualset of misunderstandings).

In June 2015, a friend and I met Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau one Shabbat on the streets of Modi’in. Among the matters that we discussed was the backwardness of the Rabbinate’s apparatus for determining Jewishness. Rabbi Lau had an impressive answer: he was working with Yad Vashem to digitize massive archives from Eastern Europe that would go a long way to solving the “Who is a Jew?” conundrum, at least from the evidentiary perspective. When I mentioned Tubul and questioned whether he is the right person to oversee this, Rabbi Lau’s ever-present paternal grin disappeared, and he mentioned the difficulties of removing political appointees. Two years later, Rabbi Lau’s displeasure with Tubul over the “Blacklist” issue was barely concealed, yet Tubul still has his job.

Tubul is, to my mind, far from the only less-than-competent bureaucrat employed in Israel to proffer “religious services.” The Chief Rabbinate, the Ministry of Religious Services, and other expressions of religion-state entanglement, are responsible for providing religious services—certify food as kosher, build synagogues and eruvin, marry, divorce, construct and staff mikva’ot, bury the dead, administer holy sites, and more—for over six million people. This entails a rabbinic bureaucracy whose scope outstrips, by several orders of magnitude, any historical precedent.

It is here, in the middle and lower levels of the bureaucracy, where jobs are given out to nephews (Latin: nepos) and as political favors. It is here where real pain can be inflicted before the matter arrives at the desk of someone with a moral pulse. The monster lives in the cellar; it hardly matters who occupies the upper stories, or what sort of hat they wear. The problem with the Rabbinate is not that it is too Orthodox or insufficiently Orthodox, but that through it the government confers power on those unfit to wield it.

As long as religious services remain an arm of government, control of them will remain the spoils of coalition politics. As long as Israel remains in a precarious geopolitical situation, Israelis will continue to consider control of religious service an acceptable price to pay for a few years of domestic stability. And so, the average encounter with the official arms of the Jewish religion will remain impersonal and alienating, and sometimes downright nightmarish.

This scenario evokes a poignant paragraph penned by the late Peter Berger, one of the greatest modern thinkers about the sociology of religion, in The Heretical Imperative:

Religion begins as religious experience, which is not equally distributed. Therefore, the experience must become embodied by traditions, and by doing so brings the experience which breaches ordinary life into ordinary life, which tends to distort. His predicament is that of the poet amongst bureaucrats.

The bureaucracy is indeed crushing the poetry. How do we bring it back?

We bring it back not by fighting the system and its bureaucracy, but by ignoring it. It may be impossible, under the present political conditions, to force the government to take away power from the religious establishment, but no government can confer authority. Rather, we confer authority; every time we turn to the Rabbinate to decide who is a Jew, who may wed whom, or what is kosher, we recognize it as a religious authority. And so, when questions arise that affect the vulnerable—the gerei tzedek whose conversions are questioned, the small business owners exploited by corrupt kashrut supervisors—and we tell them to just ignore and circumvent the Rabbinate, we are asking them to accept second-class status.

It is the “Jews by birth,” the ones with impeccable pedigree, who must begin ignoring the Rabbinate—yes, this means marrying illegally outside the Rabbinate—so that the most vulnerable recognize that we recognize them as full-fledged members, and that even if some bureaucrat has the power to decide otherwise, and he can theoretically lock up the rabbi and the couple that defies the law granting him that power, he does not have the authority to make that power mean something. The couple will be married “in accordance with the law of Moshe and Israel” whether or not the Rabbinate agrees. The convert will be embraced by the community with or without a clerk’s stamp of approval. The food will be kosher even if the state bans the use of that word by any entity but an enfranchised local rabbinate.

We don’t even need to fight. All we need to do is stop caring what they think of us.

Elli Fischer is an independent writer, translator, and editor. He is editor of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed’s Peninei Halakha series in English and cofounder of HaMapah, an project that applies quantitative analysis to rabbinic literature. He is a founding editor of The Lehrhaus, and his writing has appeared in numerous Jewish publications. Among the issues he writes about are religion and politics in Israel; the interplay between legal and nonlegal elements of the Talmud; Jewish religious culture; and Central European Jewish History. Previously, he was the JLIC rabbi and campus educator at the University of Maryland. He holds degrees from Yeshiva University, rabbinical ordination from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, and is working toward a doctorate in Jewish History at Tel Aviv University. Originally from Baltimore, he currently resides in Modiin, Israel, with his wife and four children.