'All a rabbi really has is his reputation'

Rabbi Walter Rothschild, a British minister who found his name on the recent 'blacklist' of rabbis explains how he felt.

July 18, 2017 13:46

Two weeks ago it emerged the Israeli Chief Rabbinate had been keeping a list of diaspora rabbis whose authority to rule on somebody’s Jewishness it had rejected.

The “blacklist” consisted of ministers who had vouched for the Jewishness of individuals seeking to apply for aliyah under the law of return.

According to the document, which featured five British rabbis, those listed had seen their testimonials rejected at least 160 times in 2016.

Despite an expression of regret from Israeli Chief Rabbi David Lau and a statement from the rabbinate saying the document was not a blacklist but simply a record of which rabbis had seen letters of testimony rejected, the news provoked uproar in the diaspora.  

Rabbi Walter Rothschild, a British minister who found his name on the list, responds here: 

I am a great believer in Blacklists and use them myself, all the time. Now that I have myself suddenly appeared on one prepared (albeit long-denied) by an organisation calling itself the Chief Rabbinate of Israel it is worth looking at the concept more closely. Mere outrage is merely a waste of breath.  I am of course – like most of those named – honoured to find myself here.

Back in 1994 I created a rumpus when, having received information that to me indicated some people in Leeds were being blackmailed into applying for an Orthodox conversion arranged through corrupt means with a misuse of power, I declared in a sermon that I would no longer accept conversions performed by the London Beit Din under Dayan Ehrentreu unless I had evidence that they had been carried out according to the minimum standards set down by the Reform Beit Din of the time. 

Of course this evidence may not have stood up in a secular court – I have never forgotten how a lawyer once said to me ''The facts are not important, what is important is only what the Law says.'' Nevertheless, I had statements from some of those concerned and that was enough for me as a Rabbi to consider that some other rabbis were not the sort of rabbis whom I personally could trust. 

This went a bit too far for some colleagues, but to this day I do not regret having stood up for what I believed and, incidentally, for having tried to protect other congregants from being similarly abused by an unjust system. Sometimes one has a choice of doing one's job, or keeping one's job. I think I made the right choice.

The fact is that ALL a rabbi really has is his (or now, her) reputation. This can be based partially upon where (or whether) they studied; the rabbinic title is not legally protected and any idiot can buy a certificate off the internet or just try to convince ignorant people – there was a case in Poznan recently – but one can hopefully assume that a graduate of a recognised training institution with established standards who has fulfilled a set number of years of study will at least be competent in their craft. (There are alas some institutions of which one cannot be so sure.) There may be their record, criminal or otherwise – one rabbi for example hit headlines for using youth delegates to smuggle electronic equipment into Israel, another was secretly videoed accepting bribes, there have been cases in Germany where a rabbi's semicha was apparently signed posthumously by one of his sponsors or a Kashrut certificate was itself less than kosher. These cases refer all to 'Orthodox' Rabbis and so I can quite accept the idea that the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate might run a list of those whom it considers to be trustworthy – or otherwise.

Of course there can also be their theological outlook and level of personal observance – it is no surprise to me to find, as a British Reform rabbi – that Orthodox rabbis consider me to be a problem. What they are slowly learning is that this attitude works both ways and that there are Progressive rabbis who will not accept certain Orthodox stamps and signatures.

Everyone loves Chabad, of course – they are so jolly and happy and friendly and helpful! - but those of us who actually work as Rabbis can see beneath the PR surface to what lies beneath and it is no surprise that the Orthodox Rabbinic Conference of Germany will not accept members of the Chabad sect, even though official State rabbis in Hamburg and Ulm are Chabadnikim.

The recent Jerusalem list did not include, as far as I could tell, any Chabad rabbis or indeed any women rabbis, nor did it include several in Europe whose low moral standing and poor reputations are well known, and this is what caused the fuss – that the parameters were unclear.

An American rabbi of Polish origin who served in East Germany for a brief period and who has since died was classed under the same category as, say, the current heads of the 'Allgemeine Beit Din' in this country. Only one rabbi appeared from Holland – a friend and colleague. I find myself on the same list as my revered and lamented teacher Lionel Blue.

It all seems so amateur, so incompetent. If the list had included ALL Reform, Liberal, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Neolog or Renewal rabbis (and all female ones) or even all Modern-Orthodox ones, one would have had some basis for understanding it. As it is, the list is fragmentary and inconsistent and reveals merely the ignorance of those who compiled it and how out of touch they are with real life in the Diaspora.

The real tragedy is, of course, that these people have wielded such power so incompetently for so long. Over my 33 years in the rabbinate, in several countries, I have prepared committed, enthusiastic people for Aliyah – only to find that they return after some years, disappointed and embittered due to ''problems with the Rabbinate''. Many colleagues have experienced the same. This  means that it is not OUR problem, it is Israel's problem. IF Israel wants to accept new, committed, intelligent citizens from the Diaspora, it is going to have to do something, at Government level, to enable this. One measure would be of course to ensure that the Chief Rabbinates (in the plural!) serve the Jewish people and not merely themselves.

Just like Ko-Ko the Lord High Executioner in The Mikado (Act I) – who was originally a mere tailor – Rabbi Lau has his little List. I have one too, a list of rabbis who have served behind bars (including a former Chief Rabbi of Israel) or who damned well ought to have done; a list of rabbis whom I cannot respect and whose works I find suspect. But the list can be flexible depending on your point of view.

However, life is not an operetta. There are people, Jews, who wish to marry, to make aliyah, to bury their loved ones – and it is an obscenity to allow such incompetent bureaucrats to decide in the name of God, unchallenged and with no means of appeal, who has entered the Covenant of Abraham - merely on the basis of a rabbinic signature on a letter of confrmation. Such power corrupts and becomes a Chilul Hashem. Maybe we need a Plura-List Rabbinate?

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild is a Bradfordian, living in Berlin and working in Germany, Austria and Poland. He was ordained at Leo Baeck College in 1984, served the Sinai Synagogue Leeds (together with communities in Bradford, Hull and Sheffield) from 1984 to 1994-5.


July 18, 2017 13:46

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