Washington, D.C. – Rep. Eliot L. Engel, the senior Democratic Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, today sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding the Chief Rabbinate’s decision to unilaterally reject Jewish status letters written by his constituent, Rabbi Avraham Weiss of New York:
January 10, 2014
His Excellency Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister, State of Israel
3 Kaplan Street
Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu:
I am writing to express my deep concern regarding troubling developments between the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and the American Jewish community. Specifically, I have become aware that the Chief Rabbinate has taken upon itself to unilaterally reject Jewish status letters written by my constituent, Rabbi Avraham Weiss of New York, on behalf of those seeking to marry in the state of Israel. This trend of rejecting status letters written by Rabbis Weiss and others undermines the bond between Diaspora communities and the state of Israel, and I fear, may ultimately lead to the wholesale prohibition on community rabbis in the Diaspora from participating in the religious life of Jewish people in Israel.
Rabbi Weiss has for many years supplied Jewish status letters to those seeking to marry in Israel without raising questions about his halachic credentials by the Chief Rabbinate. As you may know, Rabbi Weiss has led the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale for nearly four decades, and also founded Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, both of which are in my congressional district. He has served as a powerful activist and a defender of clal yisrael on issues ranging from Soviet Jewry to Jonathan Pollard's release. To those such as myself who have known Rabbi Weiss for many years, it would be unthinkable to question his commitment to Jewish law.
As dismayed as I and many of my constituents may be by the Chief Rabbinate's decision in regards to Rabbi Weiss specifically, I am concerned that this is simply the latest instance of the broader marginalization of the many diverse streams of Judaism in Israel. If Rabbi Weiss’ credentials are rejected - an Orthodox leader with decades of experience – what does that portend for other strands of American Judaism? Is the Chief Rabbinate similarly prepared to investigate the halachik bona fides of various ultra-Orthodox elements with which it disagrees?
Furthermore, I believe that it is profoundly inappropriate for the Chief Rabbinate to cast aspersions on any individual's commitment to Jewish traditions simply because of differing religious customs and practices. At a time when Israel faces mounting political and military challenges around the world, erecting artificial barriers to Jewish communities and their religious leaders around the world does little to strengthen the bonds between Israel and the Diaspora.
It is my hope that religious leaders such as Rabbi Weiss will no longer be impeded by the Chief Rabbinate in the execution of their religious duties in Israel. The state, be it in Israel or in America, has no justification for impeding a rabbi's religious duty to tend to the spiritual needs of his or her congregants, particularly when it comes to the sensitive issue of affirming an individual's commitment to Jewish customs and tradition.
Mr. Prime Minister, we turn to you for assistance in stemming an unnecessary and deeply unhelpful overstep by the Chief Rabbinate. I look forward to our continued efforts to strengthen the relationship between our two countries and ensure that we continue to maintain the political, military, and spiritual support Israel so greatly deserves in the United States.
ELIOT L. ENGEL