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Prominent Canadian rabbi says he has been ‘blacklisted’ by Israel

"This is happening at a particular moment in time when diaspora Jewry is at odds with a certain voice that’s emerging in Israel as represented by the Chief Rabbinate," Rabbi Adam Scheier said.

It’s a question, in the end, about identity, about who does and does not belong and, crucially, who gets to decide.

Adam Scheier, one of Canada’s most prominent rabbis, discovered recently that he had been, in his own words, “blacklisted.”

Scheier, the head of the Shaar Hashomayim Congregation in Montreal, was one of 160 rabbis from around the world whose names appeared on what is something like a banned list produced by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.

Those on the list have had their authority to testify to the Jewishness of their congregants questioned on some level by the Rabbinate, putting in peril the ability of their congregants to get married in Israel.

The existence of the list has inflamed already tense relations between religious authorities in Israel and many in the diaspora. The president of Scheier’s congregation demanded an apology from the Chief Rabbinate in a public letter and called upon Israel’s prime minister “to take the necessary steps to ensure that Diaspora Jewry no longer encounters systemic rejection from the Chief Rabbi’s office.”

It is not entirely clear, however, how significant the list itself is. According to multiple reports, the 160 named Rabbis have each had at least one letter testifying to the authentic identity of one of their congregants rejected by the Rabbinate. Scheier, however, has no idea how many, if any, of his letters — he says he writes dozens of them every year — have been turned away.

“One of the issues that’s lacking here is transparency,” said Scheier. “I do not know for which case my letter was rejected, if there is an individual case. I certainly have not heard of it.”

The list itself was also prepared by a low-level official, according to the Chief Rabbi himself, and does not necessarily represent his views.

What is clear is that the list comes at an extremely sensitive time. “This is happening at a particular moment in time when diaspora Jewry is at odds with a certain voice that’s emerging in Israel as represented by the Chief Rabbinate,” Scheier said.

For Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University, it all comes back to the unique relationship in Israel between church and state. “When you have a Jewish state that was established in the wake of thousands of years of persecution that allows any Jew automatic citizenship under the law of return by definition you have to figure out who is a Jew,” he said. “So all of a sudden you have the government forced to make religious determinations.”

In other words, Israel, unlike most democracies, has to decide, at a government level, who does and does not belong to a particular religion.

The right to make that determination is divided between multiple offices in Israel. On the broader question of citizenship, an actual government office that generally takes a much more liberal approach makes the determination. But when it comes to marriage and religious ceremonies, the more orthodox Chief Rabbinate is allowed to make the final call.

That office has been seen as having increased power in Israel as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been forced to rely more and more on orthodox religious parties to sustain his governing coalition. “The great tragedy of Netanyahu is that he keeps on caving in to the ultra-orthodox,” said Troy.

The office has also been involved in recent heated disputes over religious conversions and who has the right to pray at the Western Wall.

In a letter posted on Facebook, Scheier said the existence of the banned list “disgraced” his “beloved Israel.”

“The tragedy of this list is that it has the potential to prevent Jews from living out their full Jewish identity,” he wrote. “For that reason alone, the State of Israel’s empowering an incompetent and exclusionary Chief Rabbinate to make these determinations on behalf of the citizens of Israel is unacceptable.”

Still, he stressed in an interview that nothing the Rabbinate could do would erode his deep love and commitment to the Jewish State.

“I am reminded of an observation made by my late teacher, Rabbi David Hartman. He said that when we criticize Israel, we should do so “as mothers, and not as mothers-in-law,” Scheier wrote on Facebook. “We criticize because we love and want it to be better, and not because we simply love to criticize.”

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