Religious Affairs: A crisis of identity
Jewish marriage is perhaps the most explosive of all interminable squabbles that have erupted in recent years.
Crisis of identity Photo: Courtesy
Of the interminable squabbles that have erupted in recent years between the
religious establishment and proponents for greater inclusiveness in matters of
Jewish identity, the issue of Jewish marriage is perhaps the most fundamental
and explosive of them all.
In particular, the arrival of over one million
immigrants from the former Soviet Union since 1990, including approximately
330,000 people who are of Jewish descent but are not accepted as Jewish
according to Halacha, led the religious establishment to demand that all
immigrants provide proof of their Jewish lineage before being allowed to marry
in a Jewish wedding ceremony.
But there are an increasing number of
people who, instead of complying with the dictates of the Chief Rabbinate, marry
abroad in civil ceremonies which are not available in Israel but which are
subsequently recognized by the state.
In 2010, of the approximately
57,000 marriages recorded by the state, 9,300 were civil ceremonies conducted in
Cyprus or other locations abroad because the couples did not want to deal with
the rabbinate because one of the partners was not Jewish, could not provide
evidence of their Jewish lineage or was generally disinclined to negotiate the
rabbinate’s bureaucracy. Muslim, Druze and Christian Arabs accounted for
some 12,000 of marriages recorded.
This phenomenon is causing great
concern to those who argue that it is leading to the division of the Jewish
people in Israel into two groups: those who are recognized as Jewish and the
growing population of those whose Jewish lineage is cast into doubt as a result
of the dramatic increase in civil marriages conducted abroad.
a project of the national-religious rabbinic association Tzohar, was established
six years ago to combat this problem and to help immigrants in Israel clarify
their status as Jews for the purposes of marriage and other life-cycle
But during a symposium held recently by the organization, former
Mossad director and Shorashim adviser Ephraim Halevy, Tzohar chairman Rabbi
David Stav and Australian property tycoon and Jewish philanthropist Harry
Triguboff stated that the ongoing difficulties faced by many Jewish Israelis to
prove their Jewishness combined with the failure to convert Israelis of Jewish
descent from the former Soviet Union constitutes a strategic threat to the State
Speaking at the Hebrew University campus in Givat Ram,
Jerusalem, at a conference organized by Shorashim, Halevy and Stav called for a
sea change in the attitude of the religious establishment to the issue in order
to prevent division within the Jewish people in Israel, while Triguboff, a major
donor of Shorashim, called on the government to urgently engage in the
“Listening to what was said today is very disturbing,” said
Triguboff. “Unfortunately, the problem can’t be solved until the rabbinate
decides to resolve it.
“This requires a combined effort from the
religious and political leadership. But the government needs to demand real
leadership from the rabbinate in order to preserve the state as we know
Halevy, who acts as an adviser to Shorashim, said that “a change in
the environment of the senior religious leadership in the country” is urgently
needed to deal with the problem.
“There are six million Jews in this
country and if there is not a radical change, these six million are going to
break up into two parts, with the majority not being considered Jewish by the
religious establishment,” Halevy said at the symposium. “This issue is a
strategic threat to the State of Israel, which will lose its sense of Jewishness
if this problem is not resolved.”
Halevy added that the problem was
political as well as religious, since solving the issue requires “the political
leadership to be aware of the urgency of the problem.”
The division that
is opening up in the Jewish people could undermine the basis of civil society,
Halevy asserted, repeating his mantra that this issue is greater than the
defense and security concerns facing the country.
Last November, Halevy
sparked off a storm when he said that religious radicalization represented a
greater threat to the Jewish people than the Iranian nuclear program.
root problem Shorashim has been trying to address began with the fall of the
Iron Curtain in the late 1980s and early 1990. Since that time, more than 1.1
million people from the former Soviet Union immigrated to Israel under the law
of return, which requires an immigrant to have at least one Jewish
Of those immigrants, approximately 330,000 are not
considered to be Jewish according to Jewish law, which requires that a person’s
mother be Jewish. Because of severe problems with the document record from the
former Soviet Union, however, the Chief Rabbinate decided that everyone who
immigrated to Israel after 1990, including the 800,000 former residents of the
Soviet Union who are registered at the Interior Ministry as Jewish – as well as
all other Jews from around the world – would have to prove they are Jewish for
the purposes of marriage.
Providing such proof can be extremely difficult
for former citizens of the Soviet Union however, since the communist government
suppressed religious practice, and traditional Jewish documentation, such as
marriage certificates, were therefore not issued. Shorashim estimates
that for the purposes of marriage, their target audience of people who are
Jewish and need to prove their status as such is between 150,000 and 230,000
This is based on the estimate that half of the 800,000 halachic
Jews from the FSU are either married or elderly and half of the remainder have
the correct documentation. In addition, approximately 10 percent of the
330,000 people not considered halachically Jewish are in all likelihood Jewish
and just need to prove it, said Shorashim director Rabbi Shimon Har
But finding the requisite documentary evidence and testimony
regarding the Jewish status of someone from the FSU requires a great deal of
professional work from the five Shorashim investigators, and each case has
The investigators contact relatives wherever they
happen to be around the world, search for any available documentation and take
testimony from family members, all of which can help them prove the Jewish
identity of the individual concerned before the rabbinical court that rules on
Addressing Triguboff, the assembled Shorashim representatives
and the media at the conference, Rabbi Stav said that the rabbinate’s demands
that proof of Jewish lineage be provided were perfectly legitimate but that more
urgent action was needed to fix the problem and help people prove their Jewish
He noted that Shorashim does receive funds from the Prime
Minister’s Office but said they were insufficient to deal with the issue and
that a change in attitude was required in order to solve the problem.
in addition to the difficulties that immigrants from the FSU face in proving
their Jewish lineage, the population of Israelis of Jewish descent who are
nevertheless not considered Jewish according to Jewish law is growing, Stav
According to official statistics, approximately 2,000 to 2,500
Israelis of Jewish descent convert every year, but the sector has 4,000 children
every year, who are also not considered Jewish.
Prof. Benny Ish-Shalom,
chairman of the board of the Joint Conversion Institute, estimates that to
prevent increasing assimilation in Israel, more than 10,000 Jews or Israelis of
Jewish descent need to prove their Jewishness or be converted annually to
overcome the problem.
“It is do-able, but it requires dramatic change in
the halachic perspective of the religious courts which oversee conversion,”
He stressed that such a change does not involve changing
Jewish law, but simply for the rabbinate to embrace the “traditional halachic
approach that does have room to accept such people into the Jewish
“If the rabbinical courts demand that these people observe the
commandments like Orthodox people, they will never get them into the family,” he
“But since they live among Jews, have family Jewish
connections, raise children in the Israeli Jewish education system, mark Jewish
holidays and adopt major Jewish customs and practices and conduct their lives
like many traditional Israelis, this can be enough from a halachic point of view
to accept their conversion.”
During the event, Stav pointed out that
since approximately 10,000 of the 45,000 ‘Jewish’ marriages recorded by the
state in 2010 were of religious couples, the 9,300 civil ceremonies conducted in
Cyprus or abroad represent over one in three of all marriages in which the
couple is not religiously observant.
The ability of children of such
marriages to prove their Jewish lineage when they come to marry will be even
more restrained than their parents and, Stav argues, will eventually lead to an
irrevocable rift in the Jewish people.
“Twenty years from now, we will
have two nations,” he said. “One nation that got married in Cyprus and whose
Jewish identity is questioned, and another nation which is considered
“This means that in 20 years’ time, perhaps half of
the soldiers in the army won’t be considered Jewish,” he claimed. “How will the
unquestioned Jews relate to them, how will they relate to the unquestioned Jews?
Will there be mutual suspicion? Will they be able to be buried alongside each
While this phenomenon grows, he continued, assimilation will simply get
worse and worse since the population of people whose Jewish identity is under
suspicion is growing, and people will intermarry regardless of the rabbinate by
going abroad for their weddings.
“This is an existential threat to the
Jewish state and a national test to keep the Jewish nation one and whole,” Stav
Despite these concerns, a quick solution to the problem does
not appear to be in the cards.
According to Halevy, the proportion of
people recognized as Jewish in Israel will in the medium term be the minority
“by virtue of the way the rabbinate has conducted its policy.”
to the situation in the early days of the state, following the Holocaust, when
many people simply could not provide documentary proof of their Jewish lineage
but the rabbinate nevertheless recognized them as Jewish.
“Halacha is not
an ossified collection of edicts,” he argued. “It can be very dynamic, and when
the knife is on your neck then you find a way.
Time is of the essence, he
continued, saying that the non-haredi religious community needs to stand up and
loudly and vociferously voice their concerns in order to force the government to
address the problem.
“Ultimately, it is the secular authority – the
government – that must square up to problem, which they’ve ignored for so long,”
he said. “If they don’t, then the responsibility for Jews becoming a minority in
their own country will in the future be credited to the secular leadership.”