(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
The Religious Services Ministry is in the process of establishing an international database of Jewish marriage and divorce, a process that critics fear could create severe problems for Jewish immigrants seeking to prove their Jewish status.
The database is being designed to prevent a Jew marrying someone else while already married, but activist groups argue that the Chief Rabbinate and rabbinical courts are giving too much weight to documentary evidence in determining Jewish status, and that this new tool could exacerbate the problem.
Rabbi Hizkiyahu Samin, head of the ministry’s marriage department, told the annual conference of the Rabbinical Center of Europe, which is currently being held in Italy, about the new database on Tuesday.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Samin said that the database would be an extension of an existing database operated by the ministry, and would enable rabbis in the Diaspora to check whether someone has been married in the past, and by whom.
According to Samin, the main purpose of the database is to ensure that someone who is already married does not get married again, in violation of Jewish law.
But he added that it could also be used to help prove the Jewish status of people who immigrate to Israel and seek to register for marriage there.
Samin said that a rabbi in the Diaspora with access to the database would be able to check whether an individual registering for marriage is already married, and would also be able to enter the details of the couple he is marrying into the database.
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He said that “any rabbi in the Diaspora who marries [couples] in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel,” meaning Jewish law, would be able to use the database, but added that he and his department would carry out “minimal checks” to ensure that this was the case.
Samin insisted that the database and the ministry would not seek to interfere with the rabbi in how he determines someone’s Jewish status or marital status, and would not be checking up on conversions either.
But he did state that if the children of a couple who are on the database immigrate to Israel and seek to register to marry, the database could be used as a form of proof for them that they are Jewish.
Ultimately, Samin said, the rabbinical courts are in charge of determining a person’s Jewish status and that this database would be an important tool in their hands.
The rabbi said the database should be ready for use abroad in the near future, although he would not put a firm date on when this might happen.
He also noted that the project is awaiting approval by the Justice Ministry, since the couple might need to give their explicit approval to be entered onto the database.
Activist groups are already concerned about a trend in which the rabbinical courts are increasingly stringent about the kind of documentary evidence they accept to prove a person’s Jewish status, which has led to severe difficulties for people whose documents are rejected.
In addition, olim have already faced increasing difficulties in recent years proving their Jewish status for the purposes of marriage registration, and the Chief Rabbinate has no clear criteria as to which Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora it accepts as able to confirm someone’s Jewish status.
ITIM, a religious services advisory group, spoke out strongly against the international database of Jewish marriage and divorce, saying that people whose parents are not on the list could face difficulties proving their Jewish status.
ITIM director Rabbi Seth Farber said he is outraged by the initiative, saying that questions critical to the future of the Jewish people “are being decided by a group of clerks and rabbis who have no understanding of the Jewish world,” without public debate.
“This new program demonstrates the narrow-mindedness of the Israeli religious establishment, and rather than looking to embrace Jews from around the world, the rabbinate is looking for further reasons to exclude them,” Farber said.
“In an era where privacy is at a premium, it is unconscionable that the rabbinate will allow people’s intimate information [related to personal status] to be accessible to a group of rabbis whom you don’t know, and you don’t know what they will do with the information,” he said.
“The rabbinate has demonstrated that they are incapable of creating a list of rabbis whom they rely on,” Farber said. “ITIM sued them for such a list, and to date they have not provided criteria or a comprehensive list. Now the rabbinate is willing to give the rabbis they trust access to personal information?” Farber said ITIM would turn to the Justice Ministry to halt the program, and noted that the attorney-general issued a strict warning in 2003 against the rabbinate maintaining databases related to personal status.
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