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 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Crisis of identity 370
(photo credit: 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.
Shorashim, 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 events.
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 of Israel.
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 problem.
“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 it.”
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.
The 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 grandparent.
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 people.
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 Shalom.
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 numerous complications.
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 the case.
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 identity.
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.
And 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 said.
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,” Ish-Shalom said.
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 nation.”
“If the rabbinical courts demand that these people observe the commandments like Orthodox people, they will never get them into the family,” he observed.
“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 halachically Jewish.
“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 other?”
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 concluded.
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.”
He pointed 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.”