Chief Rabbinate admits using DNA tests to help determine Jewish status

Orthodox organizations denounce the use of DNA testing as contrary to Jewish law

Beit din religous court 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Beit din religous court 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Chief Rabbi David Lau has admitted for the first time that the Chief Rabbinate and the state Rabbinical Courts use DNA testing in certain circumstances to help determine whether a person is Jewish.
The admission is likely to generate outrage among mainstream religious-Zionist and Modern Orthodox groups, given that Jewish law does not recognize the validity of DNA testing to prove Jewishness.
Yisrael Beytenu Party leader Avigdor Liberman denounced Lau’s statement, saying the chief rabbi was admitting to institutional discrimination, and pointed out that those who are recommended to do a DNA test have little choice but to consent, if they want to be considered Jewish by the rabbinate to marry in the Jewish state.
Lau made his comments following remarks by Shas leader Arye Deri on Tuesday night, when he said at a political campaign rally that DNA testing was in use for the purposes of Jewish status determination, but then quickly denied that this was the case.
Lau’s comments appear to contradict Deri’s retraction.
ITIM, a religious services NGO, says it has seen approximately 20 cases in recent months where the rabbinical courts have requested DNA testing for individuals seeking to prove they are Jewish, mostly for the purposes of registering for marriage.
In a recent case dealt with by ITIM, an individual who was engaged to be married was required to undergo the Jewish clarification process carried out by the Rabbinical Courts and their Jewish status investigators, a very common process.
But immediate members of the individual’s nuclear family had previously received approval of their Jewish status through one of the state Rabbinical Courts.
Another Rabbinical Court dealing with the individual in question insisted that they take a DNA test to prove their Jewish status and without it would not approve their marriage registration request, ITIM said.
There are more than 400,000 Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to Jewish law. Additionally, the more than 700,000 Jewish citizens from the former Soviet Union routinely have their Jewish status challenged when seeking religious services through the Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinical Courts.
In a statement to the press on Tuesday, Lau said that “in a small number of cases, it happens sometimes that someone claiming to be Jewish does not have the documentation to verify his claim, or alternatively there is a contradiction between his claims and what is discovered about him.
“In such an instance, the Rabbinical Court is likely, only to help the applicant, to offer to him to do a DNA test to back his claims,” the chief rabbi continued. “We would never force someone to do this though. And it should be emphasized that a DNA test is not used to determine Jewish status in accordance with Jewish law and only to assist in the clarification [process].”
ITIM director Rabbi Seth Farber, who is Orthodox, rejected Lau’s claims that no one is “forced” to do a DNA test, pointing out that the only way for Jews to get married in Israel is through the Chief Rabbinate, and that should someone be asked to undergo a DNA test without which their Jewish status cannot be upheld, this was indeed a form of coercion.
According to Farber there are a small number of DNA tests that try to identify a “Jewish gene,” but he described their veracity as “somewhat specious.”
Lau also noted that in some cases, Rabbinical Court investigators suspect that an individual or the individual’s parents or grandparents were adopted, calling into question their Jewish status.
In such cases, the Rabbinical Courts also request DNA tests at times “to help prove” Jewish lineage.
Farber noted that at least some of the Rabbinical Court investigators have a policy of raising suspicion that someone may have been adopted if they were born more than five years after their parents married, a policy that would bring into question the Jewish status of large numbers of Jewish citizens of the State of Israel.
“The Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinical Courts are using technology rather than Jewish law to determine Jewishness, and this is a slippery slope which will create different classes of Jews, something which Jewish law completely opposes,” said Farber. “Lau insists that people are falsifying their Jewish status, but would be well advised to deal responsibly with Jewish peoplehood instead of dismissing Jews who don’t look or act like he does.”
Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, CEO of the Hashgacha Pratit organization, which runs an Orthodox marriage service outside of the Chief Rabbinate called Chuppot, denounced the use of DNA testing, describing it as racist.
“The Chief Rabbinate is dividing and fracturing Israeli society. Sending olim for DNA testing is another step in turning the ‘inquiry’ of Judaism into the prosecution of Judaism, and in the blurring of lines between halachic due diligence and what is experienced by couples as something embarrassing and insulting, akin to a criminal investigation,” said Leibowitz.
“The truth must be told – the Chief Rabbinate is trying to disguise separationism and racism with halachic arguments that are unreasonable and not required. The chief rabbis are invited to visit us at Chuppot in order to learn how to clarify the status of Judaism without disrespecting people.”
Liberman said that Lau’s statement amounted to an admission that the State of Israel discriminates against immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
“From the perspective of the rabbinic establishment, the Judaism of this great community, which all agree has made a great contribution to Israeli society, is automatically suspect,” said Liberman.
He also rejected Lau’s claim that the rabbinate does not force individuals to take DNA tests, “since in practice [the rabbinate] refuses to register as Jewish someone who does not ‘willingly’” consent to the test.