Removing stumbling blocks to Jewish identity

There is an old yiddish expression that “if one asks a question, the answer is ‘treif’ – i.e. ‘forbidden.’”

Ethiopian Jews in Gondar (photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
Ethiopian Jews in Gondar
(photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
There is an old yiddish expression that “if one asks a question, the answer is ‘treif’ – i.e. ‘forbidden.’” That is all too often the case with regard to the way the rabbinical courts in Israel deal with questions of Jewish identity and conversion.
In 2010 the Israeli Chief Rabbinate decided to require documents proving the Jewishness of one’s mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and greatgreat- grandmother when applying for marriage. Needless to say this is a near impossibility for most people. Is this really Jewish law?
Many immigrants who claim to be Jewish have difficulty proving it to the satisfaction of the chief rabbinate because of the lack of reliable documentation.Ketubot, or marriage contracts, have been largely non-existent among Russian Jews for over half a century. The result has been that often people who sincerely consider themselves Jews, and may indeed be, cannot prove that fact and are turned away by the official rabbinate when they wish to be married. Similar problems occur for American olim and others in Israel as well.
The well-known journalist Gershom Gorenberg wrote an article on such a case for The New York Times entitled “How Do You Prove You’re a Jew?” (New York Times Magazine, March 2, 2008) in which he stated that formerly in Europe, “Trust was the default position.”
He also cited the fact that the leading ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Israel in the years before and after the state was established, Avraham Yeshayahu Karlitz (known as the Hazon Ish, the name of his magnum opus on religious law), held the classical position. If someone arrived from another country claiming to be Jewish, he should be allowed to marry another Jew, even if nothing is known of his family.
A brief survey of sources in Jewish law will show that these current strictures were not always the norm. A story told in the Talmud (Pesahim 3b) about a non-Jew who would go to the Temple in Jerusalem to eat the paschal lamb – something forbidden by the Torah – and who was not stopped or questioned until he aroused suspicion by some action, was used by the Sages to prove that no attempt was made to check the Jewish identity of those who ate the Passover meal in the Temple. From this they inferred that one who claimed to be an Israelite was accepted automatically without further investigation. Only when there was reason to doubt the individual’s Jewishness was an investigation undertaken. It would seem that indeed “trust was the default position.”
Medieval sources also used this story as the basis for halachic rulings. The Maggid Mishne (Vidal of Toloso, 14th-century Spain) to Rambam’s Mishne Torah, Sefer Kedusha, Hilchot Isurei Biah 13:10, writes: “We do not investigate any person who says, ‘I am an Israelite.’” Tosafot to Yebamot 47a reiterates that one who claims to be a Jew is believed.
Recently the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly adopted a responsum written by this author which stated, “We affirm that trust is the default position in these matters. Therefore unless there is reason to be suspicious we do not question one’s Jewishness. If, however, the person or the family is not known to us or if there is reason to suspect that one is not Jewish, further investigation is needed. This can be done through questioning the individual, through testimony of those who know the person or knew the family, or, if available, documents that indicate a Jewish background.
“In many cases, especially concerning those coming from the former Soviet Union, it is understood that documentary evidence will be difficult to produce, and therefore we may rely on the evidence of friends or neighbors and on the impression made by the individual. Questioning is to be done in a sensitive way so as not to violate the honor due to human beings and not to shame the individual. It is incumbent upon the Beit Din or the rabbi to exercise good judgment and common sense on these matters, relying on the halachic principles cited above.”
It is time for the Israeli rabbinate to adopt a similar position rather than placing stumbling blocks where Jewish law itself has not placed them.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a twotime winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).