The danger of the Chief Rabbinate’s databases

The direction that Israel’s religious establishment is taking is worrisome, if not dangerous.

The rabbis of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate (photo credit: CHIEF RABBINATE)
The rabbis of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate
(photo credit: CHIEF RABBINATE)
This coming Monday, the Knesset’s Science and Technology Committee will hold a hearing that has broad implications for every Israeli Jew, and potentially for every Jew throughout the world.
Over the past year and a half, the Chief Rabbinate has floated the idea that it should maintain a database related to the personal status of every Jew throughout the world. This idea has gained traction among rabbinical court judges and directors of religious councils: Such a database, they argue, would enable personal-status verification at the push of a button, thus saving time when couples appear before the rabbinate.
The session at the Knesset on Monday will highlight why such a database is a bad idea.
The hearing will focus on an event that happened in February. Some three weeks ago, hackers (ostensibly from China) engaged in what is being called a “ransom hack” wherein they took over some of the computers of the Chief Rabbinate and held them hostage until the rabbinate paid them to regain control. According to rabbinate sources, no personal information was compromised, yet the susceptibility of those computers to hacking was revealed.
Imagine if the most personal details of one’s identity – things that the rabbinate claims are critical to its evaluation of one’s personal status – were available to the hacker community. Consider the types of blackmail and extortion that could emerge from someone having access to who was adopted, who was converted, who is a mamzer (illegitimate child) and who has engaged in illegitimate marriage or illicit affairs. The possibilities are endless and, frankly, incredibly scary.
When the Chief Rabbinate’s representative appears at the hearing, he will without a doubt argue that the information systems are protected.
However, in a week when two Russian spies were indicted in the United States for hacking into more than half a million Yahoo accounts, and in a week when WikiLeaks started exposing CIA files, can we really trust the rabbinate to control this personal information? (Moreover, the attorney-general recently questioned the legal right of the rabbinate to create a database of people’s personal status, writing that “the collection of data effectively turn the Ministry of Religious Affairs into a shadow population registry.”) This story has more to it. The reasons to be concerned with the rabbinate’s technology frenzy go beyond the vulnerability of the government’s information systems – the very notion of creating databases about people’s status contradicts basic halachic (Jewish legal) norms.
More than 1,800 years of the halachic history of personal status have been based on legal mechanisms (some might call them legal loopholes) that enable poskim to make decisions in murky areas. Nowhere more than in personal status have rabbinic leaders been adamant at utilizing the “gray” to enable people who would otherwise be considered illegitimate to rejoin the community.
Creating databases beyond those that already exist would effectively eliminate the shades of gray that have enabled Halacha to be dynamic.
Ultimately, questions about the database are really questions about what kind of Jewish life we want in Israel – one that is suspicious and in which everyone’s personal status is questionable, or one that is tolerant, respectful and inclusive, even within the context of Halacha.
The direction that Israel’s religious establishment is taking is worrisome, if not dangerous.
Perhaps the hackers’ “ransom attack” on the Chief Rabbinate should be a wake-up call for all of us to stop letting a vulnerable government office control information that should be kept in a protected database.
The writer, a rabbi, is chairman of ITIM, which helps Jews navigate the religious bureaucracy in Israel.