Israeli Rabbinate Accused of Using DNA Testing to Prove Jewishness

'It is really terrifying thinking where this could lead,' advocate warns. 'Judaism is not about race and blood, as our worst enemies have claimed'

A technician handling a DNA sample at a laboratory, January 2018 (illustrative).
Bloomberg

Israeli rabbinical courts are increasingly relying on DNA tests in cases where the Jewishness of individuals seeking to marry is in doubt, recent complaints suggest. In almost all of these cases, the individuals who were asked or advised to undergo genetic testing were immigrants from the former Soviet Union or their offspring.

About half a dozen complaints about the practice have been filed over the past year or so with ITIM, an organization that assists immigrants and converts challenged by Israel’s religious bureaucracy.

“It is really terrifying thinking where this could lead,” Elad Caplan, the director of the advocacy center at ITIM, told Haaretz. “Judaism is about belonging and community – it’s not about race and blood, as our worst enemies have claimed.”

In one recent case, he said, a bride-to-be was sent for DNA testing because she was born quite a few years after her parents were married, and doubts were raised as to whether she was the biological daughter of the woman.

In another case, Caplan said, a woman was sent for DNA testing after she reported that her mother was in her mid-forties when she gave birth to her and doubts were raised as to whether this could have been possible.

A Jewish bride and groom must marry through the Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate’s office if they wish to be recognized as married in Israel. All couples seeking to marry through the Rabbinate must first register at one of its local offices.

These offices will typically refer individuals to the rabbinical courts if no certification exists that the mother of the bride or groom was married through the Rabbinate (or by a rabbi approved by the Rabbinate if they are from overseas). Likewise, couples will be referred to the rabbinical court if suspicions have been raised about the authenticity of the documentation they presented.

In several recent rulings of the rabbinical courts, Caplan said, DNA test results have been used to provide further evidence of a person’s Jewishness. But to the best of his knowledge, he said, they have never been relied on exclusively.

In some cases, individuals have been asked to provide DNA proof that their mother was, in fact, their biological mother. This is because Jewish religious law, or halakha, defines a Jew as the child of a Jewish mother. In other cases, individuals have been asked to provide DNA test results that show they are of Jewish-Ashkenazi descent.

Mitochondrial DNA is inherited exclusively from a person’s mother, so genetic markers can be traced back many generations to determine a person’s maternal ancestors with a high degree of certainty. A 2006 study showed that 40 percent of all Ashkenazi Jews are descended from just four Jewish women who lived more than 1,000 years ago. That study concluded that if someone bears specific mitochondrial DNA markers, there is a 90 to 99 percent chance he or she is descended from one of those women.

None of the individuals who received requests for DNA testing, whose identity is known to ITIM, were willing to speak with Haaretz.

Within the Orthodox movement, there has been a push in recent years to get the Rabbinate to recognize DNA test results as a legitimate way of establishing whether an individual is Jewish according to halakha. 

Among the topics discussed at the annual convention of Israeli rabbinical judges, held last week at Kibbutz Lavi in northern Israel, was the reliability of DNA testing in making such determinations.

A driving force in the campaign to get the Rabbinate to use DNA testing more widely is Eretz Hemdah, a Jerusalem-based institute that trains rabbinical judges. Several halakhic opinions on the matter have been published by the well-respected institution in recent years.

Advocates maintain that DNA testing could assist individuals whose Jewishness has been called into question by helping them avoid the time-consuming and difficult procedure of conversion to Judaism.

An estimated 400,000 Russian-speaking Israelis are not considered Jewish by halakha and, therefore, face huge challenges when trying to get married in the country.

“Thirty years ago, during the massive wave of aliyah from the former Soviet Union, the attitude of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef – who was the Sephardi chief rabbi – was that if these people say they’re Jewish, we should take their word for it,” said Caplan. “But ever since the bar of suspicions is constantly being raised, and this is just the latest example.”

Asked to comment, a spokesman for the Rabbinate referred Haaretz to the spokesman of the rabbinical courts. The spokesman of the rabbinical courts said: “We are not commenting."