Israel’s Militant Rabbinical Establishment Wants to unJew You

Supporters of Israel’s state rabbinate claim it protects the unity of the Jewish people. In fact, the rabbinate is engaged in a fanatic, unstinting quest to divide Jew from Jew.

Gershom Gorenberg
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FILE PHOTO: Jewish wedding
Gershom Gorenberg

You're at work one day somewhere in Israel. Your phone bleeps. On the line is a rabbinic court official. He says you've been summonsed to a hearing to prove you're Jewish.

You explain that there's been a mistake. You know that people getting married under the state rabbinate's auspices are often put through this ordeal - but you've been married for years. No matter, says the voice on the phone, the court has ordered you to appear.

This isn't a scene from dystopian fiction. It can happen to you today. The state rabbinate and rabbinic courts are ever more skeptical of the Jewishness of Jews in the Jewish state, and have arrogated to themselves new investigative powers. In doing so, they're not just violating individual's civil rights and alienating people from Judaism. They are also making a radical break with halakhah, or Jewish religious law.

Years ago, the "Who's a Jew" dispute in Israel was over conversions. But in the 1990s, as immigrants poured in from the former Soviet Union, the rabbinate grew more suspicious of people who said they were born Jewish. In 2010, it issued instructions that anyone whose parents hadn't married in Israel must prove his or her Jewishness before a rabbinic court in order to marry. 

Then-chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar allowed an alternate track for Western immigrants, who could bring a letter from an approved Orthodox rabbi attesting to their Jewishness. Note the word "approved." The rabbinate has a list of Diaspora rabbis whose letters are accepted - but won't make it public. Itim, an organization that helps people navigate the rabbinic bureaucracy, has sued for release of the list under the Freedom of Information Act. Meanwhile, you won't know if your letter is from the wrong rabbi until it's rejected.

Itim's Rabbi Seth Farber explained the latest developments to me this week. Rabbinic courts, he said, have begun ordering people to prove their Jewishness nearly out of the blue. For instance, a cousin on your mother's side is getting married, and ends up in front of a religious court. If the judges are unsure that she's really Jewish, they could decide to check you too.

Itim has dealt with several such cases. Since not everyone knows about Itim, I'd guess that more people have been summonsed to unexpected judgment, like 21st century Joseph Ks.

It's not clear that the rabbinic courts have the legal power to make you appear. But if you don't, you and your children might end up on the list of people of uncertain Jewish identity who can't get married unless they go abroad.

Another change: It used to be that if your parents had married through the state rabbinate, their ketuba was proof you were Jewish. No more: Some rabbis in the state system fear their predecessors were too lenient. If you made aliyah 40 years ago from America, and now your son announces his engagement, you might find yourself trying to prove that your mother was Jewish.

What's proof for the rabbinic courts? If you're from Ukraine, it could be old Soviet documents and a Yiddish test for your grandmother. For an American, it could include photos of the Hebrew on your great-grandmother's gravestone - if you can prove that you're really that woman's great-grandson.

This has absolutely nothing to do with halakhah.

In the long tradition of Jewish religious law, the single best proof that you are a Jew is your word. "One who says he is Jewish is considered trustworthy," is the rule cited in texts over centuries.

This is reasonable - as halakhah should be. I'm the best witness to my being Jewish. I know my family. You want to check my grandmother's Yiddish? No earthly court can summons her. You want records from the town in Poland she left as a child, and whose remaining Jews were later sent to Treblinka? They don't exist. But I'm trustworthy.

Supporters of the state rabbinate claim it protecting the unity of the Jewish people. In fact, the rabbinate is engaged in dividing between Jews.

The rabbis of the state system claim to preserve authentic Judaism. This is a scam. On one of the most basic issues in Jewish law - who is part of the community - the rabbinate has made a radical departure. And the only way this innovation brings Judaism into the 21st century is that it adopts the bureaucratic arbitrariness of a modern authoritarian state.

The best way to help Judaism flourish in Israel would be to free it from the rabbinate - at the very least, by ending its monopoly on Jewish marriage.

Alas, if you're beginning to plan your wedding now, this won't happen before your ceremony. Even if you're religious, though, you can consider an option to vote with your feet against the rabbinate: Ask the rabbi of your choice to conduct the ceremony, sign a civil contract and register as common-law spouses. I note that an unauthorized wedding makes you, your spouse and the rabbi liable to a two-year prison term under the latest law to protect the rabbinate. That said, no one is likely to be prosecuted.

Consider what the Shulkhan Arukh says: One legitimate reason to suspect that a person isn't Jewish is that he constantly casts doubt on other people. The principle is, "The flaw a person finds in others is his own." Therefore, we must question whether the rabbinate is in any real way Jewish. And if you avoid it, none of your relatives will get a phone summons to a rabbinic court.

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The Unmaking of Israel" and "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977." Follow him on Twitter: @GershomG