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Proof of Jewish Identity

In an article in the Jerusalem Post [January 12, 2012, “Removing Stumbling Blocks to Jewish Identity], author Reuven Hammer criticized the Israeli Chief Rabbinate for making it harder than it is supposed to be to prove you are Jewish:

“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.

“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.”

The Shalomist believes that anyone who believes he or she is Jewish should be assumed to be Jewish. We lost 6 million people in the Holocaust, and we are losing millions more in this country through intermarriage and assimilation. What are we afraid of if we “mistakenly” allow a non-Jew into our group? Also, we believe that conversion should be educational but relatively easy. We need to increase our numbers, without diluting our membership. If someone wants to be Jewish, we should welcome him with open arms.

It should go without saying that Judaism should adopt the rule of patrilineal descent, which means the child of a Jewish father is assumed to be Jewish to the same extent as the child of a Jewish mother. Again, what are we afraid of – that the Jewish man claiming to be the father is not really the father? Where is the tragedy if we get it wrong?

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