Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Thursday, 19 January 2012

Trust vs Verification

It is a given that pushing too hard in one direction inevitably leads to a pushback in the opposite one.  For every frum fanatic screaming "Shabbos!" there is an annoyed chiloni who decided to go shopping or to the beach on Saturday just to "show them".  A backlash against extremism, both left and right, is always a natural reaction even though it catches folks by surprise.
Such seems to be the case in this article from The Jerusalem Post.  In it, Reuven Hammer notes that a time-honoured way of determining one's Jewishness has been changed by the Chareidi-controlled Rabbinate and he questions whether this is a good thing.

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.

On the other hand it is ironic that Hammer quotes from a JTS "responsa" to bolster his point.  After all, when the classical Jewish codes were written, even when the Chazon Ish wrote his position on the matter, there was only one real way to become Jewish - al pi halacha under the guidance of a Torah-observant Rav.
Much has changed in the last 50 years and one wonders if the
poskim who put so much faith in personal testimony would be willing to continue to hold that position.
Consider that the Reformers accept patrilineal lineage when it comes to defining a Jew.  In other words, ignore the masses of "converts" they have created who are not Jewish
al pi halacha but at least made a choice somewhere along the way to undergo some kind of process, however minimal, to join what they think is the Jewish religion.  In addition to them there are how many non-Jews out there with a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother who believe themselves to be Jewish because the kindly Reform rabbi at their Temple told them they are?
Add to this all the Conservative converts who are not genuinely Jewish
al pi halacha.  (And before any flames get fired keep in mind I'm not commenting on their worthiness or sincerity as human beings but simply stating a legal position)
Add to this all the Russians that claimed to be Jewish or were considered Jewish by the
Sochnut in its zeal to bring as many people to Israel from the former Soviet Union as possible.  Using criteria that even the Reformers might find too lenient, tens of thousands of non-Jews were moved from Russia to Israel and told that they just might be Jews on arrival.
Seen from this perspective the new Chareidi paranoia about who really is a Jew is understandable.  Yes, the couple who show up from the US to register for marriage at the Rabbanut might be bona fide Jews
al pi halacha.  Or one could be the son of a non-Jewish mother and the other a Reform convert.  You may disagree with the Orthodox position on matrilineal descent or non-Orthodox conversions but the guy at the Rabbanut is going to apply those standards at that point because those are the rules he knows and disqualify both members of the couple.
There is no question that the Orthodox monopoly on things like marriage and divorce in Israel has hurt people's perception of Torah observance and created a tremendous sense of resentment.  This is a huge problem since one of the only really ways towards Jewish
achdus is through the acceptance of a universal standard all main Jewish groups can accept.  How can the Orthodox demand exclusive control over conversion, for example, if prominent members of that community behave in an abusive and condescending fashion?
There is no easy answer to this question.  Hammer's article raised important points but his solution is not ideal.  There is simply too much variability in the definition of "who is a Jew" amongst the non-Orthodox to make this issue go away.

14 comments:

Adam Zur said...

There is something strange about the conversion business. This is perhaps an area in which the rabanut is right to be careful. To be completely up front i admit that when i used to hang out in Hebrew university i went a few times into the sholem library and there i saw a kabalah book from the middle ages which said that people should not convert from one religion to the other (he was referring to the interface between Judaism and Christianity). and from what i have seen this is true. Nobody needs converts and they are in general no benefit to anyone. They tend to be a bunch of fanatics or just the opposite people willing to through away their beliefs for some material benefit

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

Adam, I have to strongly disagree with you. I have known a few converts whose sincerity and devotion I wish I could match. Yes, there are lots of converts out there who did it for marriage or who spend their lives being "frummer than thou" because of personal insecurity. That does not change that many converts add a great deal to the Jewish nation.
I would add that conversion should not be seen as changing religions but rather nationalities. The Jewish nation, like all other nations, can increase its numbers through adding citizens with the proviso that the new citizens show complete dedication to the laws and customs of the nation.

Anonymous said...

European Jews may be mainly converts/children of converts - eg blue eyes, blond/light brown hair - how do you think it got that way.

Also look up genetic research and see whether it was more likely for a J man to marry a non J female or the reverse.

S. said...

Who really cares? Do you think something magical happens to you when you convert with an Orthodox beis din that doesn't happen if you convert through a Conservative one, or under murky auspices?

This modern attempt at treating halacha like it is a physical science is disastrous.

In all likelihood countless kosher Jews would wind up with real problems if their lineage was poked into with a fine-toothed comb. Maybe we should also do a forensic analysis of all mikvaos in the world which gerim may have used. Look into the yichus of all mohelim, etc.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

No I don't think anything magical happens (I'm not much of the mystical type) when you convert through a proper Beis Din. However I do think that something legal happens under Jewish law - the person ceases to be a citizen of the "world" and instead becomes an exclusive citizen of the Bnei Yisrael. It's not about treating it like physical science but as a legitimate legal process, not just some timey-wimey religious one that has no real impact other than in the mind.

S. said...

Sure, but if a mistake happens, it happens. Big deal. The halacha never was to treat gerus like science, as I said, and to accept it after the fact. Even if it's a legal matter, it's also the law - not to be overly ridiculous about it. It's reached the point where we have departed so far from the criteria described in the halachic sources (bet din of hedyotos, inform them of some of the mitzvos, etc.) that is ridiculous, to say nothing about the illegal and Kafkaesque process of casting suspicion or even annulling conversions.

Anonymous said...

Also, there is no system of controlling beit din's or rabbi's.

Its not quite each person making up his own laws - but it is each rabbi making up his own laws.

Adam Zur said...

Garnel you still have to admit there is something strange about the conversion business. Because of this I have to say I agree with the rabanut. They are just trying to be careful. and I admit there are many very sincere converts. I was out of line in my comment -to knock them all. especially after the fact that the gemara puts none of these restrictions on the conversion process.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Look, there's a reason there are concepts like "l'hatchilah" and "b'dieved" in halacha. Sometimes even if you screw up you've still effected a legal change. Consider all the cases in which animals unfit for sacrifice make it to the altar and are still offered despite being posul because once they get there you can't bring them back down. The problem with conversions is that there are those folks who want to turn b'dieved situations into l'hatchilah ones. Yes, annulling a conversion retroactively is usually ridiculous but allowing a person to convert for dubious reasons also is.

Anonymous said...

in halacha almost anything goes
l'hatchilah
b'dieved
its only rabbinic
its a minhag
its a minhag of all yisroel (e.g. someone asked every jew)
he (the rabbi) may have meant ...
follow your rabbi (and don't pick and choose)
all the gedolim agree
we do it as a sign or to remind us
(this i found with respect to glazed ceramic dishes dairy/meat)
all the arguments are flawed but we still do it anyway because its a minhag
the minhag of your family should overide other minhags/halacha
daath torah(meaning the rabbi got it via revelation directly to himself)
using pshat from the written torah/other sources when it justifies your position, but saying its only pshat or we don't understand it that way when it doesn't support your position
we don't hold by that
we hold ... (does hold mean we believe the halacha is)

i'm sure i've misssed many arguments used to justify any position

I thought mitzvot were there so that an individual can't do anything he wants (in the torah - interpreted as evil)

doesn't the above give you the feeling of anything can be justified - e.g you can do anything you want)

Adam Zur said...

in halacha almost anything goes
l'hatchilah
that refers to modern day pseudo halacha. am often protesting this


but in halacha as defined by the rambam or tosphot it is different

Anonymous said...

so ditch the rabbis and just follow rambam or shulchan aruch
and if anything comes up not covered there then decide yourself?

Adam Zur said...

The rambam is logically rigorous and also tosphot. So in my opinion anyone can follow either one. (usually the raavad follows the opinions of tosphot so if one learns the rambam straight he can usually tell what tosphot is saying by looking at the raavad.

Joshua Josephs said...

I believe the solution to this is simple. With regard to the State of Israel one should simply remove control of marriage from the Rabbanut. As someone looking to get married in the United States I simply ask questions of my dates about the religious background of their families. Since most families moved here within the last four generations they are able to provide enough information to satisfy me that they are Jewish al pi halacha. Also I think you will find that most Conservative/Reform Jews, at least those I have met, are quite open when asked politely about whether they converted or whether any of their family members converted via either of these movements.
Finally with the availability of genealogical resources on the internet these days people should simply attempt to construct a family chart which even without ketubot can certainly assist with helping determine whether someone is Jewish.
I do recognize that all of the aforementioned thoughts shift us from the default position of trust in this issue, but I dont believe they unduly burdensome, and in my case I place the burden on myself to investigate a potential spouse, rather than they burden on them to prove to me that they are Jewish.