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In a recent NY Times article about Israeli society, Gershom Gorenberg described the increasingly negative attitude of the Israeli rabbinate toward North American Jews. The story shows how a Jewish Israeli kibbutznik who was the child of an American immigrant had trouble getting the rabbinate to recognize that she was a Jew so she could marry her Jewish partner. It’s a little scary that the rabbinate has stopped assuming that everyone who says she’s Jewish is Jewish. The role of the rabbinate in Israeli society isn’t like the Church of England in the UK. If you are a Jew and you live in the State of Israel, the rabbinate control your ability to get married.
To be clear, the rabbinate is not all powerful. For purposes of the the Law of Return, a Jew is a person with Jewish relatives, including fathers or mothers, spouses, grandparents, or a person who declares himself or herself to have converted to Judaism–basically, anyone who might potentially suffer persecution for being Jewish. For purposes of a Jew’s personal status and ability to marry, however, the Israeli rabbinate as an institution has the power to say who is and isn’t Jewish. The State of Israel inherited this system from the British Mandate, which inherited it from the Ottoman Empire–in matters of marriage and divorce, religious courts control life for Jews, Muslims and Christians. There is no civil marriage. The State of Israel does accept marriages contracted in other countries–a fantastic opportunity for Israeli travel agencies who arrange trips to Cyprus–but maybe not so great for a kibbutznik who’d hoped to have a traditional kibbutz wedding.
The rabbinate’s new attitudes could pose some real problems for all Jews from the United States, not only for those who have undergone Reform conversion or who have been raised Jewish under the rule of patrilineal descent. In Gorenberg’s story, a woman could not prove that her maternal grandmother was Jewish, though she was, because of the rabbinate’s distrust of the Conservative movement–which does not accept patrilineal descent. Further, the rabbinate has expressed an unwillingness to accept most Orthodox conversions performed in the United States. Recently, the Israeli rabbinate has compromised with rabbis in the US to create a list of religious courts whose conversions they will accept. While Rabbi Moshe Kletenik writes in favor of the compromise as making things clearer, we have to wonder whether even Orthodox conversions done previous to this decision will be acceptable. Never mind all the non-Orthodox conversions!
The post title is an ironic reference to the Grandfather Clause, which was a legal fiction Southern US states employed to prevent freed African-Americans and their descendants from voting. The rabbinate want to assert here that if your maternal grandmother didn’t have what they consider a kosher marriage contract, you can’t have one either–at least, not in Israel.
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