April 2008: Haman, Pharaoh and the Chief Rabbinate…

You have all heard the joke.  It goes something like this:

“Most Jewish holidays can be described the same way:  They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.”  

This punch line also serves as the refrain in “Passover Song,” a song touted by the New Jersey Jewish Standard as “a hilariously inaccurate account of the Passover story.” Having reviewed the lyrics myself, I’m not sure that I would call the song “hilarious,” though it certainly is inaccurate.
You probably are reading this column between Purim and Passover, two holidays for which the generalized description might seem apt.  I am writing it, however, having just read an article from the March 2, 2008 New York Times Magazine, entitled, “How Do You Prove You’re a Jew?”  The article, which I commend to you, describes the challenges that are being faced by American Jews and other immigrants who seek to get married in Israel and are being forced by the state’s Chief Rabbinate to prove that they are Jewish.

There appears to me a great but obvious irony that people are being forced to present evidence of their Jewish lineage in 2008.  Throughout our history – remember the stories of Purim and Passover – and, of course most strikingly, within the past century, those seeking to malign and harm the Jewish people required no such evidence.

So what’s going on?  Has being Jewish become so popular that we need to heighten the admissions criteria?  That does not seem to be the answer.  What’s going on in Israel, at least according to the Times article, is that the ultra-Orthodox political parties now occupy 18 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, whereas 30 years ago, they held only 5.  This rise in power roughly coincided with the 1990s’exodus of Jews from the former Soviet Union and their immigration, in huge numbers, to Israel, and a growing culture of doubt and mistrust about whether these immigrants actually were Jewish.  The policy of suspicion extended to all immigrants, naturally calling into question the Jewishness of many Americans, whose upbringing in Reform or Conservative Jewish families or conversion by Reform or Conservative rabbis, apparently often fails to satisfy the Chief Rabbinate’s somewhat secret standards.  Indeed, letters from some Orthodox rabbis in America, attesting to people’s lineage or conversion have even been “rejected,” if the rabbi’s name does not appear on “the list” of trusted diaspora clergy.

I can well understand that the Chief Rabbinate adheres to the principle of matrilineal descent, just as the American Orthodox and Conservative movements do.  But it is clear that what is going on in Israel goes far beyond a simple analysis to confirm that someone’s mother was Jewish.  People are being forced to hire advocates to research their Jewish heritage and to present evidence, in the form of birth, death and conversion records, photos of ancestral graves and records of name changes at Ellis Island, to build their cases.

As a lawyer, I can respect the need for evidence and the requirement to satisfy an appropriately established burden of proof.  As a Jew and as a parent, however, I find this all very troubling.  At a time when statistics show that fewer and fewer American Jews feel a strong connection to Israel, when the number of “unaffiliated” Jews in America is on the rise and when Holocaust denial and Anti-Semitism are rampant – both in the U.S. and abroad – it is difficult to comprehend a trend (much less official policy) that will alienate members of the Jewish people from one another, from Judaism and from Israel.  

I am not suggesting that we should abandon the principle of matrilineal descent or substantially change the procedures governing conversion.  Those debates are left to those far wiser than I.  But there is a “big picture” context that cannot be ignored, even by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.  For all of history, Jews have been victimized without examination of their bona fides, yet today, two American Jews who have made aliyah to Israel may not be permitted to marry there.  I can only hope that those who might have some influence are able to infuse some reason and perspective to this situation.

May your Pesach overflow with happiness, joy and laughter as you celebrate with friends and family.