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How Do You Prove You’re a Jew?

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Author Topic: How Do You Prove You’re a Jew?  (Read 947 times)
Tovah Silverstein
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« on: March 04, 2008, 01:21:24 am »

Since genealogy is basic to this story, I will point out that Seth Farber’s great-great-great-grandfather was the pre-eminent Central European rabbi Moshe Schreiber, father of ultra-Orthodoxy. My guess is that Rabbi Schreiber would be confused by Farber’s approach to religion. Better known as the Hatam Sofer, or Seal of the Scribe, the name of his work of religious scholarship, he bitterly opposed fitting Judaism to modernity and was known for his principle, “Anything new is forbidden by the Torah.” An iconic portrait shows him with a long gray beard and a fur hat.

Farber, 41, has a round, clean-shaven face and frameless glasses that make him look like an earnest grad student. He grew up in Riverdale, N.Y., attending the kind of Orthodox parochial school that, he told me, “celebrated Americanism,” that turned the American bicentennial into the focus of an entire school year. In college, he maintained that balance of Orthodoxy and integration by cycling the length of Manhattan twice daily: mornings studying Talmud at Yeshiva University on 185th Street, afternoons at New York University for philosophy. He could have done his secular studies as well at the Orthodox university, he said, but he wanted “to understand the broad world, to meet non-Jews, to be exposed to broad ideas” — in short, to span the moat between traditional Judaism and modernity that his ancestor devoted his life to digging.

Farber was ordained as a rabbi at Yeshiva University, and in the mid-90s he moved to Israel. He completed a doctorate at Hebrew University in American Jewish history and started his own synagogue. It was the kind of place that ran a Passover charity drive, collecting the leavened food that religious Jews would normally throw away before the holiday and donating it to a welfare society in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem. He also got permission from the state rabbinate to perform weddings.

His organization, Itim, was born of a hike that he and his wife, Michelle, took in a barren gorge through the Judean desert. When they arrived at the gorge, they found they would need ropes to descend the cliffs into the freezing pools along the bottom, and another couple offered to share equipment. Along the way, their hiking companions said they weren’t married because “they couldn’t find a rabbi they could relate to.” Most secular Israelis imagine a rabbi looking more like the Hatam Sofer than the hiker in soaked shorts who offered to perform the ceremony. At the wedding, as nearly the only Orthodox Jew among 600 people, Farber said he began to understand how “disenfranchised” many Jews in Israel feel when dealing with state-run religion.

He decided to “create a place where the representatives of Judaism” aren’t government clerks. Itim distributes booklets that explain to Israelis how to arrange a circumcision, marriage or funeral. It helps secular couples find rabbis sensitive to their desires for their ceremonies. For the last five years, it has run a hot line for Israelis who face trouble in the rabbinic bureaucracy. Early on, Farber began receiving calls from people unable to prove they were Jews. Many were immigrants from the former Soviet Union, but some were Americans. Even a letter from an Orthodox rabbi didn’t always help. The state rabbinate no longer trusts all Orthodox rabbis.

Trust — or lack of it — is the crux. Zvi Zohar of Bar-Ilan University explained to me that historically, if someone said he was a Jew, “if he lived among us, was a partner in our society and said he was one of us, we assumed he was right.” Trust was the default position. One reason was that Jews were a persecuted people; no one would claim to belong unless she really did. 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,” Karlitz wrote.

Several trends have combined to change that. In an era of intermarriage, denominational disputes and secularization, Jews have ceased agreeing on who belongs to the family, or on what the word “Jew” means. Ultra-Orthodox Jews increasingly question the Jewishness of those outside their own intensely religious communities. The flood of immigrants from the former Soviet Union to Israel deepened their doubts. In the Soviet Union, when someone with parents of two nationalities received identity papers at age 16, he could pick which nationality to list. A child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother could put down “Jew.” The religious principle of matrilineal descent was irrelevant.

In the United States, the Reform movement responded to rising intermarriage by deciding in 1983 to accept children of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother as Jews if they were raised within the faith. The denominations also diverge on how to accept a convert into Judaism. Orthodox Jews generally do not regard conversions by non-Orthodox rabbis as valid — either because the rabbis do not strictly follow religious law or because they do not require the converts to do so. The number of people in America “recognized by some movements as Jewish but not by others” is “certainly in six figures,” according to Jonathan D. Sarna, a Brandeis University professor and the author of “American Judaism: A History.”

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