April 17, 2024
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April 17, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Rabbi Dr. Bernard Illowy (1812-1875), a student of the illustrious Rabbi Moshe Sofer (the Chasam Sofer) of Pressburg and recipient of a doctorate of philosophy from the University of Budapest, served as one of the few learned members of the American Orthodox rabbinate in the United States in the mid-18th century. Forced to flee Europe during the revolutions of 1848, he occupied numerous pulpits in America, most notably in St. Louis, New Orleans (where he served during the Civil War), and Cincinnati. A collection of his essays and responsa published posthumously by his son includes an 1856 response to the Jewish community in Nashville, TN, in which Rabbi Illowy addressed the following complex situation

An intermarried couple began to embrace an observant Jewish lifestyle, and the non-Jewish American wife sought to convert to Judaism. As they had moved to Europe, where conversion to Judaism was largely illegal, they found an Orthodox rabbinic court that was willing to perform a clandestine conversion but refused to issue any paperwork so as not to document the illegal activity. After the conversion the couple moved back to America and conducted themselves as religious Jews for 15 years. Upon the convert’s passing, the local chevra kadisha (burial society) was reluctant to provide her with a Jewish burial due to the lack of documentation of her Jewishness.

While the precise reasoning of Rabbi Illowy’s permissive ruling in this case may be debatable, the story highlights the challenges of establishing Jewishness in a mobile society, an issue that perennially receives media attention. According to Jewish law, an individual is considered Jewish either if he or she is born to a Jewish mother or converts to Judaism. [There is a minority opinion that the child of a non-Jewish father and Jewish mother would need to undergo a conversion, but this is not the generally accepted approach.] When is evidence necessary to prove one’s Jewishness and what should be considered sufficient evidence?

There is a debate among the rishonim (medieval authorities) as to whether an individual who presents him or herself to be Jewish may marry freely without any further investigation, absent any indication of an impediment to marriage (see Shulchan Aruch Even Haezer 2:1). Similarly, the Talmud (Yevamot 47a) indicates that a convert must present proof of his conversion, although this may not apply, strictly speaking, if the person was already known to be Jewish (Tosafot ibid. and Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 168:10). In a location where the majority of the residents are Jewish, there may be a more reasonable presumption of Jewishness. [See Tosafot Pesachim 3b in the context of a non-Jew who had the practice of appearing annually in the Beit Hamikdash to partake of the korban Pesach, presenting himself as Jewish, and was apparently never asked for proof of Jewishness.]

As a practical matter, there was a centuries-old edict in the communities of Lithuania that no rabbi could officiate at a wedding without positively establishing the couple’s Jewishness and eligibility for marriage (Baeir Heitev Even Haezer 2:4). In contemporary times, establishing the Jewishness of a couple remains the responsibility of the rabbi who officiates at a wedding. In the modern State of Israel, where marriages are performed by the Rabbinate with a centralized system, a couple wishing to marry must have their Jewishness certified by the marriage registrar, or, if coming from outside of Israel, provide a certificate of Jewishness from a beit din or an Orthodox rabbi.

Batei din routinely assist individuals in establishing Jewishness. While often straightforward, this process may sometimes be complicated, particularly when the applicant comes from an unaffiliated family with little or no connection to any Jewish community or infrastructure. In a contemporary volume about certifying Jewishness published by the Jerusalem rabbinate, the editor records the directive of the former late Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Rabbi Yitzchak Kolitz, that for immigrants from the former Soviet Union, possession of a Russian birth certificate listing Jewish as the religion, coupled with recollections of Jewish practices from a maternal grandmother, should constitute sufficient proof of Jewishness. While there is no precise formula for making such determinations, a beit din will look for a number of corroborating pieces of evidence up the maternal line including, but not limited to, marriage documents (i.e. ketubot), birth records, synagogue membership records, burial records, immigration records, census data (that includes language spoken at home), Yiddish speaking in the family, and Jewish ritual practices in the family.

While it is not one of the more well-known functions of a beit din, resolution of personal-status questions provides an important resource to the community.

Rabbi Michoel Zylberman serves as S’gan Menahel (Associate Director) of the Beth Din of America. Information about the Beth Din may be accessed at www.bethdin.org.

By Rabbi Michoel Zylberman

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