A New Take On The Old Problem Of Jewish Identity

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Family_Treeby R. Barry Kornblau


Who is a Jew?  What is the halachic status of Ethiopian Jewry? Of Russian Jews?  What evidence, if any, is required to demonstrate one Jewish identity?  Which conversions are acceptable?  Can conversions be nullified retroactively?  For the past several decades, these and related fundamental questions of Jewish identity have been headline issues for our people and have created much tension in Israel, in the Diaspora, and between Israel and the Diaspora.

Related to these issues is another set of controversies: What is the authority of rabbis, or a given rabbi?  Should there be a Chief Rabbinate of Israel and if so, what role if any should it play in resolving these issues?  What about diaspora Jewry and its rabbis?  More broadly, what, in general, should be the role of Jewish law in the modern, democratic state of Israel?

Like many engaged Jews, I have opinions about many of these specific matters.  My purpose in this essay, however, is not primarily to argue for my particular views about the above contemporary issues, but rather to share some historical, Biblical, and Talmudic perspectives on these matters as a whole.  These perspectives will not offer comprehensive solutions to the problems facing us.  However, stepping back from the fray, controversies, and headlines relating to these issues in the early years of our beloved Jewish state to place our present concerns in broader contexts may help us to better grasp the challenges before us and to take some of the sting out of contemporary debates.

The Return to Zion in the 6th Century BCE and its Lasting Effect

Perhaps the most ancient, and uncannily prescient, foreshadowing of these challenges can be found in the Biblical book of Ezra, at the beginning of the second Jewish commonwealth in the Land of Israel.  At that moment in Jewish history, the First Temple in Jerusalem had been in ruins for decades.  A thousand miles away on the opposite end of the Fertile Crescent, exiled Judeans taken captive by their Babylonian conquerors had been weeping – and getting comfortable – along the rivers of Babylon for several generations.  The Babylonians’ more cosmopolitan successors, the Persians, encouraged these Judean exiles in their midst to return to their homeland to rebuild a Second Temple in Jerusalem.  A small percentage did so, with ample support from those who stayed behind.  The returnees were so precious and few (42,360 in total) that the Bible preserves their family names for eternity: “The children of Azmaveth, forty two,” we are told, “the men of Michmas, one hundred twenty two.”

However, even before the Bible finishes listing and tallying all the souls of this returning remnant, questions arise about the Jewish personal status of some of the returnees: “And these were they that went up from Tel-melah, Tel-harsa, Cherub, Addan, and Immer but who could not tell their fathers’ houses and their seed, whether they were of Israel…”  Priestly status was also investigated, with similar results for an unfortunate few: “And of the children of the priests – the children of Habaiah, of Hakkoz, of Barzillai… sought their genealogical register but it was not found.  Therefore, they were disqualified from the priesthood.  [Therefore], they may not eat of the most holy things…”

The Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 71a) elaborates on this picture, stating that all those whose Jewish status was at all questionable had came to the Land of Israel, Ezra having been careful to leave behind in Persia only those whose Jewish status was unimpeachable.  Why?  Because most if not all Torah sages of that generation ended up in the Land of Israel with Ezra, impelling him to ensure that only those whose Jewish status would require no analysis or expert rulings (which were no longer available) would remain in Babylonia.

The better part of a millennium later, with the Second Commonwealth’s rebuilt Temple long in ruins, the Talmud (ibid) reports three levels of presumption regarding Jewish identity.  Despite the dramatic interim decline of their community and the passage of dozens of generations, Babylonian Jewry still retained unimpeachable Jewish status; Ezra’s plan had apparently worked well, even over a tremendous period of time.  By contrast, those in the Land of Israel (Palestine) had a strong presumption of acceptability, with occasional checking of Jewish identity bonafides still necessary.  Finally, those in the Diaspora outside of Babylonia had the weakest presumption of proper Jewish identity.

An Old Rabbi Maintains His Integrity and His Life

Although the Talmud does not record the reaction of non-Babylonian Diaspora Jewry to their lowest status, it does report that, unsurprisingly, some among Palestinian Jewry protested that their lineage should be more questionable than that of their Babylonian brethren.  And so, first in the late 2nd or early 3rd century CE and then a second time more than a century later in the 4th century, some in Palestine sought to exalt Palestinian Jewry’s status over Babylonian Jewry’s, asserting that their own status ought to be beyond doubt whereas Babylonian Jewry’s ought to be doubtful.  However, the leadership of Palestinian Jewry – quite aware for many generations of the troubled yet unpublicized lineages of influential families in their midst, including some of the greatest – rejected both efforts.

The first rejection, based upon an old tradition of the Palestinian rabbis themselves, was accepted without recorded rancor while the second was hotly contested.  The Talmud does not elaborate but perhaps historical context can explain the heightened passions.  By the 4th century, Palestinian Jewry and its Patriarchal leadership were in rapid decline under an ever more dominant Byzantine Christianity which controlled the Land of Israel.  At the same time, the power and prestige of Babylonian Jewry and its Torah academies were on the rise.  Perhaps Palestinian Jewry’s aggressive move to change the rules was an attempt to reverse history and bolster, by legal edict, its declining status as the Jewish center at the expense of Babylonian Jewry.

Regardless, the elderly Palestinian rabbi, Rabbi Pinchas, who ruled against the upstarts understood that doing so would endanger his life.  So, he executed an old rabbi’s version of a Statue of Liberty play to give himself time to escape after issuing his opinion.  First, he distracted the upstarts with a puzzling ruling unrelated to status issues.  Then, he rejected their request by quickly confirming the existing law favoring Babylonian Jewry over Palestinian Jewry.  Finally, while his listeners absorbed the news, his servants picked him up and ran with him out of town, outracing the upstarts.  Of course, the upstarts’ zeal remained unquenched.  They systematically reviewed the Jewish status of all local residents, until they discovered that the old rabbi was right: they uncovered a Jewish identity problem in the lineage of powerful people who threatened to kill them.

This episode’s ironic reversals are palpable.  Threatening the life of their generation’s sage (R. Pinchas), trying to exalt their community’s Jewish status before having the complete facts while simultaneously casting aspersions on another community’s (the Babylonians) Jewish status – all of these resulted in threats to their own lives, in their own discovery of the truth about their own community’s Jewish status problems, and the confirmation of Babylonian Jewry’s superior status.  “Kol hoposeil – bemumu poseil”: one who pronounces others to be defective regarding lineage – and, indeed, regarding most other flaws – is quite often defective himself, in precisely the area he sought to denigrate others.

Jewish Sanctity, Political and Sectarian Power, and Murder

As we have seen, adjudicating questions of lineage is an unavoidable halachic and national question, central to the definition and sanctity of the Jewish people since Biblical times.  At the same time, it is an extraordinarily sensitive area which impacts on individuals’ lives, families, and self-understanding in profound and distressing ways.  Talmudic and other ancient Jewish literature provides additional examples of how political power, religious sectarianism, physical force, and even murder attend to these core issues of membership in the Jewish people (and of its close relative, bastardy, with its attendant Biblical prohibition against marrying most Jews).

We read (ibid), for example, that some people abused their temporal power by physically banishing from the Land of Israel families whose Jewish identity they incorrectly rejected, and by bringing to the Land families whose Jewish identity they incorrectly accepted.  The reaction of the Sages to this halachic corruption was to secretly maintain and periodically transmit among their own families and their students correct lineage information in order to avoid impermissible marriages: they believed that the truth about the sanctity of Israel must be preserved.

The well-known story of the Jewish Hasmonean king and high priest Yannai is another example.  Erroneously believing that the Pharisee (“rabbinic”) leadership considered his priestly lineage suspect, King Yannai had them killed in large numbers (Kiddushin 66a).  Josephus’s version of this episode (Antiquities 13:10) features a different protagonist than the Talmud’s (John Hyrcanus, instead of his son Yannai) and eerily presages the dramatic, sectarian stakes in our contemporary situation: the Pharisees’ insufficient punishment of the false maligner of the king’s priestly lineage prompted the king to

“leave the party of the Pharisees, abolish the decrees they had imposed on the people, and to punish those that observed them.  From this source arose that hatred which he and his sons met with from the multitude… the Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances from their fathers which are not written in the laws of Moses.  For that reason the Sadducees reject them, saying that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word (Bible) but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our forefathers (the Oral Law).  And concerning these things, great disputes and differences have arisen among them.  The Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich and have not the populace obsequious to them, but the Pharisees have the multitude on their side…”

Murder, religious oppression, a long-term increase in sectarian tensions, the masses’ resentment of deviations from traditional practices, disputes about the authority of the Rabbis (Pharisees) and their traditional yet non-Biblical laws – all of this and more arose from an erroneous perception of a bad lineage ruling, or from an inadequately forceful reaction to such a ruling!

Redemption and Lineage are Interrelated

All of the above provide multiple perspectives on the current discussions which can give us, I believe, a great deal of hope, courage, and specific direction in face of the very real tensions presently besetting our people.

First and foremost: just as our ancestors confronted contentious lineage issues upon their return from their exile to rebuild Zion (and, centuries later, upon the dissolution of Zion as the Jewish center in favor of Babylonia), so too does our confrontation with these issues in our generation remind us how incredibly privileged we are, from the perspective of millennia of Jewish history, to live in a generation of return to our homeland to rebuild our own society in our homeland (and not, thank God, the reverse!).

Second, just as our departure from Egypt included an eiruv rav a great mixed multitude of humanity – so too did our departure from Babylonia/Persia, and so do our present departures from everyone across the entire globe.  Apparently, Jewish national redemption and return to its homeland necessitates struggling with the most basic question of any nation’s identity (and of the Jewish nation’s Sinaitic sanctity): who, exactly, shall be included as members of that (holy) nation?

Lineage Issues Have Always Been Complex

Third, our present exile has been nearly thirty times as long as the Babylonian exile.  Additionally, present-day returnees from exile come from not only one, relatively nearby land with a common language (Aramaic) but from dozens of lands, traditions, languages, as well as varying levels of allegiance to, and compliance with, traditional Jewish law.  Hence, the lineage problems we struggle with in modern Israel and the Diaspora are more numerous and more complex than those our ancestors faced: indeed, they are without parallel in Jewish history.

Authority, Honesty, and Communal Politics in Deciding Lineage Issues

Fourth, the ultimate authorities for determining Jewish Law in the Land of Israel are, of course, its own rabbis.  They are the marei d’atra, the ‘masters of [their] locale’ who are ultimately responsible for determining and enforcing, with the means at their disposal, all of the halachic norms which will prevail in their jurisdiction.

Fifth, in order to properly fulfill their obligation regarding lineage issues, rabbis of the Land of Israel must pass judgment on the personal status of returnees to that Land.  Their factual and halachic assessments of each community’s history and present-day realities will naturally lead to differing treatment of Jews from different locales: some communities may be relatively trouble-free (similar to Babylonia in the Talmudic period) while others may be more problematic (the rest of the Diaspora at that time and, to a lesser extent, the Land of Israel at that time.)  In this regard, the honesty of the rulings of the Talmudic rabbis of the Land of Israel is almost as notable as their physical courage: they repeatedly ruled that their own community’s’ lineage presumption was inferior to those of another community, even at risk of their lives!

Sixth, traditional sources’ description of the political and halachic cycle relating these issues are prescient – probably because that cycle is intrinsic to the tensions themselves.  First, rabbis in the Land of Israel will express hesitancy about, or reject the legitimacy of, the Jewish status of an individual or community from the Diaspora.  Then, negatively affected parties and their supporters will protest the rabbis’ ruling, with as much political and other force as they can muster, and for a long time.  Principled, sectarian tensions may develop or worsen.  In the face of the resulting political pressure, attacks, and/or threats, Israeli rabbis will seek to maintain their authority and their rulings.  If others successfully circumvent or overpower the rabbis or their ruling, those rabbis and their followers will nonetheless maintain records of parties affected by their rulings in order to observe traditional law.

Erroneous Assessment of an Individual’s Lineage Status Can Divide and Even Kill Our People

A final point was first made explicit by Maimonides (Commentary to Mishna Eduyot 8:7), and later expanded on by later commentators.  Rabbis, matchmakers, and others who may be “in the know” about possibly problematic lineages of specific individuals or families are strictly required by the laws of lashon hara (the multiple Torah prohibitions against gossiping, tale bearing, and the like) to handle such information with the utmost care and discretion.  We must set aside our usual and proper preference for transparency and openness by, instead, turning away from such information if it is not directly relevant to us and by being exceedingly tight-lipped, trustworthy, and discreet with whatever such information we may possess.  A single inappropriate utterance can affect the spiritual destiny of entire groups of Jews and can even cost people their lives.  (Thank God, no one in the contemporary period has been killed over these matters!)

As We Wait for the Messiah…

Maimonides rules that, “When the rule of the messianic king is firmly established [in the Land of Israel] and all Jews are gathered unto him, all of their lineages will be determined by the Divine spirit which will rest upon him.”  Although we are privileged to live in an unprecedented and redemptive period of Jewish history which requires us to wrestle with these difficult issues of lineage and Jewish identity, neither the Messiah nor the Divine spirit resting upon him are, alas, available to resolve these matters for us.  May our Torah, lessons of our history, and our commitment to truth and compassion guide us in their stead.

About Barry Kornblau

Rabbi Barry Kornblau serves as rabbi of Young Israel of Hollis Hills - Windsor Park in Queens, NY and as Director of Member Services at the Rabbinical Council of America. Opinions expressed are his own.

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter