Forward Thinking

Would Israel Reject Ancient Rabbis as Jews?

By Nathan Jeffay

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Tired from his voyage, Abba Arikha is pleased to finally find the Jewish community at his destination. “I’m from Israel; I’m a Jew,” he tells its members. They reply: “Prove it!”

He has a scribbled letter from one of his teachers, but the locals don’t trust it. He turns around, dejected.

It’s amusing to impose our modern-day reality onto antiquity. Abba Arikha was one of the greatest rabbis who ever lived — so great that the Talmud simply calls him Rav. He moved from the Land of Israel to Babylon in the third century, when Babylon was becoming the center of Torah study. Who checked his documents and verified his Jewishness?

It’s now just over a week since the Israeli Chief Rabbinate pulled away, at the last minute, from an agreement to solve the chaotic controversy over how it can determine who’s Jewish.

After a row stemming from the Israeli rabbinate’s refusal to trust New York’s Rabbi Avi Weiss when he states that someone is Jewish, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate decided to accept Weiss’s testimony. But it has still failed to tackle the broader issue: No policy has been put in place to prevent the shunning of other reputable rabbis when they confirm a person’s Jewishness. An agreement was in the pipeline, but its signing was cancelled last week.

It seems that the Israeli rabbinate is set to continue handling Diaspora rabbinates, and their ability to reliably attest that someone is Jewish, with a sense of suspicion.

When Zeira, the great Talmudic authority, arrived in the Land of Israel from Babylonia, he didn’t even have a letter of introduction from his rabbi, Judah. We know this because it’s recorded that he left Babylonia secretly, knowing that Judah was against emigration. How did the rabbis of the Land of Israel possibly come to accept him?

Throughout history and into modern times, the Jewish world has relied on a certain trust when it comes to confirming Jewish status — whether it was from shtetl to shtetl, or in the case of Jewish voyagers arriving in faraway lands. Just not today.

The 13th century Catalonian Torah commentator Nahmanides, also known as the Ramban, undertook a journey to the Land of Israel in his old age and there, on what he considered holy soil, he died. Thank goodness that when he passed away, he had a signed, duplicated and notarized letter from the Israeli clergy-of-the-day’s approved rabbi in Catalonia, which enabled him to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.


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