Forward Thinking

Would Israel Reject Ancient Rabbis as Jews?

By Nathan Jeffay

  • Print
  • Share Share

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.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Rabbi Avi Weiss, Jewish status, Israeli Chief Rabbinate, Israel

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.