Israeli Rabbinate Under Fire for Pushing for DNA Tests Before Marriage

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When Oleg Sidorov and his fiancee applied for a marriage license at their local rabbinate office, he assumed the process would run smoothly.

After all, Sidorov, who emigrated from Ukraine to Israel with his family when he was 5, attended Jewish schools in Israel and served in the Israeli military for a decade.

But he lacked the typical Judaism-related documents, such as circumcision certificates and ketubah marriage contracts from parents or grandparents, that Jewish couples are expected to present to the marriage registrar.

In the former Soviet Union, religious practices and institutions were outlawed for decades, so Sidorov’s parents and grandparents never received a ketubah, a Jewish marriage certificate.

A skeptical licensing clerk sent him to a rabbinical court to prove his Jewishness, and the rabbinical court sent him to an organization that investigates Jewish status. The organization located solid documentation that his great-grandmother was Jewish – Judaism goes by matrilineal descent – and sent it to the court, but the court rejected it.

Instead, the judges told Sidorov that the only way to prove his Jewishness was to ask his grandmother, who has dementia, to undergo a DNA test and compare the results with her siblings or cousins.

“The rabbis suspected that my grandmother had been adopted because she was born more than five years after my great-grandparents got married,” Sidorov said.  “They strongly suggested that my grandmother undergo a DNA test to prove her connection to my great-grandmother’s blood relatives.”

Photos of Oleg Sidorov’s bar mitzvah were insufficient
to prove his Jewishness for the rabbinical court. Photo
courtesy of Oleg Sidorov

Following the rabbi’s suggestion wasn’t an option. Sidorov’s great-grandmother, who died 16 years ago, was the only one of her siblings to survive the Holocaust. His grandmother was an only child.  So there was no one to compare the results to even if she took the test.

“W­­­­hat blood relatives are we supposed to approach for DNA testing?” Sidorov asked, frustration in his voice.

Recent revelations that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has been quietly pressuring some Jews to undergo DNA testing have shocked many Israelis and put the rabbinate on the defensive.

Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM, an organization that helps people navigate the complexities of personal status in Israel, said he has handled about 20 DNA-related cases in the past six months, all of them for immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Many moved to Israel under the Law of Return, which requires immigrants to prove (via documentation) that they had at least one Jewish grandparent.

Although the vast majority of the more than 1 million Soviet immigrants live Jewish lives, some 400,000 are not considered Jewish by the rabbinate, which oversees marriage in Israel.

Farber said the rabbinate’s push for DNA testing “goes against the Jewish principle of ‘hazaka’ – that rabbis don’t seek to undermine someone’s religious status.”

“The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) says that we must trust individuals when they declare their Jewishness unless we have a major reason to question them,” he said.

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Source: Religion News Service