One aspect of my job as the registrar of the Cape Town Beth Din is to provide certificates of Jewish status, teudot yahadut. These certificates are required when someone applies to make Aliyah or to get married abroad. In the case of the latter, the certificate will also indicate the person’s marital status – single, divorced or widowed. Our Beth Din, which was founded by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Mirvish (Lithuania 1872 – Cape Town 1947), the grandfather of our former member, Gillian Cress, enjoys an excellent reputation around the world and our Jewish status documents, hechsher (kosher certification), marriages, conversions and gittin (Jewish bills of divorce) are readily accepted by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and international Batei Din. When someone applies for such a certificate, he or she must complete the relevant form and attach proof of their Jewish status. In most instances, the ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) of their parents and an unabridged birth certificate are sufficient. When these are not avavaible, other forms of proof will be requested. When the applicant is a convert, he or she will have to produce a conversion certificate. I have provided some 200 certificates of Jewish status since assuming my position in August 2020, an average of about forty a year. Most of these are for the purposes of Aliyah, some are for marriage and yet others, for ex-South Africans living abroad (primarily in London) who want to enroll their children in a Jewish school, that requires proof of Jewish status. Some schools even want to know to what extent the family are religiously observant! I have also done certificates for people who have applied to various Jewish welfare organisations for financial assistance, both locally and elsewhere. These organisations have limited funds and can only assist people of the Jewish faith. They will not accept anyone as a ‘client’ until they receive satisfactory proof that the applicant is Jewish.

All of this leads us to the crucial question: what criteria are used to define one as a Jew? For millennia, the answer has been simple: a Jew is defined as one who is born to a Jewish mother or who underwent conversion (giyur) according to the requirements of halakha (Jewish law). There are examples of both of these in scripture. In our parasha (Vayikrah 24:10-11), the Torah describes the incident of the blasphemer: “The son of an Israelite woman, and he was the son of an Egyptian man, went out among the children of Israel. And the son of the Israelite woman and an Israelite man fought in the camp. The son of the Israelite woman blasphemed the Name of God and cursed and they brought him to Moshe. And the name of his mother was Shlomit, daughter of Divri, of the tribe of Dan.” Rashi explains the background to this quarrel.  The father of the man in question was none other than the Egyptian taskmaster who Moshe killed (Shmot 2:12). The taskmaster had developed a lust for Shlomit bat Divri who was a married woman. He found a pretext to get Shlomit’s husband out of the house early one morning while she was still asleep and he took the opportunity to rape her. The blasphemer was the product of this rape. When the Israelite camp was divided up according to tribes, Shlomit’s son pitched his tent in the area reserved for the tribe of Dan. One of the neighbours protested and said he had no right to be there as tribal affiliation is based on one’s paternal line (see Bamidbar 2:2) and this man did not have a Jewish father. The matter came before the court of Moshe and the son of Shlomit lost the case. It was this loss in court that caused him to blaspheme God. It is clear from this passage that the claimant (the son of the Israelite woman and the Egyptian man) was treated as a full Jew and judged as such.

In terms of conversion, there are numerous verses in the Torah that clearly state that once someone has converted they are to be treated as a Jew. Perhaps the most explicit is in Shmot 13:48-49, “When a stranger (ger) resides with you and he performs the paschal offering to the Lord, circumcise every male of his. And then he shall approach to perform it and he shall be like the native of the land; but all uncircumcised persons shall not eat from it. There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who resides among you.” In the section of the Torah dealing with intermarriage (Devarim 7:1-4), it is also clear that the child of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father is Jewish, whereas the offspring of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother is not Jewish. There were some who claimed (and still do) that the reason why halakha only took into account the mother is because one can know with certainty who is a person’s mother, but not necessarily who is one’s father. Birth is an observable event, whereas in most cases, conception is not. These people claim that if one had irrefutable proof of their father’s identity – such as DNA testing or a case where a man and woman were locked up together from the time of conception to birth with no contact with other people – then one could be proclaimed Jewish on the basis of patrilineal lineage alone. This claim is very simple to refute because the Torah does take into account a person’s father when determining one’s tribal affiliation, as stated above. And lest you think this is a minor matter, consider the first part of our parsha – the laws, duties and responsibilities of a Cohen. One is only a Cohen by virtue of the fact that his father is a Cohen. Even if his mother hails from a different tribe, provided she is permitted to marry a Cohen, her children will be Cohanim. A good example of this is Aharon, the first Cohen Gadol. His wife Elisheva was from the tribe of Yehuda (see Shmot 7:23) and yet all of his sons were Cohanim. If halakha only took into consideration one’s mother, the whole concept of the priesthood would disintegrate. And we can certainly not take any chances when determining who is a Cohen because, to take one example, a non-Cohen who serves in the Temple is liable for a very serious punishment as is a non-Cohen who consumes terumah, the gift given to Cohanim from the crops, wine and oil (see Vayikrah 22:10).

In the 20th century, certain non-Orthodox groups began to apply different criteria to determine Jewish identity. These included the child of one Jewish parent, regardless of whether that parent is the mother or father (patrilineal descent) and conversion that is not acceptable according to halakha. Very briefly, when a person converts, they must immerse in a kosher mikveh; undergo brit milah (for a man) and accept upon themselves the mitzvoth of the Torah as well as Rabbinical enactments. This must all be done in the presence of a duly convened Beth Din. In non-Orthodox conversions, some, if not all of these requirements are absent. On 5 July 1950, the State of Israel passed the Chuk Ha’shevut, the Law of Return, allowing “every Jew the right to come to this country as an oleh [immigrant]”. The definition of a Jew for this purpose was the classical definition. In 1970, the right of entry and settlement was extended to people with at least one Jewish grandparent and a person who is married to a Jew, whether or not they are considered Jewish under Orthodox interpretations of Jewish Law. This extended definition was opposed by many within the Orthodox world, most notably the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who called for the Law to be amended such that only conversions conducted in accordance with halakha should be accepted. Although the extended definition of the Law of Return means that the Israeli population will grow quicker, it also places an enormous financial burden on the State who has to cover the cost of every new oleh. In my dealings with the Aliyah Department, I have found them to be exceptionally demanding when converts apply for Aliyah. They want to know that the conversion was sincere and not just a ploy to get quick and easy citizenship in Israel. A person’s status is the most precious thing that they have. It is far too risky to undergo conversion unless the conversion will be accepted according to the most rigorous criteria.

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom!    

Rabbi Liebenberg Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for Shabbat: https://youtu.be/KRL1jaEKmcE?si=NrtqnrOXnsiGuY7h

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