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Shabbat Parashat Vayeishev 5777

Parashat Hashavua: The Land of His Fathers Converts

Harav Yosef Carmel

It is well known that Avraham and Sarah converted many to monotheism, as the pasuk says: “the people he made in Charan” (Bereishit 12:5). The midrash (Bereishit Rabba 84:4) expands on this phenomenon regarding all the forefathers. It demonstrates that Yaakov was also heavily involved in it. Yaakov instructed those around him (“his household and all who were with him”) to remove the idols from their midst (Bereishit 35:2-4). They infer from the first pasuk of our parasha that Yitzchak was also involved in conversions: “Yaakov lived in eretz megurei aviv.” While as written, this means the land of his father’s inhabitation, they read it as the land of “giyurei aviv” (of his father’s conversions). So we see that conversion was something in which our patriarchs and at least one of our matriarchs invested much time and energy.     

One of the “time bombs” that lie within Israeli society is the problem of those who moved to Israel based on the Law of Return and received full Israeli citizenship but are not halachically Jewish. At least the second generation of these people consist of fluent Hebrew speakers, and they study in standard Israeli schools (including religious ones) and serve in the Israel Defense Forces – in other words, they are fully integrated into Israeli “Jewish” society.

They encounter a problem when they want to marry according to Israeli law, as the State does not have a solution for them at this crucial moment in their lives. Marriage is a religious act here, and these people are not included in any religion. Estimates of the number of such Israelis vary from 300,000 to 500,000 (including the third generation).

Those who have difficulty in being recognized as Jews can be categorized into three groups: 1. Jews who cannot prove that they are Jews, usually because the Holocaust and/or the wicked Soviet regime erased their ability to prove their Jewish status, whether by means of documentation or by means of behavior. 2. Those who come from Jewish men, who, under the difficult situations that existed, married non-Jewish women. They require full conversion. 3. Distant relatives of Jews, who were granted aliya rights due to the Law of Return.

In the coming weeks, we will look into how to deal most properly with each of these groups. We will start with the first. Determining one’s status as a Jew is a broad topic, and there are different ways to try to go about it. The State of Israel should spend the resources necessary (which are significant) to do so properly to allow these brothers to feel as full and accepted parts of their national heritage. This is a great mitzva, which does not require any religious procedure.

Of course, it suffices for their matrilineal line to be Jewish. We are involved in halachic and scientific research into a genetic test that can help in giving support for the claim of being born Jewish, to up to 40% of the Jewish population of this group. When we have completed our efforts, we will share it with halachic and scientific leaders throughout the world to promote this avenue of assistance to an important segment in our society.

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