Israel’s new religious database raises questions, concerns from rabbis around world

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By Jared Beinart
Staff writer
@Jared_Beinart

Last month, Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs announced plans to create a database of every Jewish person in the world for the purpose of speeding marriage registration in Israel, according to The New York Jewish Week.

Rabbi Hezekiah Samin, head of the marriage department of Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, announced the database during a European Rabbis Conference in March, according to The New York Jewish Week.

The database is intended to simplify the complex marriage registration process in Israel by having the personal information of Jews from around the world under one organized list. The information will include whether a person is married, divorced or a converted Jew, as well as the name of his or her rabbi.

The process is intended to make the bureaucratic marriage registration process more organized and proficient. Rabbi Ari Koretzky, director of MEOR Maryland, believes the system leaves more questions than answers.

“The devil is in the details,” Koretzky said. “Figuring out who exactly would determine qualifications for this list, who would have access to it, who would ensure that it is a religious and not political tool are needling questions that I do not think can be easily answered.”

While the interplay between Jewish law and democracy can sometimes be harmonious, Koretzky said, these unanswered questions have made him uncomfortable and wary of the new system, and he would rather support a system solely based on Jews entering Israel.

I’d probably prefer that there be a rigorous records standard for Jews entering Israel,” Koretzky said. “So that for matters of marriage and other important religious identity issues, a vested inquirer could access the information they need and consider the sources based on their own standards.”

The database will allow anyone to check someone’s Jewish identity with the click of a few buttons. Chabad Rabbi Eli Backman is worried that this might create confusion for Jews around the world.

“[These databases] have many issues involved with them,” Backman said. “If you are not on the list, is that deliberate or an oversight? Rabbis have had legitimate Halachic disagreements over the years, and ultimately this kind of a program may touch on that subject as well.”

“Halachic,” loosely translated as Jewish law, is a set of rules and practices observed by the Jewish people. Since the 18th century, the system of “Halachic” began to lose relevance with the rise of Western European Rabbis who wanted to practice a “reform” Judaism.

Rejecting the teachings of the Halachic, modern Reform and Traditional Jews interpret religious law according to their respective religious communities. The modern approach to Halachic is at the center of the rising tension between Conservative Judaism and other branches within the religion. Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs treats the Halachic as a valid source of precedent for creating laws.

“In principle, I would support some kind of system that helps identify who is Halachically Jewish,” Koretzky said. “This would certainly solve many challenges and dilemmas today.”

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel recently promised plans to create and make a list detailing diaspora Orthodox rabbis that it recognizes, along with the criteria used to establish one’s qualification and eligibility. However, it has yet to produce any sort of list pertaining to this information.

Without this information, it will be hard for Israel’s religious establishment to determine whether or not the database recognizes a diaspora rabbi.

Along with the absence of diaspora rabbis, Jews all over the world may be left off the list. Students whose Judaism has played an integral part of their lives, find it insulting that they, along with many of their peers, may potentially be left off the list.

“It seems like these strict [rules] that determine who’s Jewish and who is not will exclude a lot Jewish people,” said Jared Goldstein, a sophomore journalism major. “I probably would not be included [on the list] based on those restrictions, though I very much identify as Jewish.”

Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of Jewish advocacy group ITIM that helps people navigate the religious bureaucracy in Israel, certainly has a vested interest in this list. He said, though, he believes the database will exclude many Jewish people from the list based on its strict criteria. Farber told The Jewish Week he predicts “between 75 and 90 percent of diaspora Jews will be left off this database.” This includes non-Orthodox Jews.

This database could pose problems for Jews living in Europe and in the United States, even if they met the criteria, since many synagogues and other religious organizations would be breaking privacy laws if they handed over information of their members.  

The list may also cause severe privacy violations, as Farber notes that the Chief Rabbinate has been “notoriously bad” at protecting information within its files due to recent security breaches.

“The motivation and idea may have merits,” Backman said, “but without knowing how things would be actually run, makes it hard to validate it.”  

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