When it comes to the question of Jewish identity, whether for those who are children of intermarriage or in the process of conversion, the need for recognition by denominations and rabbinical courts can strike an emotional chord. In this age of self-determination, in which people can create and mold their identities, this necessity for a higher authority to vouchsafe their identity as Jews can be seen as quite archaic. Who are these Israeli rabbis to determine their Jewishness? And, why are they needed for acceptance by the wider community?
This question reemerged for me upon reading of a seminal rabbinical court decision this past week, as described in the New York Times article, “Majorcan Descendants of Spanish Jews Who Converted Are Recognized as Jews.” The religious ruling applies to the small Majorcan community of 20,000 people known as chuetas, descendants of Jews forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition. Because the chuetas lived on the island of Majorca (which, by definition, is isolated), they remained a tight-knit group that intermarried amongst themselves. As Rabbi Israel Wiesel, a judge from Israel, explained, “Unlike other Marranos in Spain and Portugal, who lost their line of history, this particular community is unique and kept the pure line of history for the last 700 years, which means they are Jewish.” The rabbinical court bolstered this view its opinion and a public statement, which argued that because of the intermarriage pattern of the chuetas, “‘all those who are related to the former generations are Jews.’”