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.’”
The rabbinic decision marks a depressing discrepancy among traditional authorities of Judaism. Chuetas might not eat pork and may have a longing to reconnect to their Jewish roots, but they have lived ostensibly as Catholics for generations, having stopped practicing Judaism altogether in the 18th century. This rabbinic decision, however, does not extend to other populations that deserve recognition. At the same time as the some chuetas are rediscovering Judaism, there are thousands of Jews-by-choice who have already made a leap of faith, but because of the denomination of the rabbi who converted them, are not recognized by the rabbinic court as Jewish.
Interestingly, the court decision based its decision upon the fact that the community remained isolated and intermarried among themselves over hundreds of years. This headline decision thus reinforces the need of the rabbinic court to reevaluate who they ascribe as Jewish in the wider world. Of course, greater inclusion within the Jewish community is wonderful and, as one chueta and amateur local historian asserted, an official “recognition…as much as an act of justice,” of their forced conversion. However, to grant the chuetas the Jewish stamp of approval, while discounting practicing Jews-by-choice and children of intermarriage, exposes a discrepancy that undermines the strength of the world’s Jewish community.
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