Israeli rabbinical courts are increasingly relying on DNA tests in cases where the Jewishness of individuals seeking to marry is in doubt, recent complaints suggest. In almost all of these cases, the individuals who were asked or advised to undergo genetic testing were immigrants from the former Soviet Union or their offspring.
A Jewish bride and groom must marry through the Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate’s office if they wish to be recognized as married in Israel. All couples seeking to marry through the Rabbinate must first register at one of its local offices.
These offices will typically refer individuals to the rabbinical courts if no certification exists that the mother of the bride or groom was married through the Rabbinate (or by a rabbi approved by the Rabbinate if they are from overseas). Likewise, couples will be referred to the rabbinical court if suspicions have been raised about the authenticity of the documentation they presented.
Mitochondrial DNA is inherited exclusively from a person’s mother, so genetic markers can be traced back many generations to determine a person’s maternal ancestors with a high degree of certainty. A 2006 study showed that 40 percent of all Ashkenazi Jews are descended from just four Jewish women who lived more than 1,000 years ago. That study concluded that if someone bears specific mitochondrial DNA markers, there is a 90 to 99 percent chance he or she is descended from one of those women.
Within the Orthodox movement, there has been a push in recent years to get the Rabbinate to recognize DNA test results as a legitimate way of establishing whether an individual is Jewish according to halakha.
Among the topics discussed at the annual convention of Israeli rabbinical judges, held last week at Kibbutz Lavi in northern Israel, was the reliability of DNA testing in making such determinations.
A driving force in the campaign to get the Rabbinate to use DNA testing more widely is Eretz Hemdah, a Jerusalem-based institute that trains rabbinical judges. Several halakhic opinions on the matter have been published by the well-respected institution in recent years.
Advocates maintain that DNA testing could assist individuals whose Jewishness has been called into question by helping them avoid the time-consuming and difficult procedure of conversion to Judaism.
Chief Rabbi David Lau has admitted for the first time that the Chief Rabbinate and the state Rabbinical Courts use DNA testing in certain circumstances to help determine whether a person is Jewish.
The admission is likely to generate outrage among mainstream religious-Zionist and Modern Orthodox groups, given that Jewish law does not recognize the validity of DNA testing to prove Jewishness.