In a ruling last week, Israel’s Supreme Rabbinical Court made clear that DNA testing cannot be used to answer the religious and politically sensitive question of who is a Jew. The court recognized that DNA testing results are vague and don’t identify a flashing Jewish gene that would nail down one’s unequivocal membership in the tribe. While DNA testing can provide some information about Jewish connectors, it cannot provide the definitive answer.
The Supreme Rabbinical Court decision overturned two lower court rulings that allowed DNA tests to clarify an Israeli’s all-important Jewish status — which implicates, among other things, an individual’s ability to marry another Jew in Israel under the Haredi Orthodox rabbinate’s rules. With no civil option available under the law, if you’re Jewish and wish to marry another Jew in Israel, you have to prove your Jewishness to the rabbinate’s satisfaction.
The primary targets of Jewish-origin DNA testing in Israel have been Jews from the former Soviet Union — a country that for two generations suppressed religion and traditional records of Jewish identification. So when Oleg Sidorov, an Israeli citizen who emigrated from Ukraine at age 5, got engaged and applied for a marriage license, the rabbinate launched an investigation. The investigator speculated that Sidorov’s maternal grandmother may have been adopted, raising the possibility that he was not Jewish. So the rabbinate recommended that the grandmother take a DNA test for clarification.
Siderov’s grandmother has dementia. And because most of the grandmother’s family was murdered in the Holocaust, “there was no one to compare the results to even if she took the test,” according to Religion News Service.
Without the test, and without DNA confirmation, the rabbinate put Siderov and seven relatives on a backlist, since their Jewish status was now in question. That decision was appealed by Itim, an Israeli religion-and-state advocacy organization, and the Supreme Rabbinical Court overturned it. A similar ruling was issued by the same court earlier this year.
The ruling made clear that DNA testing is not the answer to the “Who is a Jew?” question. “While some specific genetic markers are statistically more prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews versus non-Jews, there are also many Jews who do not have these markers, making them inconsequential for proving Jewishness,” Noah Slepkov, a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, wrote in Haaretz. So the rabbinate is left to prove Jewishness the old-fashioned way — however that is supposed to be done.
Which brings us back to the vexing question of why the state of Israel and its Haredi rabbinate need to impose stringent Orthodox standards on personal status determinations for those wishing to convert, marry, divorce or be buried in the Jewish state. Judaism is not a one-size-fits-all religion. So why does the government insist upon it?