Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Reaffirms Halachic Position on Question of Who is a Jew

Israel’s Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi, Isser Untermann, cited Biblical sources yesterday to bolster the chief rabbinate’s position on the question of who is a Jew, which, the rabbis insist, can be only someone born of a Jewish mother, in or out of wedlock, or who has undergone conversion rites. Rabbi Untermann addressed more than 1,000 Orthodox rabbis and judges of religious courts from Israel and several foreign countries who gathered at a conference to uphold the Orthodox tenet that Halacha — Jewish religious law — must prevail in determining who is a Jew. A case that may decide that issue for Israelis is presently before the Israel Supreme Court.

Rabbi Untermann claimed that a child of a non-Jewish mother had no “child-father” relationship to his natural father nor did he have a brother or sister relationship with children born to the same father by a Jewish woman. As an “example,” he cited the Biblical story of Amnon and Tamar, children of King David, who were not forbidden to marry, according to the scholars, because Tamar was conceived before her mother converted and was therefore not the sister of Amnon. The Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Itzhak Nissim, who addressed the conference yesterday, insisted that no distinction could be drawn between religion and nationality which, in the context of Israeli law refers to ethnic origin. But such a distinction is the nub of the case of Lt. Commander Benjamin Shalit, an Israeli naval officer who is suing to have his Israel-born children registered as Jews by nationality even though their mother is non-Jewish and professes no religion. The Ministry of Interior, which has jurisdiction over birth registration and identity papers and is headed by a minister of the Orthodox religious bloc, refused. Commander Shalit brought his case to the Israel Supreme Court which currently has it under consideration.

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