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My friend is due to get married soon and has been asked by her Orthodox Rabbi to provide proof that she is jewish by showing that she is descended from jews. She doesn't have her parents Ketubah so the Rabbi said that she could provide evidence that her maternal grandparents had a jewish wedding as evidence instead.

She has looked and her grandparents seem to have been married by a Conservative Rabbi. Her Rabbi said that this wasn't good enough as the wedding had to be Orthodox to be accepted. Apparently this is also the view of the central beth din. This means she can't have an Orthodox wedding according to at least one country's rules of Orthodox judaism.

What I don't understand is that Conservative, Reform, Orthodox etc. judaism didn't exist as a concept before the 19th century so presumably if you look far back enough, all jews are descended from the same groups of people. And it seems clear that if my friend could establish that her maternal great-grandmother, say, was Orthodox that would do no matter what her grandparents practised. So what is the distinction that today's Orthodox jews are trying to make? It doesn't make sense to me.

Are Orthodox jews worried that someone in her maternal ancestry might have converted to Conservative Judaism (see e.g. http://judaism.about.com/od/conversion/f/consconv_accept.htm) and so she would not count as a jew at all in their eyes if that had happened? Or are they worried that non-Orthodox Rabbis would allow intermarriage (see e.g. http://forward.com/articles/142112/conservative-synagogues-crack-open-door-to-interma/) and so the wife might not have been jewish at all?

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This whole scenario as presented doesn't make sense to me. There must be information we are lacking. Are there any converts on her maternal line? Is she marrying a Cohen? –  yoel Jan 22 '13 at 21:39
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Also, the question (which is unclear) doesn't match the title. Consider editing to bring them into sync. –  yoel Jan 22 '13 at 21:40
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If someone is born to a Jewish mother, regardless of her affiliation or observance, that person is 100% Jewish and allowed to marry another Jew. There is no conversion involved. I guess that this rabbi, in this situation, wants documentation that demonstrates that your friend's mother, and therefore your friend, is indeed Jewish. There are various ways this could be documented, one of which would be a ketuba produced by a previous rabbi who would likewise have checked. If the current rabbi trusts that the previous rabbi would have checked as a prerequesite to officiating, then he's all set. –  Isaac Moses Jan 22 '13 at 22:07
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Without knowing the entirety of the situation, I can't tell why the rabbi wants this documentation in this case. However, I strongly suspect that he's not trying to prove that your friend's forebears were Orthodox, but that they were Jewish, with an Orthodox-produced ketuba being a potential method for this. –  Isaac Moses Jan 22 '13 at 22:10
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Felipa, your guess is as good as any of ours. Why are you asking a totally random group of anonymous people to guess at why a totally random anonymous rabbi wanted from a totally random anonymous person none of us has met? –  Seth J Jan 23 '13 at 2:28

2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

A Conservative kesuba can be suspect. As noted in Rabbi Emanuel Feldman's book, "Tales Out of Shul," as a young Orthodox rabbi in Atlanta in the 1960s, he was under tremendous pressure by wealthy members to do a quicky conversion to the member's child's non-Jewish fiancee. He would refuse, and those members would leave the shul and join a Conservative shul, making large donations, and getting what they wanted. The result was that Jews were married to non-Jews who were not sincere converts. That is reason for great concern.

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If someone is born to a Jewish mother, regardless of her affiliation or observance, that person is 100% Jewish and allowed to marry another Jew. There is no conversion involved. I guess that this rabbi, in this situation, wants documentation that demonstrates that your friend's mother, and therefore your friend, is indeed Jewish. There are various ways this could be documented, one of which would be a ketuba produced by a previous rabbi who would likewise have checked. If the current rabbi trusts that the previous rabbi would have checked as a prerequesite to officiating, then he's all set.

Without knowing the entirety of the situation, I can't tell why the rabbi wants this documentation in this case. However, I strongly suspect that he's not trying to prove that your friend's forebears were Orthodox, but that they were Jewish, with an Orthodox-produced ketuba being a potential method for this.

There are various possible reasons why the current rabbi wouldn't consider a Conservative-produced ketuba, by itself, as proof that the participants were Jewish. As you suggest, he may be concerned about forebears who may have been born non-Jewish and converted according to Conservative standards, or he may just be concerned that the previous rabbi wouldn't have checked into the situation with the same rigor that he would.

It would probably be worthwhile for your friend to discuss the particular situation in depth with the rabbi to discover what his particular concerns are and how they may be met.

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It is worth noting that the Israeli Rabbinate requires all immigrants to provide documentation of Jewish heritage in order to register to marry in Israel. This is regardless of religious affiliation. For example, as someone who is (and looks) orthodox, I was still asked to provide my parent's ketubah to register. I also had to provide two witnesses that testified that I remained Jewish while living in America. This is standard operating procedure (and many in Israel want to fix these premises), but it is not an issue of being identified with Conservative/Reform Judaism. –  Aryeh Jan 23 '13 at 11:18
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@felipa "So the Israeli Rabbinate will accept a non-Orthodox ketubah..." I think you misread Aryeh's comment. "Regardless of religious affiliation" refers to the person not the documentation. –  Fred Jan 23 '13 at 16:10
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@felipa It's not uncommon for a non-Orthodox Jew to have parents or grandparents with an Orthodox ketubah. Regardless, I assume there are some other ways for a non-Orthodox Jew to demonstrate that they are Jewish by Orthodox standards aside from showing a ketubah. But if a person wants to use a ketubah as proof, only an Orthodox one will satisfy the burden of evidence from the standpoint of the Orthodox beit din (for reasons mentioned in this answer). –  Fred Jan 23 '13 at 20:45
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@Fred Thanks. The sticking point here is what these "other ways for a non-Orthodox Jew to demonstrate that they are Jewish by Orthodox standards" could be. But that is perhaps a topic for another question. –  felipa Jan 24 '13 at 8:29
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@felipa, a question along the lines of "What forms of evidence do batei din accept to establish that someone is Jewish?" would indeed be a useful question to post. –  Isaac Moses Jan 24 '13 at 15:23

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