March 28, 2022

Yevamot 17

Today’s daf (Yevamot 17a) contains a brief teaching which, depending on how it is interpreted, has radical implications.
The question posed by the Gemara is whether the children born of women from the ten exiled tribes who then intermarried should be considered Jews, and by extension, whether Jewish status should be accorded to those descendants of the ten exiled tribes whose ancestors, both male and female, are presumed to have intermarried.
In response, Shmuel said to Rabbi Yehuda that: ‘[A Rabbinic conference was convened to discuss this issue, and] they did not move from there until they made (i.e. took the decision to categorize) them as complete idolaters [and gentiles]’, as it says “they betrayed the Lord, for they begot foreign children” (Hoshea 5:7)’.
Of course, and as noted by the Gemara itself, the child of a Jewish mother is Jewish. As such, if we interpret the question discussed by the Rabbis as relating to the immediate children of Jewish women of the ten exile tribes who intermarried, then it would seem from this text that Jewishness is, in the rarest of circumstances, revocable. Others, however, interpret this text as relating to the later generations of those who intermarried, and they therefore understand its message to mean that over a period of generations these descendants became so dispersed and absorbed into their idolatrous surroundings that a blanket presumption could be made that no halachic Jew remained among them.
Clearly, the difference between these two interpretations is huge. One claims that a ‘psak’ was rendered to revoke Jewishness of a dispersed group of exiled, intermarried and idolatrous Jews, while the other claims that a ‘policy’ was adopted towards the descendants of those dispersed, exiled, intermarried and idolatrous Jews.
However, whichever way you interpret this Gemara, what is clear is that the circumstances of this decision were unique, and that while what is being discussed here relates to dispersed groups of disassociated Jews whose locations were unknown, were incontrovertible evidence to be found to establish the Jewish status of an individual Jew, then this would override the above-mentioned decision.
Unfortunately, there are those today who – either intentionally or subconsciously – apply the approach of those Rabbis then to our situation today when, sadly, so many Jews either no longer identify as Jews, or they know little to nothing about their Jewish identity, or they have intermarried and adopted a life that does not provide them with meaningful opportunities to celebrate their Jewish roots.
However, our situation is different, and while it was then possible to be lost to the Jewish people, our approach today – with the information and technological tools at our disposal – should not be to adopt either a psak or a policy that categorises a whole group of Jews as being no longer Jewish. Instead, it is to do what we can to reach out and help those Jews – whatever their circumstances – reconnect with their ancestry, their traditions, and their faith.
* For more about the accompanying diagram, see…/
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