Sunday, October 09, 2005

An update on the conversion of the B'nai Menashe in India

Here's an exciting update (from two weeks ago) on the Conversion of 700 B'nai Menashe to Judaism. [sites needs registration]
A Beit Din, or rabbinical court, arrived in India earlier this month to begin the conversion process, which will enable Bnei Menashes, as they are known here, to move to Israel.
"This time only a small population of us are being converted in India. But Beit Din will return to India again to conduct similar conversions in future," said Lyon Fanai, a Bnei Menashe leader.
"We all will finally get the right of aliyah and settle in our long-lost homeland," he said, referring to the right of Jews to emigrate to Israel.
About 700 of the impoverished Indian Jews living in India's economically backward northeastern states of Mizoram and Manipur are being converted this month.
B'nai Menashe are Jews from the lost tribe of Menashe, exiled first to Assyria, beginning in 722 BCE. And from there, over the centuries, they migrated to points east, such as India, Afghanistan and Tibet. At this point, the identification of their Jewish roots is accomplished easily through DNA testing. However, due to the fact that there is no way to establish whether all their female progenitors were Jewish (I believe the DNA only marks the male line, but correct me if I'm wrong on that one) -- which is current Jewish law -- a rabbinic conversion is also required.

Which always tickles my brain. Since, at the time the progenitors of these folks were exiled, rabbinic Judaism had not yet been dreamt of. And, in fact, from the academic perspective (as opposed to a faith position), it seems unlikely that female descent was a requirement at the time. Nevertheless, it's standard practice that in order to become a Jew today, one must convert to some branch of rabbinic Judiasm. And in Israel, if one wants state support, as is advisable in a community wide conversion of people from an impoverished region, and is not looking for a legal fight, the easiest way to comply is an Orthodox conversion.

Er, I hope that was phrased delicately enough not to upset sensibilities on either side of the great conversion divide.


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