The Heirs of Slytherin
“The Ministry of Magic is undertaking a survey of so-called “Muggle-borns”, the better to understand how they came to possess magical secrets. Recent research undertaken by the Department of Mysteries reveals that magic can only be passed from person to person when wizards reproduce. Where no proven wizarding ancestry exists, therefore, the so-called Muggle-born is likely to have obtained magical power by theft or force. The Ministry is determined to root out such usurpers of magical power, and to this end has issued an invitation to every so-called Muggle-born to present themselves for interview by the newly appointed Muggle-born Registration Commission.”
—Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
“Your people shall be my people; your God shall be my God.” –Ruth 1:16
Today’s New York Times Magazine reports on the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn. Since 1935, the community has had an “Edict”, banning marriage to non-Jews. Sounds like lots of other Jewish communities, right? Wrong. One key provision of the Edict sets a unique standard of Jewishness: “No male or female member of our community has the right to intermarry with non-Jews; this law covers conversion, which we consider to be fictitious and valueless.” While other Jewish streams may disagree explosively about the nature and process of conversion, all agree that such a thing exists. But the Syrian community has adopted a purely racial standard of Jewishness, where one drop of non-Jewish blood is sufficient to invalidate someone. Not only are converts placed outside the community by the Edict; so are their descendants, and if there is any distinction between matrilineal and patrilineal descendants, the Times article doesn’t mention it.
In addition to the strictures imposed by the Edict in instances of proposed intermarriage, any outsider who wants to marry into a Syrian family — even a fellow Jew — is subject to thorough genealogical investigation. That means producing proof, going back at least three generations and attested to by an Orthodox rabbi, of the candidates’ kosher bona fides. This disqualifies the vast majority of American Jews, who have no such proof. “We won’t take them — not even if we go back three or four generations — if someone in their line was married by a Reform or Conservative rabbi, because they don’t perform marriages according to Orthodox law,” Kassin said. Even Orthodox candidates are screened, to make sure there are no gentiles or converts lurking in the family tree.
The Syrian Jewish community feels so strongly about this policy that they even stood up to Ovadia Yosef:
According to the rabbi, the community’s refusal to recognize the woman’s conversion drew the ire of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, at the time the chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel. Rabbi Yosef, a man of volcanic temperament, came all the way from Jerusalem to Brooklyn and informed the local rabbis that he, himself, vouched for the girl’s Jewish authenticity. “There he was, in person, in Shaare Zion” — the largest [Syrian] synagogue — “dressed in his robes and vestments,” the rabbi, who was there, told me. “He gave an oath that he had personally affixed his name to the girl’s conversion document. She was as Jewish as he was, and he wanted her recognized as a member of our community.”
“And the answer was?” I asked the rabbi.
“No? You turned down the chief rabbi of Israel?”
“We felt it was necessary,” the rabbi explained. “If we let our kids marry gentiles, they’ll try to slip their kids back into the community via conversion. And then the Edict will lack teeth.”