What's it all about?
by Jonathan Rosenblum
January 15, 1999
The 'Who is a Jew?' controversy has once again erupted with full fury, generating so much heat that no one stops to notice that from a practical point of view nothing is at stake.
The current dispute concerns only registration of conversions performed in Israel for purposes of the Law of Return and the population registry.
Reform and Conservative conversions performed abroad are already recognized for purposes of obtaining rights under the Law of Return. And with the exception of foreign workers, virtually all potential converts currently residing here are already receive full benefits under the Law of Return.
From a religious point of view as well, registration on the Israeli identity card is meaningless. Reform and Conservative clergy in Israel have always been free to perform conversions, and presumably those converted are accepted as Jews by their respective faith communities.
For the Orthodox, too, the current issue is without direct personal significance. No religious Jew relies on the designation of religion on the Israeli identity card in determining whom his children will or will not marry.
So what, then, is all the fuss over a purely symbolic issue?
For many American Jews, the issue is too emotionally charged to allow rational discussion. There is scarcely a non-Orthodox family in America unscathed by intermarriage. Jewish parents want desperately to believe that their children and grandchildren are Jewish, either via conversion or patrilineal descent. Any failure to recognize Reform and Conservative conversions taints their children and grandchildren by raising lingering doubts about their Judaism.
Ironically, even greater recognition of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel would not necessarily remove that taint. The Reform movement in Israel does not recognize patrilineal descent. The Conservative movement both here and in America recognizes neither Reform converts nor patrilineal descent.
Then there is the heterodox clergy, who have been the most vocal force demanding full recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions. For them, failure to recognize the conversions of their colleagues calls into question their status as rabbis. Apparently the recognition of their congregants is not enough, or else they fear that in their heart of hearts their congregants suspect they are not 'real' rabbis.
The problem is that the term 'rabbi' today encompasses so many meanings as to have lost all meaning. Traditionally, the lowest form of smiha (ordination) required demonstration of expertise in the laws of kashrut.
Today, a person who does not even have to observe the laws of kashrut, much less know them to call him (or her)self a rabbi. One is perpetually amazed to meet 'rabbis' who do not make blessings before and after eating, do not cover their heads, and who are 'married' to partners of the same sex.
Rabbi Ya'acov Kaminetsky once said of his 200 colleagues in the pre-war Lithuanian rabbinate, there was not one who did not know the entirety of the Babylonian Talmud. Today, one can receive 'ordination' with two semester-long courses in Talmud, and knowing less than any 10-year-old heder student in Jerusalem.
I have recently met a number of Reform rabbinical students. They were uniformly exemplary people - idealistic and ready to commit their lives, often at considerable personal sacrifice, to the Jewish people. But good intentions do not a rabbi make.
There is something vaguely pathetic about heterodox rabbis' quest for recognition, first from the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate and now from the State of Israel. One who goes to sleep knowing little of Talmud or Shulhan Aruch, will not wake up knowing more, no matter what is stamped on his/her Israeli identity card. He or she won't even wake up a better guitar player.
SO MUCH for the heterodox. But why do the Orthodox continue a battle that so poisons relations with non-Orthodox Jews to whom they are eager to reach out? To understand the answer to that question requires some background in the different definitions given to Judaism in America and Israel.
Most American Jews view their Judaism as a lifestyle choice. Judaism is seen as pretty much custom-designed for the individual consumer. Everyone does as much or as little as he or she feels necessary to discharge a vague sense of historical obligation and affirm membership in the Jewish people.
In Israel, by contrast, the central religious issue remains not lifestyle, but the truth of the Torah. Even for the non-observant, Judaism continues to be defined as a relatively clear set of rules, which each individual may choose to follow or not. As Daniel Navon, a non-observant Jew writing in Yediot Aharonot, put it: The rules
of Judaism are like the rules of chess. One can choose to play chess or not, but one cannot allow triple jumps and continue to call it chess.
Orthodox Jews are determined to fight importation of the American definition of Judaism to Israel. In their view, the term Judaism is emptied of all coherence if made to embrace two mutually exclusive definitions. The traditional definition of Judaism as a body of God-given laws cannot coexist with definitions that deny both the gift itself and the binding nature of the laws. To admit the possibility of three equally valid 'streams'
- despite the absence of points of commonality - is to implicitly reject the traditional understanding of Judaism.
Jews have always argued about many things, including points of Halacha. But they accepted the binding nature of that Halacha and a certain method for its determination. Above all, there was no question about the identity of their fellow Jews with whom the debate would be conducted.
Multiple standards of conversion threaten to raise disunity to unprecedented and unbearable new heights. For the first time, we are no longer even able to agree on the contours of the community within which debate can take place or whom we can marry.
Related Topics: Pluralism, World Jewry
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