Rabbinical reflections on ‘Who is a Jew’

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IT’S a cardinal rule of the rabbinate, as well as social interaction in general, not to answer an emotional question with a logical answer. No amount of rationality can ease the tormented mind.

Physical pain, emotional suffering and grief cannot be washed away through logic. There are questions of the heart and questions of the mind; the answers that satisfy the one cannot appease the other.

The definition of who is a Jew can similarly be divided into a rational, logical classification or an emotional, tumultuous one.

Many people transition between these two perspectives; initially using textbook definitions resulting from idealism and tradition but, when confronted by the challenges of love and family, look again at the question in a more amenable and flexible manner.

“Is that person Jewish?” is a technical question. “Is my child Jewish?” is an emotional plea for validation.

Reading the article and comments surrounding it in last week’s AJN, “Graduate’s son not welcome”, there appear to be two distinct critiques of the Orthodox approach to defining Jewishness; as highlighted by Moriah College’s admissions process.

The first attack demands a broadening of the Jewish communal umbrella; why should people self-defined as Jewish be excluded? “If Hitler considered them Jewish, so should we!” “With the world against us, why can’t we get along?”

The second approach is more nuanced and technical; challenging the definition of conversion. “A Jew is a Jew no matter how you convert.” “Why should non-Orthodox converts be denied a Jewish education?” This group’s complaint is more limiting than the first, as they still demand some level of commitment.

In relation to the first group I ask how is one to define a Jew? Despite the fact that Jewish law demands that peoples experiencing antisemitism be supported through communal funds, this support doesn’t extend as far as communal and religious rights if the people are not halachically Jewish.

If the word Jew is to have any meaning at all, a workable definition would need to be developed. Is being Jewish a matter of self identity? Is it defined by antisemites? Is it dependent on faith, affiliation or perhaps a birthright?

Case in point; Jews for Jesus are a movement who claim that Judaism and Christianity are not only compatible but ideal. Should their children be allowed to attend Moriah? Are the Black Hebrews, who claim to be the original descendants of the ancient Israelites, Jewish enough? Both groups self-identify as Jewish, but are currently not accepted within the mainstream – even by the most liberal arms of the community. Why not broaden the umbrella even further?

If a person self-identifies as Jewish, even though they have no religious or familial connections to the community, is their deep personal connection sufficient to be counted in a minyan?

The broadening of the definition only satisfies when the people who you want to include are covered by the new definition, but it still excludes the people of whom you too are intolerant.

In relating to the second group of critics please allow me to indulge with an analogy. Potential economic migrants to Australia need to consider their options for absorption into the country. If one follows the legal route, it will be time-consuming, expensive and fraught with barriers of entry. Some of these obstacles can be overcome, but they entail a certain level of commitment or sacrifice.

Illegal channels of immigration may facilitate one’s arrival into the country, but they leave the new migrant in a precarious position. They cannot work regular jobs without a visa, they cannot receive Medicare and they cannot leave the country. While they can roam the streets parading themselves as proud Australians, when it really matters they simply aren’t. Illegal immigration is cost effective and time efficient; but it limits one’s opportunities. If you only want to live in Australia you can take either approach, if you want to be Australian there is only one way.

Perhaps the standards of immigration are too high and we should look again at the current list of requirements, but standards ensure that those who are recognised meet the threshold.

I believe that there is a legitimate question regarding the ethos of Moriah College. Should Moriah maintain its current Orthodox ethos or relax its current standards, each view will be debated in the court of public opinion.

But this question relates to a greater underlying problem; should a person choose to marry a non-Jew, there will be long-term ramifications for their family resulting from the decisions they make.

An individual’s decision to not convert, or to convert through non-orthodox means, cannot assuage the challenges that their children will face when prejudiced by the mainstream, self identifying Jews.

Our decisions today have consequences tomorrow. Accepting, rather than abrogating, responsibility for those choices is something that could be instilled by our parents … or perhaps by a strong and competent educational institution.

Rabbi Gad Krebs is rabbi of Kehillat Masada.