What the heck is up with Jewish identity?

One of the ways I sometimes get myself through the tough times working my way through rabbinical school is to imagine the kind of community I’d like to help build as a rabbi. Recently, the thing that has been coming up in my rabbinical fantasy land is this: I imagine that in the community I will help to build, the one question you will never hear is “Are you Jewish?”

Does this mean that as a rabbi I don’t care whether my congregants are Jewish or not? Maybe. It’s complicated–just as complicated as the question of who is or is not a Jew in this time of increasing diversity within the sometimes nebulous cloud of communities we call “Judaism,” and of increasing distance between Judaism’s different movements and denominations. During the centuries when Jewish communities were tight knit and generally segregated by law from the majority populations around them it was probably relatively easy to maintain a shared understanding of who was and was not Jewish. This was partly because of the relative uniformity of halachah between communities compared to our day, and partly due to the fact that what with the Jews being a frequently despised and often persecuted minority, no one in their right mind would claim to be Jewish who wasn’t.

In our day however, a number of changes have taken place that have resulted in a situation where it is increasingly difficult for us to all agree on who is Jewish and who is not. For one thing, emancipation, assimilation and the general reduction in the social stigma attached to Jewishness have caused the number of marriages between Jewish people and non-Jewish people to skyrocket. A quick glance at the website of the Jewish Federations of North America yields the figure of 47% of Jewish marriages since 1996 having been to a non-Jewish partner. I make no claims for the accuracy of this particular figure, but the “problem of intermarriage” has certainly been looming large in Jewish circles for the better part of the last several generations, and the trend doesn’t seem to be set to reverse itself anytime soon.

“The problem of intermarriage”–let’s take a moment to pay attention to that language. Precisely what does that problem consist of? The problem, as it is generally understood, is both sociological and halachic. Halachically, the disapproval of intermarriage has been enshrined in the tradition since at least the time of Ezra the Scribe during the construction of the Second Temple. Furthermore, the traditionally accepted halachah establishing who is to be regarded as Jewish considers the offspring of any non-Jewish woman, regardless of her husband’s status, to be non-Jewish. This fact has resulted (if you’ll forgive me a little fuzzy math) in the children of roughly one quarter of the couples involving at least one Jewish partner in the US to not be recognized as Jewish within those segments of the Jewish community who have not seen fit to reevaluate halachah, or abandon it completely.

This refusal to recognize the children of Jewish parents as Jews, grounded in traditional Jewish law, is frequently backed up by the sociological argument that couples involving a non-Jewish partner are less likely to raise their children within the Jewish tradition, and that non-Jewish parents are likely to teach their children their own faith to the exclusion of Judaism, resulting in the gradual disappearance of the Jewish people due to assimilation. Such arguments fail to take into account the much more complicated situation on the ground, in which parents who are both perfectly “Jewish” according to the halachah frequently raise their children in an environment devoid of any but the barest traces of connection to the Jewish condition, and in which in mixed couples, it is frequently the non-Jewish partner who insists on their children learning about the tradition over the apathy or even opposition of the Jewish partner. At any rate, this argument certainly fails to make a case for what good we may expect to derive from depriving children who certainly regard themselves as Jewish of public acceptance and recognition within the community.

A different, but related issue is that of conversion. Used to be when a prospective convert came to a rabbi, the rabbi would feel duty-bound to make at least a token effort to scare them off saying, “Do you not know that we Jews are a persecuted people, driven from place to place with no home to call our own? Why then are you seeking to join us?” Nowadays though, if anyone is still old-fashioned enough to do the old “sending the prospective convert away three times” routine, the arguments at least are getting a bit threadbare. Historically there have probably never been fewer disadvantages to becoming a Jew, unless you count the obligation to spend at least an hour each week feeling nervous about the future of the Jewish people.

Nevertheless, the increasing proliferation of Jewish movements and denominations, many of whom do not recognize conversions performed by some or all of the others, has made the whole idea of conversion so confusing that in a few circles, particularly Orthodox communities in the Diaspora, the solution has been simply to declare a moratorium on conversions performed outside the state of Israel. Even in Israel, however, as recently as a couple of years ago the chief rabbinate declared the conversions performed by a certain rabbi, going back several decades, to be invalid, retroactively undoing the conversions of who knows how many people who’d been going about their lives secure in the knowledge that they were members of the Jewish people.

This is of course ignoring the often-overlooked issue of race in Jewish communities. Regardless of their personal journey or family history, it is a common experience for Jews of color and others who don’t quite fit the stereotypically white, Ashkenazi, middle class pattern seen as the “norm” in our communities to walk into a synagogue and immediately find themselves singled out and subjected to prying and impertinent questions about the origins and authenticity of their Jewishness. Organizations such as B’chol Lashon and Jews In All Hues are doing amazing work in making the voices of non-white, non-European Jews heard, and in in helping “welcoming” Jewish communities to understand how much work remains to be done to combat underlying racism, but for a great deal of the Jewish world this remains a highly under-examined issue.

All of these factors and more add up to creat a situation in which Jewish belonging has been growing increasingly contentious over the years. The effect this has had on the lives of people who identify as Jewish but regularly come into contact with others who don’t accept that identity can be profoundly difficult emotionally, as well as putting a strain on families and communities that tends to lead to further disengagement from Judaism in a time when synagogue membership and other traditional measures of Jewish involvement are at an all-time low.

The only solution, so far as I can see, lies in radically redefining what it means to be a Jew, along with the role of non-Jewish people within the Jewish communities in which we live and serve. We must acknowledge once and for all that the old frameworks for establishing Jewish identity, geared for a world in which close-knit, mostly exclusive, ethnic communities were the norm, are simply inadequate for dealing with a world in which most Jews do not simply live in two civilizations, as the Reconstructionists would have it, but within a diverse, interconnected web of ethnic, national, religious, economic, cultural and sub-cultural identities which may shift in relative importance from day to day and throughout an individual’s life. In this world, the maintenance between rigid boundaries between Jews and non-Jews is not only outdated, it is actively harmful and downright nonsensical. Harmful, because it virtually ensures that there will be some for whom Jewishness is an important part of their identity who will be denied recognition and acceptance, and nonsensical because it fails to accurately describe any of our lives as we are actually living them.

I am not arguing against the importance of conversion as a ceremony marking the adoption of an “outsider” into the Jewish community. I’m saying that such a ceremony makes little sense for a person who already regards themselves as Jewish and who may already be an active member of a Jewish community. To take a ceremony meant to welcome a foreigner into our midst and force it to apply to a person who has been brought up among us is a perversion of the meaning of the ceremony, both for the converts who undergo it out of choice and for the self-identified Jews who are forced to undergo it out of some misplaced impulse to strive for maximum exactitude in establishing exactly who is “in” and who is “out.”

At the same time, we need to do a better job of recognizing and including non-Jewish partners and other members of the “mixed multitude” who form an important and vital part of our communities. Rather than hold these people at arms length as uncomfortable reminders of our failure to adhere to our ancestors’ rigid ethnic boundaries, we ought to reach out to them, making a place for them, both ritually and organizationally, within our communities.

So I guess the answer to whether I care whether my congregants are Jewish or not is a qualified “no,” if by “Jewish” we mean “people who are halachically recognized as Jewish.” There just seem to be so many more important things to base a community on than an outmoded set of boundary markers delineating a community that was never nearly as coherent as its mythology sometimes makes it out to me. I believe passionately in Jewish values and in the power of our tradition to help us build communities of engaged, ethically aware human beings. To use a metaphor sometimes employed by Rabbi Irwin Kula, I see Judaism as a repository for a kind of spiritual technology meant to help mold ourselves and our world to be in more perfect harmony with each other and with the divine. As a rabbi, I see it as my duty to help others access that rich technology and use it responsibly. The vision I feel we should uphold for the future is of an active Judaism, one where the focus is on what we do rather than who we are. In the end, our real community is made up of those who share that vision and wish as we do to see it fulfilled.

3 thoughts on “What the heck is up with Jewish identity?

  1. Thanks for your comment, Vanessa! I feel like having this conversation is becoming more and more important as the Jewish world seems to becoming ever more diverse, not less.

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