Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
a) A child born from the sperm of a Jewish male and the egg of a Jewish female, who was carried by a surrogate who was not Jewish and then raised by her Jewish biological parents.
b) The child of a biological father who was not Jewish and a biological mother who was not Jewish at the time of conception but who had a traditional Jewish conversion two days before giving birth to the child, who is adopted at birth and raised by parents who are not Jewish.
c) The biological child of a Jewish father and a mother who is not Jewish at the time she gives birth but later converts to Judaism, who is raised as a Jew by his biological parents.
In fact, only the child in (b) is considered Jewish according to halacha. The only factor that matters in determining the Jewish “status” of a child is the religion of the woman who gives birth to the child at the time she gives birth. Whether the biological father is Jewish; whether adoptive parents are Jewish; whether a biological mother is Jewish if she is not the one who gives birth to the child; even whether the child is raised as a Jew…all of these factors are not relevant in determining whether the child is Jewish according to halacha. (For discussion of this issue by a Conservative Rabbi CLICK HERE.)
The issue of “Who is a Jew?” can be confusing; it can seem illogical, and at times unfair. Due to the traditional Jewish rule of “matrilineal descent,” when a birth-mother is Jewish—regardless of how (or by whom) the child is raised—the child is Jewish according to halacha. But when the father is Jewish (or, in the case of adoption or surrogacy, both parents may be Jewish) but the birth mother is not Jewish, even if the child is raised as a Jew, he is not Jewish according to halacha.
Nancy and Drew (not their real names) were aware of the traditional Jewish requirement of matrilineal descent when they sat in my office recently, Nancy six months pregnant with their first child, a girl. Drew, who is Jewish, and Nancy, a practicing Catholic, had decided that any children they had would be raised as Jews. “So,” Nancy said to me, her hand resting on top of her growing belly, “how long after the baby is born should we take her to the mikveh (the ritual bath which is used for conversion to Judaism)?”
As a Reform Rabbi, I was somewhat taken aback by Nancy’s question. It has been years since the Reform Movement began recognizing “patrilineal descent” (i.e., the child can be recognized as a Jew if the father is Jewish, even if the mother is not Jewish). Drew grew up in a Reform synagogue, and he and Nancy had even begun to discuss joining a local Reform synagogue, where nobody would ever question the Jewishness of their daughter. Why, I wondered, did they feel a need to convert their daughter to Judaism when she would already be Jewish? To me, a conversion would be not only unnecessary, but problematic, since it would imply that the baby wasn’t “really” Jewish even though Drew was Jewish and she would be raised as a Jew.
And so I asked the couple why they wanted to convert their daughter, since it wasn’t necessary. Their response was simple and practical: “What if we end up at a Conservative synagogue one day, or what if our daughter grows up and wants to be married by a Conservative or Orthodox rabbi? We wouldn’t want her to feel that her being Jewish is in question, so we figured it’s best to ‘cover all of the bases’ while she’s a baby. This way, more people will consider her to be Jewish.”
I understood where they were coming from. After all, if they decided at some point to join a Conservative synagogue—even one that was very welcoming of interfaith families—since “patrilineal descent” isn’t recognized by the Conservative movement, their daughter might be allowed to be enrolled in Religious School without converting, but she would have to convert before being allowed to become a
I understood and respected their motivation to shield their daughter from the potential future pain of having her Jewishness questioned…of being told by others that because her mother wasn’t Jewish, she wasn’t Jewish, even though she’d been living as a Jew her entire life and had always identified as a Jew. My own daughter, simply because she was born to a Jewish mother, will never have to endure such painful questioning of her identity by others; why should Nancy and Drew have to worry that their daughter would have to deal with such questioning?
But still, I felt that by embracing Nancy and Drew’s “solution” to “convert” a child that I would already consider Jewish, I wouldn’t be holding true to my belief in the legitimacy of “patrilineal descent.” And so while I acknowledged the benefits of the couple “converting” their daughter while she was still a baby, I also expressed my concerns.
Whether Nancy or Drew will take their daughter to a mikveh for conversion while she is still a baby is their decision to make, and I will honor whatever decision they come to. But it saddens me that they have to make such a decision: choosing between their own liberal Jewish beliefs and the desire for their daughter to be recognized as a Jew by the larger Jewish community.
What would you do in Nancy and Drew’s situation? Would you take your child to the mikveh? What if the child were adopted and neither of the biological parents were Jewish?
The Chancellor of the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary wrote a recent article which appeared in the Wall Street Journal titled “Wanted: Converts to Judaism.” In the article, Eisen writes, “I am asking the rabbis of the Conservative movement to use every means to explicitly and strongly advocate for conversion, bringing potential converts close and actively making the case for them to commit to Judaism. I am asking Jewish leaders to provide the funding needed for programs, courses and initiatives that will place conversion at the center of Jewish consciousness and the community’s agenda.”
I can just see it now: When you enter a Conservative synagogue, there will be billboards that will say, “Have you considered conversion to Judaism?” Partners who are not Jewish but are part of a Jewish family and raising children with Judaism may want to run the other way or hide for fear of being encouraged to convert when they have not expressed a desire or openness to do so.
Today I spoke with someone whose husband describes himself as “Jew-ish.” He has no other faith or religion in his life today in his mind or heart or soul. He is raising a Jewish son and is enjoying the journey immensely. He leaves work early each month for a family Shabbat experience at our local JCC. He already dreams about his son’s
Instead of using “every means to explicitly and strongly advocate for conversion,” why not explicitly and strongly say that when an interfaith family joins a congregation, then the partner who isn’t Jewish has become a “member of the community.” Being a “member of the community” would be a status granted because this person is making a statement that the majority of American Jews are not making any more. That statement is that Judaism is best lived in community and that for the community to exist we need structures that can house and support learning, worship, life cycle events, pastoral care and social justice work. When an interfaith family joins a congregation, the surveys indicate they behave similarly to in-married families. The synagogue is a vehicle for Jewish behavior and Jewish continuity.
When someone becomes a “member,” he or she will hopefully be enticed to want more learning and may even want the spiritual experience that most liberal Jews have not enjoyed of immersing in a mikveh. I would encourage any liberal Jew to immerse in a mikveh when they as adults have chosen Judaism by supporting a congregation or raising children with Judaism.
Joining a congregation can be a prohibitive financial pursuit and thus there are people who want to join who can’t. Our money should be going to creating different synagogue financial structures, not toward funding programs aimed at conversion. This looks at people in only two categories—Jewish or not Jewish. The statement Eisen is making is that we want all those in our community to be “Jews.” This doesn’t take into account that for a partner who is not Jewish to join a congregation, it means that they are more than “not Jewish.” And they don’t need to be changed in order to live as Jews and to enrich the Jewish community.
I just read your article in the Wall Street Journal, Wanted: Converts to Judaism, in which you advocate for “the rabbis of the Conservative movement to use every means to explicitly and strongly advocate for conversion.” Considering that you are the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative Movement, your words carry great weight. And because of this, I am asking you to reconsider your position.
I of course agree with you that there is much beauty and deep meaning in living a Jewish life. I am overjoyed when someone comes to me and says that she has decided to pursue the path toward conversion—whether it is because she has lived with a Jewish partner and raised Jewish children and now wholeheartedly desires to become a Jew; she has fallen in love with a Jewish person and thinks that living as a Jew could elevate her own life; or because, independent of any personal relationships, she has found Judaism and has come to believe that she is meant to be a Jew.
It is incumbent upon those of us who are rabbis as well as all people and institutions that are committed to Jewish continuity that we let all people, and especially those family members in our midst who are not Jewish, know that they are always welcome to become Jewish if that is what their soul desires, and that our doors are open wide. As a rabbi, there are few things I have done that are more rewarding than accompanying someone on their journey to becoming a Jew. Conversion, when done for the right reasons, is a blessing for the new Jew as well as for the Jewish community. But conversion isn’t the only option, and it isn’t always the right option. And while I am sure you in no way intended this, I greatly worry that by advocating for conversion, the Jewish community will give the impression that any conversion is OK, even without the sincerity of conviction and belief that a genuine conversion would require.
I agree with you that we should ensure that “opportunities for serious adult study of Judaism and active participation in Jewish life” are always available. Over the years, I have seen many family members who are not Jewish take Jewish learning very seriously, and I have seen such family members actively participating in Jewish communal life. I am sure you have witnessed this as well. Sometimes family members who are not Jewish decide over time to become Jewish themselves (often before a significant life-cycle event, such as a child’s Bar or
While I believe that family members who are not Jewish should always know that they are welcome to explore becoming Jewish and that we would be honored to have them as converts if this is what they truly want and believe, I worry that if “Jewish institutions and their rabbis…actively encourage non-Jewish family members in our midst to take the next step and formally commit to conversion,” as you suggest we do, we will not only encourage conversions for the wrong reasons, but that we will also be putting undue pressure on family members who are not Jewish. Rather than bringing them into the fold, as you desire, I fear that we could turn them away.
Instead, I think we need to send the message that we welcome family members who are not Jewish as part of our community just as they are (rather than trying to turn them into what we want them to be). Rather than “explicitly and strongly advocat[ing] for conversion” as you suggest, I believe that we should let family members who are not Jewish know that we would be honored to help them become Jewish if that is what they wish for themselves, and we would be equally honored if they do not convert but make the commitment to raise their children as Jews. What we really need to do is to ensure that resources are available for parents who did not grow up Jewish (as well as those who did grow up Jewish) to raise their children with Judaism in their lives, whether or not they themselves convert.
Toward the end of your article, you make reference to the biblical character Ruth, the “most-famous convert in Jewish tradition.” While we often refer to Ruth as a “convert,” using such a term is anachronistic, since “conversion” as we now know it did not exist in Biblical times. But, more important, as I point out in my blog Re-reading Ruth: Not “Ruth and Her Conversion” but “Ruth and Her Interfaith Marriage,” we cannot ignore the timing of Ruth’s conversion. As I noted in my blog, by the time Ruth made her famous declaration of commitment to her mother-in-law Naomi and to the people and God of Israel, Ruth’s Israelite husband, Noami’s son Machlon, was already deceased. This was already after Ruth’s marriage—not before it.
Ruth may have found, as you point out, “community, meaning and direction by entering deeply into her new identity,” but this didn’t happen because Naomi or anyone else in her family encouraged Ruth or advocated for her to take on a new identity. In fact, the Book of Ruth explicitly informs us that after Machlon had died and Naomi was leaving Ruth’s homeland of Moab to return to Bethlehem, Naomi repeatedly urged Ruth to “turn back” (Ruth 1:11-15) rather than accompany Naomi on her journey. Ruth uttered the words “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God (Ruth 1:16) not because Naomi “actively encouraged her” but because Naomi had already accepted her for so many years for who she was—a Moabite, an “outsider,” that was married to her son. It was because of Naomi’s unconditional love for Ruth that Ruth linked her future with that of Naomi, her people and her God—and ultimately went on to become the great-grandmother of King David.
Chancellor Eisen, you note in the first paragraph of your article that “Judaism needs more Jews.” I agree with you that the high rate of intermarriage “presents the Jewish community…perhaps, with a unique opportunity.” But where we disagree is on what that opportunity is. In my view, the opportunity we have is not to necessarily convince those who are married to Jews to convert. Instead, like Naomi, we can help to ensure our Jewish “tomorrows” by unconditionally welcoming spouses and partners of Jews into our Jewish community and making it as easy and meaningful as possible for them to raise Jewish children.
Rabbi Robyn Frisch
I have a tradition with a friend whose birthday is also in April, of going out for lobster to celebrate. This is the fourth year we have done this. She is a former synagogue president and Jewish volunteer and as you know, I am a rabbi. I do not promote or broadcast my decision not to keep kosher (each liberal Jew has to learn about and make an educated, autonomous choice about how to practice Judaism) and for some, keeping kosher is a daily reminder about ethical living, environmentalism, animal rights, our sacred responsibility to feed the hungry, choices we are making about the food we consume and the blessings around us all the time.
Our server’s name was Josh S. We told Josh S. that this was our “un-kosher” birthday lunch and we were hungry and excited to eat! He chuckled. During the meal my friend was telling me about how her son, who married a Catholic woman, just got baptized over Easter as a Hebrew Catholic. It was with some sadness, internal wrestling and wonderment that she shared this news with me. She and her family attended his baptism and her son cried tears of joy and relief that his family supported him through his spiritual and religious journey.
My friend knows that some other mothers would have said, “love is lost and you are no longer my son,” and other mothers would have said, “love is not lost, but I can’t come to your ceremony.” Her son was an active Reform Jew his whole life and even sought out his local synagogue when he was living on his own after college. He did not feel he was greeted there with warmth, welcome or interest from anyone in the community as a newcomer. When he went to church with his wife, however, he was greeted with retreat opportunities to get to know others in a relaxed, fun and engaging atmosphere. He was greeted with love and open arms. We spoke about the need for radical cultural shifts in many synagogues to become a place not of “membership” like a private club, but “My House Shall Be a House of Prayer for All People” as is emblazed across Chicago Sinai a verse from Isaiah, for instance. My friend has come to a beautiful place of acceptance and peace because her child is happy.
At the end of our two-pound lobster lunch (in addition to multiple coleslaws and garlic bread—yes we felt a little sick!) our waiter came with the check. Something made me ask him about being “Josh S.” He explained that he was the new Josh and had to have his last initial on his name tag. He went on to tell us that the S. stands for Schwartz and his Dad is Jewish and mom is Catholic. He was raised Catholic but certainly feels close to his Jewish side of the family. He spoke about going to his grandma’s for holidays and of Jewish foods. He told me he was open to talking more and learning more about InterfaithFamily/Chicago. He said he was confused or conflicted at times growing up, but as an adult has a religious identity.
Oh, I have so many questions for this young man. Are there any ways the Jewish community could be accessible to him if he wants to learn about his heritage? I am going to suggest a Taste of Judaism class among other ideas. He shared his email address so that we can continue the conversation. I taught him the Yiddish word, “beshert” meaning inevitable or preordained (often referring to one’s soul mate).
What’s my take-away from this lunch? There are many, many people who have family members who are Jewish, who are heirs to this great culture and way of life. Whatever paths they have chosen, they may be interested in learning more about Judaism and connecting in some way as adults. We need to make sure our synagogues are accessible, period. And Jewish Community Centers and other Jewish cultural centers like Spertus should also be celebrated by our community as places where someone can tentatively tip toe in and maybe end up staying a while.
Crossposted to Jewschool.
This quote is from Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, a Conservative shul in NYC. He’s not talking about a policy shift within his synagogue or the Conservative movement, but sharing his thoughts on conversion and intermarriage, as reported in the New York Jewish Week (Time To Rethink Conversion Policy).
This would be a huge shift! Compare it to the usual course of action someone follows if converting within Conservative Judaism: a year of study followed by formal conversion (going to the mikveh, and
Imagine if, when an interfaith couple approached a Conservative rabbi to officiate their wedding, the response wasn’t “I can’t officiate, but consider conversion!” or “I can’t officiate, but you’re still welcome to come to synagogue!” but instead was “Welcome! Let’s bring you into the community, celebrate your wedding, and then, as you and your partner establish this next phase of your lives together, let’s make sure Jewish learning is included!”
As Rabbi Cosgrove points out, “love trumps religious affiliation, with the result being that few families are immune from the situation of a child coming home with a non-Jewish partner and wanting to be married in a Jewish ceremony.” So the question becomes: how do rabbis keep up? Do you think Rabbi Cosgrove’s idea to convert the partner who isn’t Jewish so that Conservative rabbis can officiate their weddings and then bring them to study would work? Do you have other ideas?
We’ve posted before on the British Jewish school court case, first when the Court of Appeals ruled that JFS, the largest Jewish high school in Europe, couldn’t exclude a boy whose mother was a non-Orthodox convert, and then when the British Supreme court was ruling on the case. Now the British Supreme Court has returned a verdict–the school admissions policy was discriminatory.
As The Guardian reported,
Is there a non-pejorative sense of racist? I can’t think of one.
In past blog posts I’ve tried to provide some context for this case. First there is the context of the British educational system, which provides government funds to “faith schools,” which are one third of the state schools in England. That’s very different from here in the US, where religious schools are private, and only provide public services in a limited way under contract. Another piece of the context is the religious complexion of Britain’s Jewish community, which seems to consist mainly of non-observant Jews affiliated with the modern Orthodox United Synagogue, under the aegis of the Chief Rabbi. There is also a growing minority of haredi or far-right Orthodox Jews, who have a strong influence on the rabbinical court of the Chief Rabbi, and there is another minority of liberal Jews whose beliefs and practices line up (not very precisely) with Reform and Conservative Judaism here.
Another piece of the puzzle is JFS–an excellent school that is oversubscribed. Making admissions contingent on the most stringent definitions of who is a Jew (excluding some children whose mothers had undergone Orthodox conversion as well as the child in the present case) gave the school a way to weed through the candidates. This has left an unpleasant taste in some community members’ mouths, as the New York Times reported today:
Lightman isn’t inventing a straw person for the sake of argument; last year The Guardian ran an article about atheist sending their children to faith schools because these schools were academically better than the local secular ones.
I know that some Jewish educators in the US are scratching their heads and wishing they had these problems–state funded, excellent schools so good that people are fighting to get their children into them. Or maybe not? Because who really wants the state involved in the internal decisions of their community, and requiring students to prove they are “religious” when they aren’t in school. It will be interesting to see how the school handles their new problem of determining who is a Jew–who is behaving in a Jewish way–and whether it’s easier or harder than their old problem.
Over the summer, we blogged about a British Court of Appeals decision that involves the British government in the question of who is a Jew. In short, a student applied to London’s JFS (formerly the Jews Free School, largest Jewish school in Europe) and was rejected on the grounds that his mother’s conversion to Judaism was not acceptable to the Chief Rabbi of the United Congregations of the Commonwealth. The family sued the school, and lost, and then won on appeal.
Last week, the New York Times reported on the progress of the case to the British Supreme Court.
There’s a lot of backstory to this case, some of it having to do with the structure of British society and the place of Anglo-Jewry within it. There are 97 Jewish schools in the UK out of 7,000 publicly financed religious schools. All of the Jewish schools are under the auspices of the United Synagogue and therefore nominally Orthodox–but not all of them restrict their admissions to Jewish students. At least one, the King David School in Birmingham, a city with a shrinking Jewish population, is 50% Muslim. Many Christian schools of various denominations require religious practice tests–but they don’t have the challenge of not being able to write on their Sabbath when students go to worship, as Jewish students do.
Another piece of the backstory is the general acceleration of moral panic over self-definition that seems to have afflicted the entire Jewish people in the last year and a half, with the Israeli high rabbinical court declaring conversions invalid after the fact on what seem from my perspective to be entirely spurious grounds. In Britain, according to Miriam Shaviv in The Forward, the Chief Rabbi had already declared in 2005 that two women who’d converted in Israel (and therefore with an an Orthodox rabbinical court) weren’t Jewish enough for the United Synagogue, because they weren’t Jewish enough to pass muster with Haredi (trembling, or far-right Orthodox) Jewish authorities on the rabbinical court. Those families didn’t fight back–the family of the child in the present case, who was rejected in 2007, did. (Shaviv points out that the judge who ruled in the family’s favor on the appeals court is Jewish.)
I need to write at length about this moral panic over conversion and self-definition, because it’s incredibly painful for a lot of people in our lives. It’s probably enough for now to say that even with all the backstory, I can’t understand the rationale for keeping motivated kids out of a great Jewish school, or taking the risk of getting the government involved in that school’s admissions policy.
I recently read Rebecca Blady’s blog post on the website of New Voices, a Jewish student magazine. Blady’s post discusses the National Council of Young Israel’s (NCYI) 2007 policy that restricts member synagogues from having converts to Judaism or women as congregational presidents. Blady and others have also discussed several other policies which demonstrate how NCYI likely has moved to the right of Modern Orthodoxy.
According to Quinn’s article in the Yeshivah University Commentator two years ago, the NYCI gave only a vague reason for its 2007 restriction on synagogue presidents. They cited a ruling by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a major 20th century Orthodox rabbi, that converts or women should not be in a position of coercive authority over other Jews. It’s not clear that presidency of a local synagogue in the United States is a position of coercive power, and I fear that this interpretation violates a major Torah principle of accepting the convert. In fact I had been taught it was downright rude to call attention to a convert’s background.
I began to wonder why the NCYI would choose to implement this policy in the 21st century. Perhaps,they were influenced by the United States constitution, which prohibits an immigrant from being president? Or maybe the NCYI feels that being the president of a synagogue gives one real coercive power over their fellow synagogue members. (I hope not!) I fear that for most people, the take-away is a message that converts may be somehow less Jewish, less committed to the performance of mitzvot. InterfaithFamily.com readers can attest to the opposite. Those who choose Judaism may be more cognizant to the details of a Jewish lifestyle.
As someone who has enjoyed praying at Young Israel synagogues in the past, I hope they will reconsider some of their policies. Meanwhile, I can think of a lot more welcoming Orthodox institutions both more traditional and more liberal than the NCYI that I will support instead.
It looks like Lindsay Lohan is interested in converting to Judaism. According to several news sources including the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz Lohan announced her intentions on her Facebook page with a profile change. (By the way, InterfaithFamily.com has a Facebook fan page and you are welcome to join!)
Lohan and her girlfriend, Samantha Ronson, recently went to London for Ronson’s brother’s
I admit it. I’ve never been that interested in Halloween. I went through a phase of feeling guilty that Halloween was a watered-down version of this major Celtic pagan holiday Samhain. Then several pagan and Wiccan friends of mine told me that I shouldn’t feel guilty. Well, all right. I can go feel guilty about something else, and go trick-or-treating with my kid if he wants. He wants.
My son thinks Halloween is the bomb. He went through a totally different sort of phase of wanting to borrow books about Halloween out of the library. He’s not a big candy eater, but he does like to get candy to give away to others and to eat in small amounts over such a long period that we throw out the last of it at Passover. He also likes the whole costume-magical-cutting up pumpkins element of things, because it indulges his mistaken notion that I am crafty. He told us last night that he wants to be a jukebox for Halloween, but luckily he’s figured out how to make the costume himself without me buying a sewing machine. (“Like Anna’s mom.”)
In the meantime, some wonderful person left a bowl of these amazing chocolate covered stuffed dates in the kitchen of the offices we share with many other Jewish organizations. So I had the insight that, because the dates are from Saudi Arabia, we could be interfaithCANDY.com. Ha ha, thank you, thank you, I’m here all week folks.
I’ll just embed my Jewish-themed Halloween video now, shall I? It’s below the cut. Continue reading