Serious But Not Fully Observant Jews

I would like to recommend an excellent article by Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, On Joining the Covenant.  Rabbi Greenberg is a very highly regarded Modern Orthodox rabbi. He apparently wrote the article to take a position on the current crisis over conversion standards in Israel. But it has implications which I find fascinating, for liberal Jews and people in interfaith relationships here in America.

The background is that there are hundreds of thousands of people from the former Soviet Union who had one Jewish grandparent and were able to move to Israel under its law of return , but are not halachically Jewish themselves (their mother or mother’s mother was not Jewish). Many serve in the Israel Defense Force, but are not considered Jewish for purposes of personal status, including marriage and burial. Many want to convert in order to be fully recognized as Jews, but conversion in Israel is controlled by the extremely strict Orthodox rabbinate, which requires potential converts to agree to live an Orthodox lifestyle, complying with all requirements of Jewish law.

Rabbi Greenberg provides elegant and concise explanations of what the covenant between God and the Jewish people, and conversion, are about. The covenant is about tikkun olam, defined as the replenishment of the deficiency in creation, when the real world will conform to the ideal world, with humanity as God’s partner, the ultimate aim of Judaism. The first Jewish family, Abraham and Sarah, took on this covenantal mission, but because the family is dedicated to the higher ideal, it is not just a family that one joins by being born into it. Conversion is about accepting the family’s mission and committing oneself to its ideals.

In addition to the ritual requirements of conversion (circumcision for males and immersion in the mikveh) and to pledging to identify and continue the life’s work of the family, Jewish law imposes a third requirement of conversion, “the knowing acceptance of” the Torah. This is where the dispute arises as to the degree of observance of Jewish law that is required. Rabbi Greenberg provides a wonderful short description of different kinds of mitzvot, those involving ethics and interpersonal dealings, and those involving ritual activities.

Rabbi Greenberg’s formulation is that a convert is saying, with respect to the Torah, that “I acknowledge that there are obligations on me. I will not act and do whatever I please but rather will discipline my behavior to advance the purpose and mission of the covenant.” He goes on to say that “a person’s acknowledging and accepting the principle that there are indeed obligations we are commanded to keep if we would live up to” the covenant, in itself fulfills the conversion requirement of knowing acceptance of the Torah. “The individual should then accept the mitzvot in principle, while explicitly committing himself or herself to the fundamental precepts of ethics as well as to such basic rituals as kashrut and shabbat.”

And even here, there is room for nuance. For instance, kosher means that, because one is a Jew, one will or won’t eat certain foods. Thus, a person who gives up pig or shellfish, or eats no hametz (leavened products) on Passover, can, even if not keeping a kosher home, legitimately say: I accept the obligation to keep kosher. By the same token, a person can honor shabbat as a special day by lighting candles, scheduling a special family meal on Friday night, visiting mother and father religiously on the Sabbath day, and thus, even if not observing the 39 proscribed categories of labor spelled out in the Talmud, still legitimately declare: as a Jew, I will observe shabbat.

As an Orthodox Jew and rabbi, Rabbi Greenberg says he wants people to observe kashrut and Shabbat fully, but he affirms the limited form of observance as a legitimate accommodation to enable the conversion of people in Israel who will be “serious Jews – albeit not Orthodox Jews.” Later in the essay he says these standards meet the needs for conversion in the Diaspora as well. And he concludes by saying that if his approach of not insisting on full observance of the ritual mitzvot were followed,  “I am convinced we would in fact end up with many more fully observant converts than we have now, not to speak of the tens of thousands who, even though less than fully observant, would be fully serious Jews.”

Coming from an admittedly non-Orthodox perspective as I do, Rabbi Greenberg’s approach to the current conversion crisis in Israel, and to appropriate conversion standards here in America, is enlightened. As a “political” matter, I wish that more Orthodox authorities would agree with him. There are other questions that interest me more: To what extent can a non-converting non-Jewish partner still participate in the Jewish people’s mission to make the real world conform to the ideal? To what extent can such a person be said to be committed to the principle that there are obligations involved in that mission, and to observe them? Can a non-Jewish or for that matter a Jewish partner acknowledge that there are obligations involved in living up to the covenant without accepting that those obligations are commanded by God?

In my personal practice, I don’t keep fully kosher, but I scrupulously avoid eating pork. I used to feel embarrassed by this “not good enough” practice until another rabbi told me years ago that “anything that you do in the direction of keeping kosher is good.” I find Rabbi Greenberg’s tolerance of less than full observance of Jewish law and his welcoming of serious but not fully observant Jews to be very heartening. InterfaithFamily.com is trying to encourage interfaith couples and families to engage in Jewish life. They by and large are not going to be fully observant, but they could be seriously Jewishly engaged. If that approach is respected, and considered close to if not within the covenant, then more interfaith couples and families may move in that direction.

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2 thoughts on “Serious But Not Fully Observant Jews

  1. Franz Rosensweig, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers of the 20th Century (and who almost became Catholic, but for having a religious experience during Kol Nidre in a Berlin synagogue), was once asked if he put on tefillin.  His answer was, “Not yet.” There is much to “not yet.” “Not yet” means that one is moving toward something, but they are in a different place now.  “Not yet” does not mean that one stays where they are under the guise of “well, maybe someday, you never know” (i.e. “no”). Nor does “not yet” mean “not good enough” (i.e. it’s all or nothing). It means that one is in a growth process, and is ever moving toward a deeper relationship with Judaism. It is this continued growth and continued willingness to move forward in one’s Jewish life that makes the difference.

  2. The threshold for conversion needs to be open and welcoming.  By limiting and making strict conversion requirements, we turn people away from Judaism who may fit within the spectrum of Judaic beliefs, we turn people away from being Jewish.  We don’t get more religious Jews, we get less Jews.

    I am a very serious and completely non-observant Jew.  Judaism is incredibly important in my life and in my household.  We celebrate shabbat dinner at least 3 times a month.  We recently added a havdalah celebration to our family ritual.  We attend sunday school, we belong to a Jewish community, I had a ketubah at my wedding, I love Jewish music and food and literature.  There is not a day that goes by that my Judaism doesn’t play a factor into my life.  My children are proud to be Jewish and love being Jewish.  My mother and my husband are both Rabbis.  But we wouldn’t stand this Rabbi’s test to convert if we weren’t born Jewish.  I am a humanist.  I don’t believe in the Torah as the word of God, I am no less a Jew because I don’t keep kosher. 

    The more welcoming our community is, the more people will choose Judaism.  The more restrictive we are, the more families we will drive away.

    Humanistic Judaism offers a home to intermarried families whether the non-Jewish partner wants to convert or not.  We don’t ask questions, we don’t have tests, we just welcome you to join us.

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