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.

Hodge Podge!

There’s been a lot of talk, of late, about intermarriage, interfaith Jews and the eternal “who is a Jew” debate. Some of it was spurred by the attack on Rep. Giffords, and the Jewish community’s near unanimous response that, yes, she is Jewish. (See, for example, Julie Wiener’s recent column in The Jewish Week, Is Anyone Jewish Enough?)

But that wasn’t the only source of news this week. So cuddle up with a mug of hot cocoa, stay warm and watch the snowstorms move in while you read another hodge podge:

An article in the Jewish Exponent looked at bullying in the Jewish community, specifically in Jewish schools.

Even if violence is minimal, day school students said that doesn’t make the emotional or mental abuse any easier to bear.

“It’s worse for us because our cliques can’t be based on color or race, so instead, it goes a little bit deeper,” Becca Richman, 16, a junior at Barrack Hebrew Academy, said during a discussion on bullying at an Anti-Defamation League youth leadership conference in late November.

Since everyone shares the same ethnicity, students might discriminate over whether someone is overly observant, not observant enough, from an intermarried family, homosexual, wealthy and so forth, her classmates added.

Read more from Taking Bullying by the Horns to see how the problem is being addressed.

Meanwhile, the religion blog in the National Post, a Canadian newspaper, linked to a story on Intermarriage, the law of return and the modern Israeli state. It might be interesting to you to read some of the proposals Israel has for dealing with intermarriage, people who are “Jewish enough” to move to Israel but not “Jewish enough” to be considered Jewish for marriage. (I will add the disclaimer that when I read the line, “One brave exception is Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a member of the Knesset from the Shas political party.” I had to fight the urge to stop reading…)

Now, I wouldn’t normally share an article (Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match) that boasts an OU (Orthodox Union) approved dating site, but I how else would I have learned about intermarriage statistics for the Jewish Deaf community?

In the past, the rate of intermarriage among the deaf was close to 60%.

Another article looking at the “who’s a Jew” question in Israel focuses instead on Y.B., a 23-year-old would-be convert to Judaism (he was raised Jewish, has a non-Jewish mother) who is gay.

The soldier’s experience highlights the plight that gay would-be converts to Judaism face in Israel: Because there is no separation of state and religion, and the state religion is regulated by the Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate, it is practically impossible for an openly gay person to convert to Judaism. Under Orthodox Jewish law, a would-be convert who rejects a tenet of the Torah — in this case, the prohibition against homosexual intercourse — cannot join the faith.

And:

An IDF spokesman denied that Y.B. was expelled from the course because he is gay.

“The IDF believes that a person’s origin, gender and sexual orientation cannot have an impact on his or her ability to appropriately complete the conversion process,” the spokesman said in response to a JTA query. “The soldier in question chose to leave the course of his own accord because, as he noted, ‘He did not feel ready to complete the conversion process.’ The soldier was clearly informed he could return to the course when he felt ready to do so.”

Y.B. says that during his meeting with conversion course officials, he signed a form saying he was not ready to complete the process only because he was told he could not continue to study if he indeed was gay. The stipulation given for his return would be based on his agreeing to pursue relationships with women, Y.B. says he was told.

Soldier’s story highlights plight facing gay would-be converts in Israel is an interesting read. It made me wonder if there are other cases of soldiers being ousted from converting for not following one of the commandments. Have people been ousted for carrying outside an eruv on Shabbat? For wearing shatnez (fabric containing both wool and linen)?

So that’s some food for thought… Let us know what you think!

From Mormon to Jew

New kid on the block blog Kveller has a new post up, written by Mayim Bialik. You might remember her from Blossom – she played the title role. You might now notice her on The Big Bang Theory, playing the deliciously nerdy (and stealthily modestly dressed) girlfriend to Sheldon.

She’s written about her husband Mike’s conversion to Judaism. He was raised a Mormon:

Yes, you heard me right: my husband was raised Mormon. How Mormon? Well, let’s see… Sunday school, accepting the priesthood, baptizing the dead, family in Utah who don’t drink hot beverages and strongly disapprove of “Big Love.” Should I stop now? Yes. Very Mormon.

So how did his family react?

Mike’s decision to convert to Judaism after five years of dating “SuperJew” (that would be one of my nicknames) was welcomed by his family. They saw his identification with any religion better than the identification with none  that he had happily had since he left the Church due to disbelief and disinterest at the age of 12. In addition, an understanding and appreciation of Judaism is integral to the Mormon religion, and the Jews are regarded as a people chosen by G-d to receive the Ten Commandments and the Old Testament.

Really, you should just head over and read the full article on Kveller.

Conversion for Children at Mayyim Hayyim

Our friends at Mayyim Hayyim have produced a wonderful video of the conversion of an infant. The film was made by a terrific film maker, Jennifer Kaplan. We’ve added it to our Conversion Resource Page; you can watch the video on our site.

Please check out my comments on the video on Mayyim Hayyim’s new blog.

While you’re at it, consider attending Mayyim Hayyim’s international conference October 10-12.

The project was supported by funding from two of InterfaithFamily.com’s supporters CJP, the Boston federation, and the Natan Fund.

Amare Stoudemire – Jewish Journey

With Ed out of the office, InterfaithFamily.com was lucky to have Micah Sachs come back as a guest blogger.

When a celebrity declares his desire to get in touch with his Jewish roots, the Jewish community is wary. How serious can Madonna/Lindsey Lohan/Ashton Kutcher be, we wonder—without considering the irony that many of us are not particularly serious about our religion either.

So it’s no surprise that NBA star Amar’e Stoudemire’s recent trip to Israel to seek out his “Hebrew roots” was met with a sense of bemused skepticism, both inside and outside the Jewish community. It doesn’t help that he suggests, but never reveals, the source of his suspicion that his mother had Jewish roots. When pressed about whether he’s Jewish, he responds, “Through history, we all are.” The obsession with wearing a yarmulke on his trip and the Tweeting in basic Hebrew only add to the sense that Stoudemire doesn’t get it.

But what exactly doesn’t he get? That Judaism should not be embraced publicly? That one shouldn’t be vocal about one’s enthusiasm for learning about Judaism? That Jewishness is reserved only for those with Jewish genes? In outsize form (both metaphorically and literally—he is 6-foot-10), Stoudemire’s exploration of Judaism mirrors the experience of many converts, who often encounter skepticism both for their motives and for their practice. His evasiveness about his genetic connection to Judaism is a quiet rebuttal to those who would make Jewish identity contingent on maternity. In his claimed decision to celebrate Shabbat, observe Passover and fast during Yom Kippur (unless there’s a basketball game, in which case, he says, “I’ll have to eat”), he is embracing the most important part of Jewish life: its rituals. It doesn’t matter whether he is a member of a synagogue, or is an officially sanctioned Jew, he’s interested in Judaism purely because of what he feels it offers him spiritually and emotionally. It is an expansive and unorthodox (big and little “o”) approach to Judaism that is espoused by only a few radical voices, like Rabbi Irwin Kula.

Of greater concern from my perspective is how his newfound Judaism fits in with his older professed Christianity. He has a tattoo of the star of David on his left hand, yes, but he also has a tattoo declaring himself “Black Jesus” on his neck. In 2007, he told the Christian sports website “Beyond the Ultimate”:

Even though (my father) died when I was twelve, my mother made sure that Christianity continued to be a central part of my family’s life. That’s why I have such a strong faith today. Going to church helped me develop a relationship with Jesus, and that has given me something to lean on as I have worked to reach my goals.

In none of the articles about Stoudemire’s interest in Judaism does he address the place of Jesus in his belief system. It is certainly possible that his beliefs have changed. But if his beliefs haven’t changed, his exploration of Judaism and adoption of Jewish rituals may make him a Judeophile, but they won’t make him a Jew. 

Something Important About Israel You Can Do Right Now

The Israeli Knesset will vote in the next day or so on a bill that would fundamentally change the Law of Conversion and further concentrate power with the Chief Rabbinate.

As explained in Ha’aretz,

Under current practice, Israel recognizes only conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis inside Israel, but people converted by non-Orthodox rabbis outside the country are automatically eligible for Israeli citizenship like other Jews. The proposed legislation would give Israel’s chief rabbinate the legal power to decide whether any conversion is legitimate. The group most likely to suffer would be immigrants who converted to Judaism abroad and could now be denied Israeli citizenship.

Alana Newhouse, editor of Tablet magazine, had a particularly good op-ed in the New York Times:

If this bill passes, future historians will inevitably wonder why, at a critical moment in its history, Israel chose to tell 85 percent of the Jewish diaspora that their rabbis weren’t rabbis and their religious practices were a sham, the conversions of their parents and spouses were invalid, their marriages weren’t legal under Jewish law, and their progeny were a tribe of bastards unfit to marry other Jews.

This legislation is important to Interfaith couples even if they aren’t presently contemplating conversion. Israel’s chief rabbinate is totally hostile to any acknowledgment whatsoever of interfaith relationships or any welcoming whatsoever of interfaith families. Extending the chief rabbinate’s power is not in the interest of any interfaith couple that has any interest in Israel. I urge you to go to the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center website and send an email to Prime Minister Netanyahu asking him to intervene and urge withdrawal of the proposed legislation.

The proposed legislation has engendered a storm of protest from the Jewish community outside of Israel, including the Reform and rabbi-julie-schonfeld/israel-conversion-bill-an_b_649513.html:2k7fts1c">Conservative movements, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Boston federation, and others.

To learn more, check the coverage in JTA, including the Fundermentalist blog, the Associated Press, and the New York Jewish Week.

Yes That

What should we do about divorce in interfaith families? Two people who are always smart about interfaith family issues, Laurel Snyder, the editor of the book Half-Life: Jew-ish Tales From Interfaith Homes and Julie Wiener, a Jewish journalist writing on interfaith marriage for the New York Jewish Week, have written recently about outreach strategies and the Reyes divorce case. They said some things that have me saying a big Amen.

In After the Bus Wreck, Snyder wrote:

Because the single greatest problem I see in Jewish intermarriage is not a Christmas tree, it’s this—the shifting of a child’s religious identity—whatever it may be—after it has been solidified and formed. In all the most troubled cases I’ve encountered, this is the unifying narrative. Mom turns orthodox or Dad is born again. Dad moves to Israel or Mom marries a minister. Usually, divorce stands in for the lethal bus accident.

There is a polarizing force in divorce that attaches itself to religion. Religion helps to soothe the jangled soul of the newly single parent, creates automatic community and home. So divorce drives us into the bosom of faith.  But for a kid who has grown up with one set of rules and signifiers, the sudden shift, the change in terms, can be brutal. At a time when things are already baffling enough.

People who worry that interfaith marriage might lead to assimilation sometimes express the wish that intermarried partners would divorce. Aside from wishing misery on other people, which has to be some kind of sin somewhere, there’s this problem: adding a further layer of destabilization to a kid’s life by throwing their religious life up in the air.

And this case brings up the other “solution” to interfaith marriage–pressuring the non-Jewish spouse to convert. As Julie Wiener put it:

While I think conversion to Judaism can be a wonderful thing, too often the Jewish community pushes it in a way that seems like a dishonest, cosmetic solution to intermarriage — about making things look good, about covering up the non-Jewish partner’s embarrassing heritage and making the Jewish family feel like good Jews, rather than about encouraging real soul searching. I wonder how many of these cosmetic conversions actually last beyond the marriage that spurred them.

Julie then told the story of a woman she met who confided to her that though she’d converted during her marriage, she felt unmoored and like “nothing” after divorce.

A person can’t predict how he or she will feel in the wake of divorce. Most people don’t get married thinking, “this love is too good to last.” We can’t really blame people for changing their beliefs even in a marriage. What the Jewish community can do to support interfaith families is to get over discomfort about the role of non-Jews in the community.  It would be better for people in the Jewish community to live with the discomfort of figuring out how to include non-Jewish spouses and family members in Jewish life than to pressure people for cosmetic conversions. The stakes are high–let’s go for the big win and not the bus wreck.

Meaningful Spiritual Practices and New Translation of Psalms

I have often felt uncomfortable with the word spiritual. It’s usually used in a way that makes me feel inferior, because I don’t know if my experiences measure up. I mean, I get a lot out of traditional Jewish practice, like prayer and making blessings and doing mitzvot and stuff like that, but I can’t say that what I’m getting is spiritual. It’s a little zap or zing of feeling, something emotional, but maybe that’s not spiritual? I don’t know. I also get a little thrill reading poetry or listening to religious music in other traditions, like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or Mavis Staples–but is that a spiritual thrill?

Nevertheless, I wrote a Jewish Spirituality Resource Guide for our site, after about three months of research and introspection–and kvetching. (The kvetching was surprisingly fruitful, if utterly unspiritual, because people responded with their insights in the face of my whining.) I thought a lot about how interfaith families have unique opportunities for hiddur mitzvah, making the performance of commandments extra beautiful and excellent.

After I wrote my piece, I found this blog post on jewsbychoice.org, Three Meaningful Spiritual Practices for Rural Isolated Jews. I love this! The practices that I chose for my guide were very community-based ones, and I am so happy to see something about how to find something meaningful on your own.

Another nifty thing I came across after I wrote my guide was Pam Greenberg’s The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation. I’m friendly with Pam and really excited about this new edition, which becomes available today. You can read and hear an interview with Pam on the pbs.org website. Psalms are a really important part of Jewish (and many Christian!) worship services, so a new translation that gives a chance to rethink them is very exciting. (Plus I’m so stoked to realize I watched Pam working on this at the Diesel Cafe! That’s just nifty, you know?)

I’d love to hear from you about your meaningful spiritual practices.

Just say no

I’ve been working for weeks on a blog post to put all the conversion hysteria in the Jewish world into some kind of context. Yesterday I spent an hour trying to work the latest news from Israel into the whole complicated, world-wide, cross-denominational mess. I realized it’s taking too long and I just need to tell you this:

There’s a bill before the Knesset in Israel to change the Law of Return to bar converts from being integrated into Israeli society as Jews and we have to act now.

At the moment, any convert, no matter who has converted him or her, can make aliyah (immigrate to Israel) under the Law of Return–even people whom the Chief Rabbinate would deny the right to marry a Jew. Israeli law also dodges the problem of excluding people who are Jewish by patrilineal descent through a 1970 amendment that allows relatives of Jews to come on the same basis as Jews.

Now the right-wing secular party Yisrael Beiteinu has put forward a new bill to exclude converts to Judaism from the Law of Return–catering to the Chief Rabbinate, whose officials have declared hundreds of Orthodox conversions performed in the State of Israel invalid. (We’re not even talking about Reform or Conservative conversions done in the US or elsewhere.)

If you think this is pushing Israel toward theocracy, you are dead wrong. At least, if it is a theocracy, it’s not a Jewish one, because declaring converts to have a different status is not based on Judaism. Jewish religion says that a Jew is a Jew and there’s no distinction between converts and people who are born Jewish. This is a scary piece of legislation designed to cut off the rest of the Jewish people from the State of Israel. On JewsByChoice.Org (a fantastic web resource that seems to be back in business!) I found this plea from the Conservative movement to act immediately on the Knesset bill. The Reform movement, through its Zionist organization Arza, is also urging action. 

This is not the solution to the problems of interfaith families in Israel, as Yisrael Beiteinu seems to believe. Jewishness is not a racial category and we can’t resolve our communal differences over how to do conversion by taking from converts one of the major tokens of belonging to the Jewish people. The bizarre and anti-halachic campaign of the Chief Rabbinate to undermine conversions in Israel has had widespread impact here in the Diaspora. It’s time to tell them no.

Rebecca Reyes Tells Her Side of the Story

At InterfaithFamily.com we have posted previously about Rebecca and Joseph Reyes’ divorce and custody battle in Chicago, which could have implications for other interfaith couples divorcing. Joseph Reyes had agreed to raise his daughter Ela as a Jew and had indeed converted to Judaism himself. When the marriage broke up, Joseph Reyes brought the child to church  and had her baptized Catholic. He took photos of the baptism and sent them to his ex-wife. Rebecca Reyes sought a temporary restraining order to prevent Reyes from taking the child to church again–which he proceeded to do, in apparent violation of the order, and this time, brought a television crew with him.

Chicago television spoke with Joseph Reyes and presented his views on their websites, which we found disturbing.

On ABC’s 20/20 show on February 26, reporter Chris Cuomo interviewed the estranged parents. Rebecca Reyes, who had not spoken to the press about this personal matter, apparently decided to go public. Rebecca Reyes told Cuomo on the show, “The constant undermining of who [Ela] is, who she was born as, and who we agreed she would be in our home, is really harmful. There will be confusion; there will be an abrogation of her identity.”  She expressed concerns over the threatening emails and Facebook messages she’s had from people she’s never met, and especially over visits to her child’s Jewish preschool from strangers. 

It’s tempting just to side with the mother in this case, especially since she’s Jewish and her thinking is similar to everything we’ve read about consistency in child-rearing after divorce. We have a lot of trouble, from the selections quoted in the press, believing Joseph Reyes’ self-presentation, especially his insistence that he was coerced into conversion. You can watch the story on the ABC website to see what I mean. But even though we are freer, as a non-profit organization, to take a partisan position on this private matter than journalistic organizations ought to feel themselves to be, we know we don’t know everything about this case, and that any judgment we offer will be based on this limited information.

One thing, however, seems obvious. Parenting in an interfaith marriage means being able to negotiate–even when the marriage is breaking up. Sticking with agreements about religion is just as important as sticking with other parenting agreements, like the ones about school and who will supervise a small child. What obviously seems to the media like a sexy case about freedom of religion or father’s rights looks very different when you think about what this may be like for the little girl involved.