Praying in Israel

On our site, we have a whole slew of articles and blog posts looking at the complications that arise in Israel between democracy (society for all, equality, etc.) and the rabbinate (enforcing an Orthodox view of who is a Jew and how). On the one hand, Israel is a democracy. As a democratic state, women are equal to men. But as a state that also upholds Jewish law (via the rabbinate) and is lacking a constitution, religious and secular laws frequently butt heads.

We often look at the limitations imposed on intermarriage, difficulties in having conversions to Judaism recognized, and the whole “who is a Jew” debate in Israel. But today, we’re looking at gender equality. One of the issues I keep an eye on is that of women’s participation in Jewish practice. In Israel, this isn’t a simple issue. In Jerusalem, the Western Wall (aka Wailing Wall, aka Kotel), is a popular spot for folks to pray – both locals and tourists. For the last 45 years, the wall has been supervised by a rabbi, under the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. (There’s also a special police force, led by a “Chief of Police of the Kotel.”) Since 1997, that job has been filled by an Orthodox rabbi who “has maintained rigid gender separations”. While he seems ok with women quietly praying, he takes offense, and tries to prevent, women who pray full Torah services.

  • – Permissible: quietly whispering prayers to yourself, using a prayer book.

  • – Not permissible: singing prayers, wearing a tallis (prayer shawl), reading from the Torah. (Remember: prayer services on Monday and Thursday mornings, on Shabbat (Saturday) morning and afternoon, and on certain holidays include a reading from the Torah.)

  • Quick history lesson:
    in December 1988 during the first International Jewish Feminist Conference in Jerusalem. A group of approximately one hundred attendees went to pray in the women’s section of the Wall, and were verbally and physically assaulted by ultra-Orthodox men and women there. After the conference was over, a group of Jerusalem women continued to pray at the Kotel frequently, suffering continual abuse; they eventually formed the Women of the Wall. After one incident, WOW filed a petition to the Israeli government; the government did not agree to the group’s proposal, and included as response a list of halachic opinions that ban women from praying in groups, touching a Torah scroll, and wearing religious garments. Most Jews, even many Orthodox Jews, do not agree with these opinions; supporters of the WOW note that, according to Jewish law, a Torah scroll can never become ritually impure, even if a woman touches it.

    This group, Women Of the Wall (WOW for short), continues to pray there each Rosh Chodesh (the marking of the new month according to the Hebrew calendar). And most months they’re harrassed.

    At the heart of this group’s struggles is that conflict of state versus Orthodox rule. Here’s the short version: Women challenged the prejudice against them, on both halakhic (Jewish law) and legal (secular) grounds. The Supreme Court agreed, allowed women to fully pray, read from the Torah, and wear prayer shawls. Hareidi politicians (the most conservative branches of Orthodoxy) freaked out, countered with extreme overzealous measures (7 years in jail for praying?!). The Supreme Court backed down, days later, to appease the Hareidim, and agreed that the women couldn’t pray, read Torah, or wear tallises.

    That was almost 10 years ago. But WOW continue to pray at the Kotel, on the women’s side, each month for Rosh Chodesh. They then leave the Kotel and walk over to Robinson’s Arch to finish services, including the Torah reading.

    Last month, I blogged about the ongoing ordeals for Jewschool:

    By now I’m sure many of you have heard about today’s monthly Women of the Wall gathering. The short version is that the police, allegedly present to protect the women from those who do not believe they have a right to daven at the Kotel, approached many of the women, said they weren’t permitted to wear talleisim, and took the names and id of three women who’ll be “further investigated.”

    Last month, I was honored to have Deb, who prays with WOW each month (and who does a fantastic job designing our beautiful booklets), chat with me about the harassment she’s faced there. She feels she’s singled out because she wears a more traditional tallis (for the police and Orthodox, they read that as “a tallis for a man”) while other women wear more colorful or stylish tallises (read: “men wouldn’t wear them, so they’re not really tallises”). Today’s Jerusalem Post] article about the arrest goes into this distinction a little.

    Why’s this relevant to InterfaithFamily.com’s readers? Because these issues aren’t isolated. A country that claims to be for all Jews, but doesn’t treat women equally, doesn’t recognize the children of intermarried couples or conversions done in other countries, is not living up to its ideal. As Deb said,

    the group is “called ‘women’ but it’s actually creating a space for all who want to daven [pray] there, who have the right to access this public, Jewish space.”

    So, noting that Rosh Chodesh was yesterday and today, I was dismayed to open Facebook this morning to see Deb was arrested. I asked what happened. Like last month, she was told she had to change the way she wore her tallis, and she did. As the group was leaving the Kotel for Robinson’s Arch, she readjusted her tallis. And that was enough. They roughly arrested her and pulled her into the station. She’s since been released, but with conditions. (While in the police station, WOW sang protest songs – Deb could hear “We Shall Overcome” – and held their Torah service outside the station instead of at Robinson’s Arch.)

    If we support groups like WOW who are fighting for change in Israel, perhaps other organizations will likewise support the fights of patrilineal Jews, Jews by Choice, interfaith couples and others in Israel.

    [sub]Deb, being forcibly detained:[/sub]

    Rabbis Faceoff in Israel

    I just blogged about gender, prayer, and the conflicts that arise in Israel due to the Orthodox rabbinate's control. Go ahead and read it. I'll wait… Back? Great. The Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative/Masorti rabbis, just shared Chief Rabbi of Israel Shlomo Moshe Amar's open letter to Reform and Conservative rabbis. (See image, below.)

    It's in Hebrew, but the RA nicely included a translation. In short, Amar claims that these so-called rabbis who are not Orthodox are ruining Judaism ("trampling" the Torah! horrendously destroying Judaism!) all over the world and now, gasp!, they're starting to be officially recognized as rabbis in Israel and, obviously, this horribleness must be stopped!

    Background is that, recently, Israel said it would start recognizing Reform and Conservative rabbis and, like Orthodox rabbis, would fund their salaries. Unlike Orthodox rabbis, these rabbis (officially termed "rabbi of a non-Orthodox community") face restrictions:

    The State held that the deal on Reform and Conservative rabbis will not be made via the religious council and will not be done via direct employment by the local authorities, rather via financial assistance. The Reform movement agreed to this. Financing will be the responsibility of the Culture and Sports Ministry and not the Religious Services Ministry.

    The decision is currently limited to regional councils and farming communities, and does not extend to large cities. It was also written that those listed under the new title will not have any authority over religious and halakhic matters. So far, the State has committed to financially supporting 15 non-Orthodox rabbis. The Supreme Court is supposed to present a decision on the petition soon.

    In a country that's supposed to be a home for all Jews, yet another example of one group's insistence that they're the only "right" way to do/be Jewish.

    Click to see full size:

    On Different Hebrew Pronunciation…

    A friend of mine, Amanda, is writing some articles for InterfaithFamily.com, explaining the different ways different people pronounce, translate and transliterate (write with English letters) Hebrew. The first article just went up: The Case of the Missing Sav, and other mysteries in the transition of American Hebrew. But in addition to that, I wanted to share an article that didn’t make it into her final draft.

    Wait. Let me back up. One of the sources cited in her article was Alan Mintz’s Hebrew in America: perspectives and prospects. In it he writes,

    I am not convinced that the American teaching agenda [of Hebrew] must be set by a dependence on Israeli teachers.

    I agree! And I suspect that many parents who have or had children try to learn Hebrew in a synagogue’s religious or Hebrew school would also agree. Fluency in a language does not necessarily a teacher make.

    But his argument goes on to explain, as Amanda’s article paraphrases, that in America:

    Camps, schools and other infrastructure existed to teach children Ashkenazi Hebrew, in addition to it being the language of synagogues’ prayers. The transition to Sephardi pronunciation was gradual, and was aided by growing feelings of Zionism, the availability of Hebrew courses on college campuses taught in Sephardi Hebrew, sometimes by Israeli instructors, and other factors.

    So what does that mean? The majority of Jews in the U.S. are of German and Eastern European descent (Ashkenazi). Many of them spoke Hebrew with their community’s pronunciation, which included pronouncing some “t” sounds (the Hebrew letter tav) as “s” (sav), “o” sometimes became “oy”, and “a” sometimes was “o.” There were many other differences too. (Which we’ll be sharing a resource on shortly!)

    Sometimes, because of the push to standardize Hebrew in the U.S., fuelled, in part, by Zionism and a desire to align our Diaspora Jewish communities with Israel, the “old school,” Ashkenazi pronunciations are seen as backwards, stupid, and sloppy. I strongly diagree. In fact, I call that bullshis. (See what I did there?)

    And here we return to the article that didn’t make the cut. Because she, and I, found it offensive. It’s archived from a URJ email discussion list, and we don’t know much about it. But the author, Burt, says in part:

    Over the course of the last eight years I have discovered something deeply frustrating within our Reform congregational world. The struggle to instill a knowledge and love of standard, modern Hebrew is challenged not only by the centrifugal pulls of assimilation, the extracurricular demands on our children, the challenges of maintaining two-income households and a terminal case of “pleasure principle”, but by the persistence of archaic and inaccurate pronunciation of Liturgical Hebrew due to old habits, ce , pseudo-orthodox affect or cultural sentimentality. The widespread use of this strange half-Hebrew, half-Yiddish dialect I call Ashkebonics (the Jewish equivalent of Ebonics), subverts the proper teaching of Hebrew and exacerbates a cultural and cognitive gap with between the American Jewish Community and Israel. The fact that so many of our Jewish professionals use and reinforce Ashkebonics is to me both puzzling and deeply frustrating.

    If you want to read his rant, by all means. But I’ll stop quoting there. In essence, he argues that this historical, cultural, familial Hebrew pronunciation system should be squashed once and for all. He wants to see all Americans using the Hebrew pronunciation of Israel.

    Would that simplify things, help folks learn? Perhaps. Perhaps it would be less confusing if we all referred to the 25 hours of Friday evening through Saturday night as “Shabbat” instead of some people saying “Shabbos.” But then, doesn’t learning about our multitude of cultures and histories make us a stronger, deeper, more enriched community as a whole? When we recognize that there is more than one way to speak or pronounce Hebrew, just as there is more than one way to be or do Jewish, just as there is more than one way to claim Judaism as our own… the whole community benefits.

    Israelis Should Not Marry Americans, the Netanyahu Edition

    Oh, Israel… Seriously? Ed just came into my office to ask if I’d seen Jeffrey Goldberg’s latest post for the Atlantic.

    I immediately looked it up, and, well, OY.

    Basically, the Israeli government wants to convince its citizens to remain in, or return to, Israel. That’s not so bad – most countries likely share that desire. So the government has launched a campaign, targeting Israelis living in the US. Jeffrey makes some suggestions for great campaign slogans:

    How about, “Hey, come back to Israel, because our unemployment rate is half that of the U.S.’s”? Or, “It’s always sunny in Israel”? Or, “Hey, Shmulik, your mother misses you”?

    Unfortunately, this isn’t the route taken by Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. Instead, they’re running ads that claim Israelis will lose their Jewish identities if they stay in the US too long. Worse,

    The Ministry is also featuring on its website a series of short videos that, in an almost comically heavy-handed way, caution Israelis against raising their children in America — one scare-ad shows a pair of Israeli grandparents seated before a menorah and Skypeing with their granddaughter, who lives in America. When they ask the child to name the holiday they’re celebrating, she says “Christmas.” In another ad, an actor playing a slightly-adenoidal, goateed young man (who, to my expert Semitic eye, is meant to represent a typical young American Jew) is shown to be oblivious to the fact that his Israeli girlfriend is in mourning on Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s memorial day.

    So here are the videos. The translation of the Hebrew text at the end is mine.


    They always remain Israeli.
    Their children do not.
    Help them return to Israel.


    They always remain Israeli.
    Their spouses do not always understand what that means.
    Help them return to Israel.

    I watched the videos, read the article, and was amazed and disgusted. Forget intermarriage, these ads seem to be saying that Israeli Jews shouldn’t marry American Jews!

    I wasn’t sure what else to say about it. Thankfully, Jeffrey came to the rescue there too:

    The idea, communicated in these ads, that America is no place for a proper Jew, and that a Jew who is concerned about the Jewish future should live in Israel, is archaic, and also chutzpadik (if you don’t mind me resorting to the vernacular). The message is: Dear American Jews, thank you for lobbying for American defense aid (and what a great show you put on at the AIPAC convention every year!) but, please, stay away from our sons and daughters.

    Gross. Shame. Shonde.

    October News Hodgepodge

    It’s been a while since I last blogged in hodgepodge style. With the fall holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, sukkot/Sukkot_and_Simchat_Torah.shtml">Sukkot and Simchat Torah) behind us, a new year begun and so many interesting things happening the the Jewish community and wider communities around us, it seemed like a great time to share some interesting articles and blog posts that I’ve come across. Let me know what you think!

    1.  In the Creation story in Genesis (the first book of the Torah), we read that a snake tricked Eve into tasting a “forbidden fruit” (and she, in turn, gave it to Adam to eat). On DovBear, they wonder what the unnamed fruit might have been. With 125 comments so far, this is far from an easy question to answer. Apple? Maybe. Figs? Perhaps. What about a pomegranate?

    2.  You may remember that last year, we were asking you to vote for InterfaithFamily.com’s CEO, Ed Case, for Jewish Community Hero. No, I’m not going to ask you to vote for him again. Instead, I’m going to share a list of nominees you might want to vote for this year, all of whom are “heroes for their justice work combating racism, poverty and injustice.” The list, posted to Jewschool, was compiled by Kung Fu Jew (who admits to wearing “New York-tinted glasses”).

    3.  There’s a lot going on with the Occupy movement that is specifically Jewish. First, Keith Olbermann debunks the anti-Semitic charges of Occupy Wall Street (the relevant part starts at the 1 minute mark). Now then, with that settled, let’s look at some of the amazing Jewish practices coming out of the Occupy movement. This long, personal piece by Avi Fox-Rosen examines his reasons for being involved with leading the Kol Nidre service at Occupy Wall Street, and how it played his “incredibly ambivalent” Jewishness and atheism off his enjoyment of ritual and “traditional cantorial a capella singing” (known as chazzanus). And on Jewschool, a bit about how there came to be Jewish practice at Occupy Wall St, Occupy K St and elsewhere.

    4.  Many organizations, including ours, examine statistics, look to data to know if we’re having an impact. One such source was the last national Jewish population survey, done in 2000-2001. Over ten years later, another study hasn’t come along to update those numbers. Gary Rosenblatt, in The Jewish Week, asks, How Many U.S. Jews, And Who Cares?

    5.  You know who cares? Pat Buchanan. And he seems to have it all figured out. “In his new book, Suicide Of A Superpower, Pat Buchanan takes a look at the Jewish population of the United States and concludes that Americans Jews are disappearing because they decided, as a group, to have lots and lots of abortions.” Seriously. He blames the Jewish women who were among the leaders of the feminist movement and… oy, just read about it all here.

    6.  And in Israel a campaign has been launched, encouraging “parents of non-Jewish children to inform them of their [non-Jewish] status in childhood.” This stems from patrilineal descent, largely among Israel’s Russian population. And the implication, according to the campaign, is that patrilineal descent Jews are finding out that they’re “not Jewish” as adults, which means they need to convert to Judaism in order to get married. I wonder if this is a common issue or discovery in North America, where the Reform movement also holds by patrilineal descent?

    And there you go. Recent news in a nutshell.

    Birthright and Intermarriage

    An article hit the internet today that’s sure to ruffle some feathers. Written by Kiera Feldman, a “baptized child of intermarriage” who went on a Birthright trip in February of 2010, the article, “Operation Birthright,” supported by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and appearing in this week’s Nation magazine, examines the mission of Birthright trips.

    Of relevance to our readers are the discussions about Birthright’s creation, with goals that included ending (combating?) intermarriage.

    The story of Birthright begins with the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. The findings unleashed a panic within the halls of American Jewish institutions: 52 percent of Jews were marrying outside the faith. Steinhardt, a legendary hedge-fund manager, was among the Jewish community leaders who rallied to confront what soon became known as the “crisis of continuity,” characterized not only by intermarriage but by the weakening of Jewish communal ties such as synagogue membership and a waning attachment to Israel. A Goldwater Republican turned chair of the Democratic Leadership Council, Steinhardt wanted to make Jewish institutions more appealing to the young. He enlisted Yitz Greenberg, a well-known Orthodox rabbi and educator, as director of the foundation that would incubate Birthright. Reflecting on that 1990 survey some years later, Greenberg said, “I felt I’d been asleep at the switch as this disaster was coming.” Birthright trips, he hoped, would shore up a social order in decline.
    The originator of the Birthright idea was Yossi Beilin, a Labor Party stalwart and an instrumental figure in the Oslo Accords. Widely considered an archliberal and reviled by Israel’s right, Beilin is an unlikely figure to boast the moniker “godfather of Birthright.” In a recent phone interview, Beilin compared his worries about intermarriage and Jewish identity to “the personal feeling of an old man who wants to see that his family is still around.” Among Beilin’s top goals for Birthright: “to create a situation whereby spouses are available.” An ardent Zionist and longtime friend of Bronfman, Beilin unsuccessfully pitched Birthright to him and Steinhardt in the mid-1990s.

    Have you been on Birthright? What do you think?

    Young American Jews, Israel, and Intermarriage, Revisited

    I’m feeling a little vindicated after reading the Jewish Week’s recent editorial, Future Rabbis, Conflicted About Israel.

    Almost exactly a year ago, there was controversy in the Jewish media over Peter Beinart’s argument that young American Jews feel conflict between their liberalism and Zionism because of the policies of the Israeli government towards the Palestinians, resulting in less support for Israel. In a long blog post, Young American Jews, Israel, and Intermarriage, I disagreed with Steven M. Cohen’s response that the “primary driver” for young American Jews’ detachment from Israel was not Israeli policies, but instead was intermarriage.

    I’m feeling vindicated because in the recent editorial, the Jewish Week comments on recent news that a number of rabbinical students from many American rabbinical schools come back from their year of study in Israel feeling conflicted about the Jewish state. “Anecdotal evidence suggests that many are feeling some degree of alienation, consistent with widespread polls and reports about their peers throughout the American Jewish community.” “When spending extended time in Israel, young, idealistic American Jews who have been raised on liberal, humanitarian values rub up against the reality of a people struggling for survival while maintaining a democratic society.”

    If rabbinical students, from across the denominational spectrum, are feeling alienated from Israel, it seems to me that it’s time to reevaluate the idea that intermarriage is the main source of that problem.

    What They Brought Back

    We’re on a bit of a Birthright kick today.

    Have you seen this new anthology, What We Brought Back?  Edited by Wayne Hoffman, it’s a collection of essays by folks who have gone on Taglit-Birthright Israel trips. And it’s not just a look at what happened during their 10-day trip. Rather, it looks at what was happening in their lives that made them think that a 10-day trip would be a good idea and what’s been happening since they returned.

    In other words, we’re looking at the impact:

    Where the trip came in their Jewish journeys. Was it a turning point, was it a confirmation, was it a change, was it an about face on their Jewish journeys as young people?

    Unsurprisingly, as Birthright accepts all young Jews with at least one Jewish parent, some of the contributors to the book are from interfaith families.  They, along with all of the contributors, wrote personal essay and poems and shared photographs.

    One story is of love, conversion and wondering how a Jew by choice feels about claiming a “birthright.” Another reflects on how laughter is a common thread between the Jewish and Catholic sides of a family. A third sets the tone by sharing, with amusement, the difficulty Midwesterners have when they see the author’s name in writing.

    An author (performer) familiar to us at InterfaithFamily.com is also included, Ruby Marez.  She reflects on her interfaith and interracial background, and what it means in terms of Jewish identity.

    Anyway, it’s worth a read. Pick it up.

    And if I haven’t convinced you, check out the book reading at Strand Bookstore on Youtube:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HDOoeZMF_I ">http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HDOoeZMF_I " type="application/x-shockwave-flash" width="400" height="325">

    (Click for parts 2, 3, and 4.)

    Attitude Antennae

    My “attitude antennae” were buzzing this week – because of several notable expressions of attitudes, both negative and positive, about intermarriage.

    Neil Steinberg, a writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, took a cheap shot in a column about the Super Bowl TV ad for Groupon that has been widely criticized as insensitive to human rights violations in Tibet. What intermarriage has to do with that, I don’t know, but he does the usual equating intermarriage with assimilation: “Judaism is circling the drain, with Jews shrugging, intermarrying and forgetting to raise their children in the faith…”

    That’s what we usually hear from Israel, and there was another example of that this week – a member of the Knesset sponsored “Jewish Identity Day” in which many of the Knesset committee meetings discussed issues relating to Jewish identity, assimilation, intermarriage, and Jewish education. As reported in Arutz Sheva/Israel National News, one Knesset member equates Jewish women marrying Arab men as assimilation and says it can be prevented by intense education.

    But this week I also read the most positive comments about intermarriage that I’ve ever seen coming out of Israel. Rabbi Naamah Kelman, the dean of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, and her husband Dr. Elan Ezrachi, an educational consultant, wrote the following in Ha’aretz:

    Over the past 30 years, several demographic studies of Jewry in the United States have been published. For many years the dominant line was that mixed marriages were a disaster that would lead to a decline in the number of Jews. There is, however, another view that sees connections between Jews and non-Jews as in fact a possibility for expanding the definitions of identity and enlarging the ranks.

    Beyond the demographic hairsplitting, it appears there is a phenomenon of historic dimensions developing there: Instead of fleeing from Judaism, entering Judaism; instead of black and white definitions, “hybrid” definitions that enable surprising connections between Jews and non-Jews. These new definitions are expanding the boundaries of the tribe.

    While Judaism in Israel is moving further to the margins and concentrating mainly on whom to push out of the fold – the convert, the foreigner, the half-Jew or the new immigrant serving in the Israel Defense Forces – in American Judaism a dynamic of acceptance, embrace and widening circles is developing. This is another measure of the growing gap between Israeli society and the largest Jewish community in the world.

    Finally, Gary Rosenblatt in the New York Jewish Week feels positive about some gatherings of young Jews in Europe. Acknowledging that the typical view of Europe is “an ageing demographic threatened by intermarriage and assimilation,” he writes that many of the new Jewish start-ups in Europe “deal with intermarriage by, in a sense, ignoring it. Their programs tend to be open to everyone.”

    Barbara Spectre, the American-born director of  Paideia, refers to what is happening in Europe as “the dis-assimilation” of Jewish life, with even young people who are intermarried or not considered Jewish by halachic standards asserting their identity and exploring Jewish roots and culture. She calls for a change in “rhetoric and attitude” among Israeli and American Jewish leaders who refuse to “hear good news” about what she sees as “a great transformation taking place.”

    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.