Michael Richards, Yossi Beilin and Who’s Jewish?

There’s been an interesting confluence of events over the past several weeks that raise the question, “Who’s Jewish?”

First there was the media firestorm about comedian Michael Richards, the beloved Kramer from the TV show Seinfeld, having made racist comments at an LA comedy club. Other than being horrified as I assume most others were, I didn’t pay much attention to that news blitz, until reports started coming out that Richards’ publicist was saying that Richards considered himself to be Jewish. As reported in the Houston Chronicle, for example, Richards, though not born of Jewish parents and not having converted to Judaism, “believes in the tenets of Judaism and considers himself Jewish.” Other than a first reaction questioning whether it would be a good thing if Richards were Jewish, I didn’t pay much attention to that issue either, until a bloggers’ blitz started up arguing that Richards could not be Jewish if his parents weren’t and he hadn’t converted.

That reminded me that at InterfaithFamily.com we hear many comments, usually from non-Jewish parents who are raising their children as Jews, along the lines of “I feel a little bit Jewish” or “I feel more and more Jewish as time goes by” or “I’m sort-of Jewish, aren’t I?” Rabbi Kerry Olitzky wrote a wonderful article for our Web Magazine, Doing the Conversion “Two-Step”, also included in our book, explaining how many people experience a “conversion of the heart” long before they formally convert, if indeed they ever do.

It doesn’t serve the Jewish community’s interests, in my opinion, to jump to a conclusion that a person can’t be Jewish if his parents weren’t and he or she hasn’t converted. In fact I wrote an essay, Redefine Jewish Peoplehood, for the Spring 2000 issue of Reform Judaism Magazine, arguing that “we should adopt a policy of ‘total inclusion’ of the intermarried by broadening the definition of Jewish peoplehood to include both Jews and their non-Jewish partners.”

That brings me to Yossi Beilin. Years ago we reprinted his Thoughts on Secular Conversion: An Important Alternative to Religious Conversion. A few days ago, Ha’aretz reported that Beilin, a member of Israel’s Knesset, has introduced a bill to recognize as Jewish those in Israel with a Jewish father (traditionally, only children of a Jewish mother are recognized as Jews) and to establish a process of secular conversion. As reported in Ha’aretz, someone would be considered Jewish who “has joined the Jewish people in a non-religious process and has linked his or her fate with the Jewish people, and is not a member of another religion.” Beilin is quoted as saying, “If people see themselves as Jewish… why should the state define them as not Jewish.” The article continues,

Beilin’s idea of secular conversion, which he first raised in 1999, involves joining the Jewish people by means of activities in the Jewish community and maintaining a Jewish lifestyle. Committees would be established to determine what demands would be made of those who wished to join the Jewish people, Beilin proposes, “such as elementary knowledge of Hebrew and checking there are no extraneous interests.”

Beilin said the central consideration in accepting people to Judaism by means of secular conversion would be a family tie to Jews.

So while I can’t comment on the sincerity of Michael Richards’ feelings, maybe his publicist’s argument isn’t so far-fetched. Maybe he should be considered Jewish, after all.

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