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January 9, 2014
Toward the end of my trip to Israel, we toured parts of the Old City of Jerusalem. At one point, we came across a synagogue and briefly poked our heads inside.
One Orthodox Jew came up to me and invited me to pray with them.
“I can’t, I’m in a rush,” I politely responded.
“Well, are you Jewish?”
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your mother’s name?”
I know this line of questioning all too well.
“I’ll pray for you.”
I don’t know what he’s praying, but I know why.
He prays for me for the same reason that an Orthodox Jew in the old Jewish ghetto of Venice told me my first time doing tefillin was my “real bar mitzvah.”
It’s the same reason I constantly have to explain to people why I’m not “half-Jewish.” My mother isn’t Jewish and, by extension, neither am I.
At least, according to the Torah: “You shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughter to his son, and you shall not take his daughter for your son, for he will cause your child to turn away from Me, and they will worship the gods of others.” (Deuteronomy 7:3–4)
In summary, a Jewish child’s religion is determined by the religion of the mother. On a spiritual level, such a restriction ensures a Jew’s “essence” is pure. On a practical level, a child’s religion is obvious if determined by the mother. We always know who the mother is, but we only sometimes know the identity of the father.
Either way, it is meant to ensure the continuation of the Jewish people. But nowadays, this old rule works against the goal it initially purported. It alienates the next generation and furthers distasteful sentiments that “diluting the bloodline” is something to be avoided. This from a religion that purports that every life is sacred. (The Talmud says “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”)
Why does anybody else get to tell me how spiritual I am, whether I believe in God or not or whether I am more or less a Jew than the one sitting next to me in synagogue?
Why do my mother’s life and experiences negate my life as a Jew?
I’m Jewish, not half-Jewish. I didn’t have half a bar mitzvah ceremony, half a confirmation ceremony. I don’t go to church, I don’t know the hymns and I don’t believe Jesus Christ as our Lord and savior. Though I celebrate Christmas and Easter, they are a matter of tradition and joining with celebration with my mother’s side of the family. It has never had religious connotation for me, and my family, especially my mother, would not expect it to.
I’d have no problem praying in a Conservative synagogue since I underwent a mikvah in my childhood. But the fact that that was necessary in the first place did not give me a healthy frame of mind with which to enter the Jewish community.
|Zach at the Western Wall in Jerusalem|