More Who Is a Jew


A month ago I blogged about the “who is a Jew” questionthat arose from the tragic attack on Gabrielle Giffords. My main point was this:

It behooves everyone in the Jewish community, Orthodox included, to regard Gabrielle Giffords as a Jew for all purposes except where halachic status matters. Many would say that the entire community benefits from having a staunch supporter of Israel in the US Congress, for example. When halachic status is important, it can be dealt with. A Jew to whom halachic status is important in a marriage partner, for example, can choose not to marry someone who does not measure up to his or her halachic standards, or the non-halachic Jew can convert according to those same standards. It would be a major advance if the idea took hold that the Jewish community consists of Jews who are halachic and who are not halachic and that issues of halachic status could be dealt with when they arise.

The Forward issue dated today has two related articles of interest. My former colleague Rabbi Sue Fendrick, in Beyond ‘Yes or No’ Jewishness,
seems to agree with me. She makes the interesting point that the State of Israel recognizes the advantages of distinguishing “Jewish for what purpose?” – the state’s eligibility rules for immigration and for ritual status are different. I loved her statement,

… we gain nothing by ignoring or failing to name the ways that an individual’s Jewishness “counts” – whether they live a Jewish life and identify as a Jew, come from a Jewish family or are “half-Jewish,” or are simply identified by other Jews as being “one of us.” … Simple yes/no definitions of Jewishness are inadequate to the task of naming reality. We need to make room for descriptions that tell us about Jewishness as it is, not obscure its realities and complexities.

Rabbi Andy Bachman, in Patrilineal Promise and Pitfalls, suggests that children raised as Jews who are not considered Jews outside of the Reform movement because their mothers are not Jewish should be taken to the mikveh for conversion by Reform rabbis by the age of Bar of Bat Mitzvah. The problem with that approach is that the Jews who don’t consider those children Jewish, wouldn’t recognize such a conversion if it were under Reform auspices. If Reform conversions were so recognized, I would be in favor of this kind of process, or even of incorporating conversion into a bris or baby naming ceremony. Sadly this is not in the cards.

About Ed Case

Ed Case is Founder of InterfaithFamily and works at IFF Headquarters in Newton, MA.

5 thoughts on “More Who Is a Jew”

  • Ms. Hale –

    Reform Rabbis shouldn’t have any discussion particularly with their patrilineal members in particular.  Acceptance of a Reform Congregation’s members within the wider Jewish community is the congregation’s problem.  It is a far more general problem for its membership than anything relating to patrilineal members.  Options for members who want wider acceptance ought to be explored within that general context.  There’s no reason to foist it upon one group in particular.

    I am a little baffled, because I thought that Reform’s position on this, given their stated and defended policies, ought to be obvious.  Two Reform Rabbi’s have independently described it to me in exactly the way I have represented – recognition of their members is a general problem, of which patrilineal members are just an instance.  It seems to me there’s no reason for any adjustment to this position.  The issue of “portability” is a more general problem Reform Rabbis and their congregants deal with all the time.

    My wife read Rabbi Bachman’s article.  Her point of view was that it was unclear whether Rabbi Bachman was advocating anything.  She felt it was even unclear what point, if any, Rabbi Bachman was intending to make.  She’s probably right – this is a discussion led astray by an article in need of an editor.

  • I am glad that Ed Case posted these articles. They were very interesting and generated many comments.

    As the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, I can assure all posters that most half-Jewish people would oppose forcing Reform patrilineal children to convert at age 12, while excusing matrilineal children from conversion. The injustice and inequity are very apparent to us.

    Regarding Rep. Giffords, I was very disturbed to see some Jewish message board participants on the web debating whether patrilineal Reform Giffords (Jewish father, Christian mother) was “Jewish enough” for the Jewish community to offer refuah shleimah (complete healing) prayers for her while she was lying in intensive care with a bullet wound in her head. I hope that anyone seeing such thread will rebuke those posters.

  • Actually, many Conservative rabbis will accept a Reform conversion done under those circumstances. A Reform rabbi did just that with my niece and nephew before their bat and bar mitzvah, and it meant that they could then participate in their cousins Conservative bat mitzvahs. It’s not perfect, but I think having a conversion like that does give those kids a more “portable” Jewish identity. At the very least, I think Reform rabbis need to explain to children in their congregation who are of patrilineal descent what the view of the greater Jewish community is, so that at least know what they are facing. I have heard too many stories of people raised as Jewish, with a non-Jewish mother, who are later shocked to find some segment of the Jewish community questioning their authenticity.

  • To what end should Rabbi Bachman’s suggestion be taken?  As a requirement?  As a suggestion?  Or, merely, as an option?  I think he means it as a requirement, although the argument he gives only supports Conservative conversion in such cases as an option. 

    In general, I think it’s a terrible mistake for the Reform movement to treat their members of patrilinial descent differently just to make a few other Jews happy about the policy.  It risks alienating their own members even before those members have a chance to be alienated by more Orthodox Jews. 

    I can’t help wonder if people who think this is a good idea think of it from the kid’s point of view.  There he is, studying with their friends, when, whoosh, the Rabbi pulls him aside to tell him he’s got to do this too, because his mother, instead of his father, isn’t halachically Jewish.  That’s just not Reform Judaism.

  • I love what you are saying here: It’s so important to include people under the Jewish tent and to welcome newcomers fully. But I wonder why we even care what the ultra-orthodox/orthodox/conservative rabbis and “halachic” Jews in those camps really think of us. (Are all those Jews of those various stripes following halacha exactly? What does that even mean?)

    Though I was raised “conservadox” (I attended an orthodox school and a conservative shul and kept kosher), I have since gone through several stages of involvement and separation from the Jewish world and practice. Right now, I seem to be in an involvement phase, and enjoy the reconstructionist community I’ve joined. I could care less what my former rabbis and teachers and my parents think of my current practice. I don’t keep kosher–that’s my business. I married a non-Jewish man (an athiest)–also my business. My community is defined by itself–the people who make it a true community. What’s great about us is that we don’t judge each other’s choices. What makes us Jewish is lots of things–too many to delineate here. But one important thing is that we continue Jewish traditions (in our own ways) and that we continue to grapple with what they mean to us.

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