Who Isn’t a Jew?


In the aftermath of the terrible attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, there has been a lot of discussion in the Jewish press about the “who is a Jew” issue. Two and a half weeks ago I blogged that it was a shame that it took a tragedy to get leading Jewish commentators like the editors of the Jerusalem Post to write that a non-halachic but self-identifying Jew like Giffords should not be excluded and that “many ‘non-Jews’ are much more Jewish than their ‘Jewish’ fellows.”

Now the editors of the Forward have offered Who Isn’t a Jew? but they don’t give a satisfactory answer. They write that there is a disconnect between religious standards and the people’s behavior: Giffords, who has a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, is no more Jewish according to traditional Jewish law than Chelsea Clinton, but is being widely treated as a Jew across the country. The editors say this is cause for cheer, because tolerance and inclusion are good, but also cause for dismay — and that’s where they go wrong. They lament that intermarriage leads to fewer Jewish families, when the Boston 2005 demographic study concluded that at least in that community, intermarriage was leading to more Jewish families, not less. And they lament the divide on this issue between the Orthodox and everyone else.

There is a solution to the halachic divide. 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.

Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic. I thought, after last year’s GA, that attitudes were perhaps turning more positive towards intermarriage, but the Forward editorial is a setback. Lamenting that intermarriage leads to fewer Jewish families and that inclusion may cause the communal tent to collapse is self-fulfilling: young interfaith couples are not going to want to associate with a community that regards them as undermining and destructive. And it certainly won’t encourage those on the traditional end of the spectrum to be more tolerant and inclusive of non-halachic Jews.

About Ed Case

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

4 thoughts on “Who Isn’t a Jew?”

  •   Shalom again,
      I forgot to express a warm Blessing to you Judith and your family.In English the
    Blessing is,” Blessed is the new comer “. May the Sabbath Bride,the Schechina,
    the union of the physical world with the spiritual,the sefira of Ha Shem be with
    you and your family this Shabbat.
      Oh and by the way,Gabrielle Giffords is Jewish.

  •   Shalom l’chem,
      A Jew is anyone crazy enough to want to be a Jew.Then comes the hard part of
    being a Jew.It is called,”Study”.Study and more study, with book after book to
    read on how to be a Jew.There is the weekly reading of the Torah.Just when you
    think you understand the weekly portion,you find out that there are deeper,and
    deeper levels of understandings of the weekly portion.O’l vey,it never ends.Then
    there is the Talmud.And you realize that the Talmud has so many volumes.You will
    never be able to read them all.Yet the clear logic of the Talmud leads leads you
    on and on.Then one day you realize that you understand what Ahavet Israel means.And you feel it with every breath that have become apart of Ha Am.Yes
    now you are a Jew.

  • I applaud you for stating the obvious — the Jewish community resides under a large umbrella that includes halakhic and non-halakhic Jews.  There are so many ways we can divide the community — liberal and conservative, this Israel stance versus an opposing stance — and with each division we weaken ourselves.  Your call to recognize our differences and to live together recognizing that movement is possible between our sides when desired or necessary is welcome.  Ahavat Israel, the love of all our fellow Jews, can only bring us strength.

  • Here, here.  The discrimination you mention towards interfaith couples is exactly the kind that has given my husband a bad taste for the Jewish community in the city where we live.  I am Jewish and had been active in Jewish organizations until we moved here, where I experienced dumbfounded looks that I could be a Jew despite my lack of a recognizably Jewish last name. (I say ‘recognizably Jewish’ because my maiden name was often confused for a non-Jewish name, despite coming from a Jewish background.)
    It is very difficult to continue to be involved with a community that treats you indifferently because you don’t fit the mold it will accept.  For the first time in my life, I am able to understand why individual Jews would choose to distance themselves from a community that I found enjoyable and fulfilling until I moved here.  Will I want my children to be a part of a community that discriminates based on things that are easily misleading, like a last name or skin color?  Was I blithely ignoring something that takes place all the time because I felt included?

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