Who is a Jew, and who decides -A message from Cantor Kate
What does it mean to be Jewish? Who is a Jew? I’ve been thinking about these perennially interesting but vexing questions again lately. I’ve been preparing the lesson plans for my Introduction to Judaism course; I plan to invite students to consider all that they know on the topic and see if they can arrive at any conclusions. Meantime, the poorly-named Anti-Semitism Committee (Committee to Respond to anti=Semitism and Israel-bashing?) has begun meeting again to formulate possible responses to the national rise in anti-Semitic incidents and hate crimes in general. The questions about Jewish identity look different as I look at them from these two different perspectives.
Who is a Jew? What is a Jew? It depends who is answering the question. Within the Jewish world there are frequently vigorous disagreements. If you are not a religiously-observant Jew, or if your religious observance is not what someone thinks it “ought” to be, your Judaism may come into question. There are always some people who are “more observant” who feel their Judaism is more correct and authentic. Sadly, Jews who do not observe many of the strictures of Jewish law also sometimes fall into the bad habit of assuming that the “real Jews” are the men with peyot (side-locks) and the women with sheitls (wigs). Then there’s the question of parentage. In Reform Judaism we regard a person with a gentile mother and a Jewish father as Jewish as long as that person is raised or educated in Judaism. This puts us out of sync with the halakhic tradition, which requires matrilineal descent. Yet in the time of the Bible, Jews traced their connections through the line of their father. We would not question the Jewishness of the descendants of Moses (should we know who they were) – yet Moses’s wife was not Jewish by origin, and we do not know if she ever converted. (The Talmudic rabbis say she did, but they lived and wrote a millennium or more after she is supposed to have lived.)
Conversion is also a matter of much division in the present day. The Orthodox authorities in Israel, for instance, refuse to accept any conversion not overseen by them. (In other contexts, this would be known as a “protection racket.”) In this country, different movements of Judaism (Orthodox and Conservative) frequently refuse to accept a conversion not done by their own, despite the halakhah, which clearly states that any three Jews who understand the laws of conversion may oversee conversions.
All in all, we Jews like to argue about who we are. Yet, when we are faced with anti-Semitism, we generally band together. Suddenly the person with a Jewish mother who eats bacon cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur is as Jewish as the Chasid in black garb who wouldn’t eat out of a dish in the other one’s kitchen, and the Reform convert who may not even have dipped in a mikvah is as Jewish as the Orthodox convert who knows that kashrut requires her to get a new toothbrush for Passover. We may argue incessantly about what we think it means to be Jewish, but we know we cannot let our enemies do the defining for us. Nonetheless, the way our enemies answer the question ends up affecting how we define ourselves. Under Hitler, the question “Who is a Jew” had different answers at different times, but ultimately anyone with even one Jewish grandparent was identified as Jewish. Jews who had converted to Christianity were not exempt either, since the Jews were assumed by the Nazis to be a “race,” and thus could not escape their genetic origins. Jews, too, have come believe that a Jew who converts to Christianity is still Jewish “underneath. After all, they may have had a forced conversion.
Anti-Semitism has morphed over the ages – from a hatred of Jews because of their religion, to a hatred of Jews because of their supposed “race,” to (many would argue) a hatred of Jews “because of their nation state“ (as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it). Jews, meanwhile, have continually redefined what it means to be Jewish. What is the point, after all, of saying to a Nazi, “That person isn’t Jewish – his mother wasn’t a Jew”, when the Nazi has already decided that the person is Jewish and is going to his death? If anti-Semites say Jews are a race – well then, we’re a race and proud of it! If Christian zealots say we’re a religion, well then, we’re a religion, and you can’t make us stop worshipping the way we choose.
The “nation state” hatred, however, has succeeded more thoroughly than any other iteration of anti-Semitism in dividing Jews from each other. Nation states are never perfect, and their actions are only as good as whoever is in charge. The State of Israel is far from perfect, and many Jews feel keenly that it is not reflecting their ideals. Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitism; I would argue that it is our responsibility. But the demonization of the State of Israel, the accusation
that Israel is the Third Reich all over again and the Palestinians
are now the Jews – this is anti-Semitism in new clothes, and it is unsupportable. Rabbi Sacks offers this explanation: “I was recently talking to some schoolchildren and they asked me: is criticizing Israel anti-Semitism? I said No and I explained the difference. I asked them: Do you believe you have a right to criticize the British government? They all put up their hands. Then I asked, “Which of you believes that Britain has no right to exist? No one put up their hands. Now you know the difference, I said, and they all did.”
So – who is a Jew? What is a Jew? In recent years, American Jews have had the luxury of defining themselves. Now, faced with a rise in anti-Semitism around the world and in our own front yard, we find ourselves needing to define ourselves in opposition to the definitions of those who hate us. Historians have a word for this: they call it, “Dissimilation.” It’s easy to assimilate when no one hates you. But when the old lies reappear, Jews find themselves once again appreciating
the value of being Jewish together. As Professor Ritchie Robertson writes, dissimilation is “the affirmation of Jewishness in response to an unwelcoming society. It inquires into new ways of being Jewish and reinventing Jewish identity.”
There is something at once troubling and encouraging about this. Does Jewish identity depend on the hatred of anti-Semites? If no one hated the Jews, if tropes about Jews as evil were not so peculiarly virulent, would Judaism persist? As a “Jew by choice,” I have to answer “No” to the first question, and “Yes” to the second. The richness of Jewish tradition, Jewish liturgy and literature, Jewish values, Jewish culture, all make it attractive, meaningful, and worth perpetuating. But it cannot be denied that anti-Semitism is a force that causes Jews to draw together and to see the value of Jewishness that they may have previously disregarded. It was the experience of the anti-Semitism behind the Dreyfuss case in France that caused Edmond Fleg to return to his Jewish identity, writing what is now considered one of the great clarion calls of Jewish identity, a text we find in our Mishkan T’filah siddur: “I am a Jew because…” (You can look it up here: http://orthoprax.blogspot.com/2005/08/why-i-am-jew-by-edmond-fleg.html)
What does it mean to you to be Jewish? How would you complete Edmond Fleg’s sentence? For most of us there are many answers – more even than the thirteen that Monsieur Fleg listed. Our answers may be religious or spiritual, cultural, historical, or familial. We owe to Mordecai Kaplan, founder
of Reconstructionist Judaism, the insight that Judaism is the continually evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. Kaplan, also the originator of the Jewish Community Center, saw that Judaism was always changing as society changes around it. Individuals change; the Jewish identity of each one of us personally is constantly unfolding. However, we must not allow the forces of hatred to make the decision for us. As anti-Semitism rises, it behooves us to gather together –and to count everyone in. Within the tent, we have the right to define ourselves and not to have someone else – least of all, someone Jewish – telling us we are “too Jewish” or “not Jewish enough.” But as we face out of the tent, our position must be, “We all are Jewish, and we, not the haters, get to say what that is.”