Who Is a Jew and Who Is a Rabbi?

Who Is a Jew and Who Is a Rabbi? July 8, 2015
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Knesset Menorah. By Noam Chen for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.

The newly-appointed Israeli Minister of Religious Services, David Azulai, has said something stupid. This puts him well within the tradition of his ultra-Orthodox (Sephardic) Shas Party where saying something stupid is a daily event.

This stupid comment was stupid enough to be covered by the New York Times:

Speaking to Army Radio, the minister said, “Let’s just say there’s a problem as soon as a Reform Jew stops following the religion of Israel. I can’t allow myself to say that such a person is a Jew.”

He continued: “These are Jews that erred along the way, and we must ensure that every Jew comes back into the fold of Judaism, and accept everyone happily and with love.”

The stupidity of this remark is magnified by the fact that he’s wrong. Not spiritually wrong. He’s wrong by his own standards.

Jewish law considers anyone who is the child of a Jewish mother to be a Jew. Even Jews who convert to another religion are still considered Jews. This is not an obscure rule. There is an enormous body of Jewish law that addresses these issues.

When someone like Azulai says that Reform Jews are not Jews, he really means that Reform Judaism is not Judaism and that Reform rabbis are not real rabbis. Why this is news is what’s really surprising. Probably because of his venal language and the fact that he said it to a secular reporter.

There are Reform Jews who are not Jews by their lights. These are the Reform (and Conservative and Reconstructionist and Renewal) converts. Which brings me to conversion, which is the real issue in Israel.

As most people know, only Orthodox rabbis may conduct conversions in Israel. Orthodox Jews in general and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews in particular are extremely ungenerous with their conversion requirements. They demand of their converts full compliance with Jewish law. The Haredim take the strictest approach while more modern Orthodox rabbis are a tad more flexible. But the vast majority of Orthodox rabbis of any flavor are unlikely to perform conversions for people who intend to live as non-Orthodox Jews.

The previous Israeli government instituted a tiny, but potentially meaningful reform, when it decided to permit conversions by local rabbinical councils some of which are staffed by more moderate Orthodox rabbis. This might have made it a bit easier for the hundreds of thousands of “non-Jewish” Jews, mostly Russians of patrilineal Jewish descent. That decision was reversed this week. Conversion has now reverted to the central rabbinate’s monopoly, dominated by the most severe Haredi rabbis.

As a Secular Humanistic Jew, I don’t have anything to do with conversions. We view Judaism as a culture and we welcome all comers. We’re also more or less alone in this approach. Even the most liberal theistic Jews have their own rules and regulations for signing up. I remember a Reform rabbi (it might have been me) saying, “What? They’re going to go outside, put their hand on a rock and say, ‘I’m a Jew,’ and we’re supposed to accept that?”

Well…yes.

We don’t need to be an exclusive club. We are a tiny and ever-diminishing people whose numbers have just barely caught up with where we were before the Holocaust. You’d think we’d want to grow our ranks. As long as conversion is still the gold standard for acceptance in our little tribe, why wouldn’t Israel want to ease the way for hundreds of thousands of self-identifying Jews to make their Jewishness “official”? Unlike the Haredim, these Jews actually contribute something to the nation’s defense and economy. They’re already Jews in all the ways that should matter. They simply have the “wrong” maternal grandmother. It makes no sense.

Sigh. Since I embraced secular humanism, I’ve come to realize that a lot of what the Jews do makes no sense.

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