Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The value of being Jewish.

.ערך קיום יהודי

Jessica briefly mentioned in her previous post that she was instructed to get a letter from an American rabbi attesting to her Jewishness in order to receive a student visa. The whole notion is absurd because one doesn't need to be Jewish to be a student in Israel, and the fact that it would even come up is troubling and frustrating to Jessica and me. That the officer at the Ministry of the Interior would even think to ask for such confirmation (even in error) belies the gross neglect of religious freedom in this country. Sure, if Reform Judaism is treated as a separate faith (as suggested by Rabbi Yisrael Rozen), we could have equal rights, but so long as we claim Judaism as our own, progressive Jews in Israel will continue to face religious and legal barriers that fly in the face of Deuteronomy 16:20's invective, "צדק צדק תרדף" (Justice, justice shall you pursue).

This is because, if the Ministry really wanted to push the matter (which I don't expect), the authority of the American rabbi that Jessica finds would have to be examined. Perhaps Jessica's pedigree would be up for discussion. Of course, Jessica is unquestionably Jewish even by the most orthodox standards, but someone who (A) didn't have a rabbi, (B) didn't have a Jewish mother, or (C) wasn't Jewish would certainly have a hard time receiving this visa! I can't believe that even here this letter is required, but that it's asked for is indicative of a pro-Jewish bias that exists in Israel to such a large degree that it can't even be seen.

And what's it based on? Israel was founded as a Jewish country and has been struggling with that title for the past sixty years. People have been asking, "What does it mean to be Jewish?" for a very long time, but I doubt the question is often raised of, "What's the value of us being Jewish?" If a magic genie gave me the option of making Israel a true model of civil liberty, a bastion of peace in the region, an anti-war advocate, and a democracy that values the voices of the few and seeks to bring peace and security to the whole but lose its Jewish identity, I don't know what I would do. Is being Jewish so important that I would choose it over an automatic guarantee of ethics?

On the one hand, I believe that Judaism is a gateway to ethical living and that the Torah is a medium through which we can gain wisdom and Truth. On the other hand, I don't believe that Judaism and the Torah are unique in these roles but rather are specifically efficacious and beneficial to those who identify with them. Why are there Jews? I don't know. But I believe that it's good for the Jewish people for us to be Jewish, and insofar as the Jewish people has a strong track record of "getting it right" in terms of ethics and spirituality, I'm proud to espouse the values of my religion. Yet being Jewish is neither necessary nor sufficient to being ethical, and if ethics are my ultimate priority (and my support of Judaism is a support of unification and ethical living among and outside of our people), should not ethics (or, religiously speaking, perhaps even "pure" spirituality?) outweigh Jewish identity?

I don't know.

Take the example I laid out during Wexner Post 3 about giving money to the questionably Jewish organization that I believed in. Why does Judaism have to enter into the equation at all? We might cede that Jews have a tendency to be more likely to be involved in social action/progress than a non-Jew (though I'm far from claiming that as an existential truth), but nevertheless, I would never feel comfortable making such a decision based on religion alone.

And yet, I also struggle with the notion that not only Israel's orthodox Judaism has an obvious, occasionally unjust bias towards Jewish identity. Also our very own movement has struggled and continues to struggle with this concept, as do I. Take marriage between Jews and non-Jews as an example of assumptive priority of Jewish identity. As of right now, the "official" position of the Reform Movement is as follows:

"The Central Conference of American Rabbis, recalling its stand adopted in 1909 that mixed marriage is contrary to the Jewish tradition and should be discouraged, now declares its opposition to participation by its members in any ceremony which solemnizes a mixed marriage. The Central Conference of American Rabbis recognized that historically its members have held and continue to hold divergent interpretations of Jewish tradition.

In order to keep open every channel in Judaism and Kelal Yisra-el [the Jewish People] for those who have already entered into mixed marriage, the CCAR calls upon its members:

1. To assist fully in educating children of such mixed marriage as Jews;

2. To provide the opportunity for conversion of the non-Jewish spouse; and

3. To encourage a creative and consistent cultivation of involvement in the Jewish community and the synagogue."

However, a statement given by CCAR president Harry Danziger in 2006 at the CCAR convention complicates the Reform movement's stance:

"I look back thirty-three years to the Atlanta convention of 1973, called by some the Battle of Peachtree. There after years of debate and too often acrimony, a ten line resolution was passed opposing officiation at intermarriages. Pamphlets and articles attacking one side or the other abounded. There were even threats of a split in the Conference as there had been before over Zionism.

Five years later, in 1978, Alex Schindler, zichrono livracha, proposed a comprehensive outreach program through which we turned our attention, not only to weddings – the beginning of a new household – but to outcomes – the nature of the family thus created.

In 1983, there were passionate divisions in this Conference over the proposed resolution on children of intermarriage, what has been termed “the patrilineal” resolution. The debate was intense. At the end, we broke new ground in response to new realities, and we proclaimed that, for us, the gender of the Jewish parents would not be the determinant of who is a Jew. Most of us came to live by it. Some still question it. That is part of who we are.

Move forward yet another eleven years. In 1994, in Philadelphia, I was invited to be part of a major program at the convention. Two rabbis and two lay leaders spoke. I was invited to speak on why and how I do in fact officiate at intermarriages. And the president of the Conference at that time, Shim Maslin, who deserves great credit for that program, was a leading proponent of the 1973 resolution. Beit Hillel – They studied and listened to the views of the other side.

This week we have workshops and programs that deal with how we respond to intermarriage, how we engage and involve, yes, and honor, the non-Jewish partner who lives as a Jew albeit without conversion – what some of us call a ger toshav – what I sometimes call a “common law Jew”. The official position may continue to be a ten line resolution in Atlanta, but the practice has become a consensus that there is more than one respectable way to deal with those issues."

So, in combining these two sources, we find that the Reform movement "officially" discourages interfaith marriages and, in the case of an interfaith marriage, encourages the raising of Jewish children, participation in the Jewish community, and the conversion of the non-Jewish spouse. Individual rabbis (including the president of the CCAR) may (and many do) disagree with any of these points and act according to their conscience. So there's an internal struggle in the movement about whether it's of existential value to marry a Jew.

What seems to be agreed upon is that a rabbi should encourage participation in a Jewish community and, ideally, the raising of Jewish children. A point of contention is whether a non-Jewish spouse should be encouraged to convert. Rabbi Richard Address, who was at the Wexner institute last month, told me that sometimes he's had non-Jewish members of his community angry because--in their perception--Rabbi Address was pushing them to convert; and he's also had members of his community angry because--in their perception--Rabbi Address wasn't pushing them enough to convert. Even on a personal level, this is a tricky situation.

But my question is: If a couple is raising their children Jewish and participating in the Jewish community, what value is there to the community for the non-Jewish partner to convert to Judaism? Obviously, if a person discovers a personal meaning in converting to Judaism, she should follow her convictions on whether to convert. But communally, what statement are we making by saying that, all other factors being equal, Jew A is more valuable to us than non-Jew B?

I can't ignore the fact that a Jewish identity is neither sufficient nor necessary for active participation in Jewish family or communal life. Nor can I ignore the fact that Jewish identity makes that participation significantly more accessible (or that an active non-Jewish identity can disrupt a family's Jewish participation). So, is emphasis on conversion a numbers game? "Sure, we agree that a non-Jew can raise Jewish children, but since a Jew is more likely to do so, we want as many Jews raising children as we can."

But that brings us right back to the original question (and please forgive me for traveling in circles; if it's not clear, this forum is largely an opportunity for me to work through complex issues) - Why be Jewish in the first place? Israel, the Jewish state, has done some terrible things. Jews all over the world act immorally and non-Jews act morally. What's the big deal?

Let's cut to the chase: I think that there is a big deal, but I can't back that up. I don't know where the feeling comes from, but I recognize that Jewish history is full of innovation and ethical progress that is worthy of praise. I also recognize that the Jewish community is like a family, and there's no necessary reason to be born into a family; one is simply a part of a family and inherently loves it. So, I suppose I have a blind love for the Jewish people and want to see us live morally and progressively in as many ways as possible.

Does that justify the following caveat in the HUC rabbinical school application?

"In addition to the above requirements, please note that applicants and their spouses, partners, fiancés or fiancées must be Jewish by birth or conversion."

In other words, if I admit to having a non-Jewish girlfriend, I won't be admitted into HUC.

Now, this statement doesn't define Judaism, nor was it ever mentioned during my entire application process. I have heard of students omitting the fact that they have non-Jewish partners and getting into HUC regardless (though as I understand, it generally doesn't happen that someone graduates from HUC with a non-Jewish partner). Nevertheless, the statement is there: Rabbis should have Jewish partners.

This is a topic I discussed with some Wexner Fellows in Stowe. Does a rabbi need to have a non-Jewish partner?

On the one hand, a congregational rabbi is meant to be a leader and example in the Jewish community. There are many Jews, one of my Wexner colleagues included, who would expect a rabbi's partner to participate fully in all congregational activities and have a strong Jewish identity that can be shared with the community. The rabbi's should be a model of a strong Jewish family, and the rabbi should be able to have an uncompromisingly Jewish household to raise children and welcome guests.

On the other hand, if I were talking about anyone else, I would continue to repeat that all those things can happen in an interfaith marriage. A non-Jewish partner can contribute to the Jewish community, participate in a Jewish household, and raise Jewish children. We often stress that rabbis are just like everyone else ... only with more specific knowledge about Jewish topics ... so why should the household of a rabbi be any different? If anything, a rabbi would be virtually guaranteed to have a Jewish household regardless of the religion (or non-religion) of the rabbi's partner, so a rabbi, in a way, could be given even more leniency to cohabitate with whomever she desires.

Furthermore, not all rabbis are communal leaders. Some rabbis become professors, work in Hillel, serve with non-profit organizations, teach at day schools, etc. Are we saying that a Jewish professor has to be married to a Jew if the word "rabbi" comes before (or after) the word "doctor" in his title?

Moreover, as I've mentioned, being Jewish doesn't necessitate that someone is going to be involved in a Jewish community. A rabbi could have a Jewish partner who is entirely disengaged from the Jewish community. If we are looking for Jewish engagement, perhaps there should be a "participation test" for the rabbinical school applicant's partner rather than a "religion test."

Ultimately, the question is: Are we comfortable with playing a numbers game with people's family lives? Are we comfortable saying that, because it is more likely that a Jew will raise a Jewish family, we should encourage Jew-Jew partnerships? I might be able to make that statement if I believed that being Jewish was an existentially superior state than being a non-Jew. I believe that being Jewish is special and unique and wonderful and should be promoted and supported. I believe that being Christian/Muslim/Buddhist/Sikh/Agnostic/Humanist/Unitarian/Alternative/Druid/Tribal/Hindu/Etc. is special and unique and wonderful and should be promoted and supported. I believe, ultimately, that being moral and promoting peace is the greatest value to be promoted and supported and that our focus should be on creating welcoming communities that foster positive interpersonal relations on all levels - familial, communal, and inter-communal.

It's a tough call, whether Jews should have a mission to promote Judaism. As a future rabbi (and according to my own beliefs), I say that Judaism should be supported and that it's generally a good thing for people (especially Jews) to involve themselves in a Jewish community. But, if someone is fulfilled by participating in another community and is going to work to bring peace to the world, I can only offer my blessings and wish them peace.

1 comment:

Religion and State in Israel said...

Thanks Daniel for sharing your reflections in your recent post.

I wasn't aware of HUC's 'Jewish partner' requirement.

Seems like Jessica is getting a 'taste' of the side of Israel most tourists don't see.

Officially, there is no need for proof of Jewishness for a student visa - but unofficially...

Some say the foundation for this 'non-policy' was formed during the days when Shas controlled the Interior Ministry. (ps - Who just announced his interest in running for Jerusalem Mayor? Aryeh Deri)

If the Ministry of Interior is the 'intersection' between the roads of religion and state in Israel -- the Rabbinate is like lying down smack in the middle of the highway!

Joel Katz

Religion and State in Israel