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Who's a Jew? Redefining Jewish Identity for the 21st Century

Posted: 08/16/10 03:02 AM ET

There is arguably no more challenging question for the Jewish community than, "Who's a Jew?" It continually arises, over issues ranging from politics (most recently, the ultra-Orthodox control over Israeli conversions) to entertainment and even sports (is Amar'e or isn't he?). One thing is certain: the overwhelming majority of Jews globally were born into it. There's more than a little truth to the expression "members of the tribe."

For those not born Jewish, joining the Jewish religion requires overcoming high barriers, even within the more liberal streams of Judaism. To put it in its simplest terms: for men, blood must be drawn. Get past the circumcision, the studying, and the meetings with rabbis to become an official Jew, and there is often still, shamefully, some other Jew questioning a convert's sincerity or authenticity.

Ultimately I believe the guidelines of "Who's a Jew?" must be expanded if the Jewish community -- particularly the American Jewish community -- is to remain relevant well into the 21st century.

There's precedent for changing the answer to "Who's a Jew?" In Biblical times, our forbears inherited Judaism through their fathers. In the Rabbinic age, it switched to the mothers, and the notion of "matrilineal descent" is still deeply ingrained in much of world Jewry today. But in modern times, the Reconstructionist movement (in 1968) and then the much larger Reform movement (in 1983) accepted Jewish identity through either parent -- provided that the children were raised and educated as Jews.

That bold decision to accept patrilineal descent has enabled literally hundreds of thousands of individuals to call themselves "Jewish" who previously couldn't, which many Jews support but others believe is a terrible disaster for the Jewish people. At the time, and for years after, the Reform movement was accused of splitting the Jewish people in two. But the reality is that we were always more than just two kinds of Jewry.

Today, while there are still only a few different synagogue denominations, there are hundreds of ways for Jews to express their Jewish identity. And that diversity could bode well for the Jewish future, because the American belief in the "marketplace of ideas" has extended to religions as well. Last year's "Faith in Flux" study from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that "about half of American adults have changed religious affiliation at least once during their lives."

Unfortunately, until now the religion-switching that Pew identified has meant a net loss for Judaism. It makes sense, considering how much easier it is to leave Judaism than to enter! But the past does not have to dictate the future. If only we could "open the gates" of Judaism, as the late researcher Gary Tobin advocated, and offer all the various ways of being Jewish, many more people might choose to join us.

Absorbing large waves of newcomers is a scary proposition for many Jews, even in Israel, a country that has proven that it can do it over and over again. For American Jews, particularly the majority who are not religiously observant but are still connected culturally or "ethnically," the notion that anyone would actually be attracted to Judaism often seems baffling, though it shouldn't. In many cases, newcomers see the values in our traditions even better than those of us who grew up in the community.

This inability to graciously accept newcomers is a phenomenon I call "Born-Jewish Privilege." It is a Born-Jewish Privilege to be able to ask someone, immediately upon learning that he or she is a convert, "You mean you actually chose to become Jewish?" -- even as an attempted joke. And it is a Born-Jewish Privilege to then turn around (at perhaps the very same event!) and ask the non-Jewish spouse of a Jew, "Do you plan to convert?"

It is a Born-Jewish Privilege to not do a single thing Jewish all year -- not attend synagogue, not observe Shabbat, not donate to Jewish causes -- yet feel completely 100-percent Jewish while at the same time questioning the authenticity of an intermarried household where the non-Jewish parent is doing all of those things in order to instill a Jewish identity in his or her child.

Overcoming Born-Jewish Privilege will be very difficult, because the privileged are always loath to give up their status. But pointing out that the privilege even exists, by a simple accident of birth, is the first step. Helping Jews recognize that there's something worth sharing about Judaism with the rest of the world seems like another logical step. That Amar'e Stoudemire's recent Jewish journey would provoke such fascination in the Jewish community a full decade after Madonna embraced Kabbalah, or that Chelsea Clinton marrying a Jew would require so much open soul-searching about Jewish intermarriage when more than half of all American households containing a Jewish spouse today are intermarriages, means we're still stuck in the same place as we were decades ago, without providing increased access for more people to make the Jewish journey with us.

In most cases, it doesn't really matter "Who's a Jew," because it's rarely an issue of halakhah (Jewish law). If Amar'e wants to read from the Torah at a Conservative synagogue during Shabbat services, we'll worry about it then. Odds are good that he doesn't want that. Odds are also good that Jews will trip over themselves helping him find what he's looking for, because he's a superstar. (And as a long-suffering Knicks fan, I have no problem with that.) But what about the million non-Jews married to Jews in the U.S., almost all of whom are not famous like Amar'e? Or the children and young adults from intermarried families? What is the Jewish community doing proactively to incorporate them? Still too little.

Some have attempted to find special names for the non-Jews among us, like ger toshav (resident alien), but how about, for those who want it, "Jewish"? Intermarried families raising Jewish children are, as Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, simply calls them, "Jewish families."

The Jewish community does not have a unifying creed that can easily be signed onto, the way you can call yourself Christian by accepting Jesus as Savior. There's a Jewish movement that accepts the Torah as the exact word of God, and a Jewish movement that denies the existence of God; there are Jews for whom Zionism is their most important belief, and Jews who reject the establishment of the modern State of Israel as immoral. There is scant little we agree on, and we need to define ourselves to newcomers based on what we are, not what we're not. The Biblical Ruth had a simple credo as her "conversion" to Judaism: "Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God." The "people" in that phrase came before God for a reason. Would it be so bad for the Jews if we reverted back to that kind of conversion?

Or perhaps we can draw our credo from Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, who is quoted as having said, "I consider as Jewish anyone who is meshuge [crazy] enough to call themselves 'Jewish.'"

 
 
 

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