From tragedy there is somtimes greatness. The tragedy is intermarriage. The greatness is that it produced a person like Susan. More about her later.
The Torah clearly forbids Jews from marrying non Jews. Until very recently, even the most unobservant Jewish parent was abhorred when a child wanted to marry someone out of the faith. Nonetheless throughout history there have been Jews who have ‘stepped out’ and intermarried. These were relatively rare occurrences that were dealt with communally by rejection. It was probably a mutual feeling. Those Jews and their offspring are mostly lost to us.
Part of the reason it was so rare is because of the historic anti-Semitism on the part of host cultures. Jews were pretty much despised by non Jews and even resented for their success. As such they were often ghettoized to the point of being punished for leaving their home turf. Marriage to a Jew was often considered a crime to them. It was against the law in many of these societies for a Christian to marry a Jew.
Fast forward to today. Perhaps the biggest threat to Jewish continuity is the very beauty that that this country has to offer, freedom. Freedom and religious tolerance is ingrained into the very soul of America. Jews are so accepted in the 21st century that intermarriage is not given a second thought by its citizens and their leaders. In the vast majority of cases it is as accepted as mom and apple pie.
Add into the mix: the melting pot assimilationist Zeitgeist of the 20th century – the desire to be an American no different from other Americans, the lack of any structured Jewish education on a mass scale until the mid 20th century, the establishment of Reform and Conservative Judaism that tolerated and even encouraged assimilation - and you have the perfect storm of intermarriage.
It is now bigger than ever – tolerated more today than ever by both Jews and non Jews. It is even promoted as a positive value in the general culture via popular Jewish celebrities who have themselves intermarried.
That has created a vast number of people who are not Jewish - but who believe they are. People with names like Goldstein and Schwartz are not Halachicly Jewish even if they are raised that way. If Izzy Goldstein marries Christine O’Leary their daughter Jennifer Goldstein is not a Jew even if they attend temple services every week!
The Reform movement who saw this phenomenon up close and personal did not take this lying down. Reform Jews and unaffiliated Jews were intermarrying in droves and their children were not Jewish! They felt the need to do something to stop the hemorrhaging. So they changed the rules. From the biblical times forward until the 20th century there was no denomination, not even Reform that considered a child of a non Jewish mother to be Jewish even if the father was Jewish.
But now with a wave of the hand they have declared these non Jews to be Jewish. They further say that formal conversions are not even necessary. All one needs is to declare it and live Jewish values.
This may be a solution for them. But to the best of my knowledge it has not been accepted by any other denomination. Halacha is very clear about this. It is as unambiguous as can be. It clearly states that only people born of a Jewish mother can be considered Jews. Without that starting point, only a proper conversion will work. Doing Mitzvos does nothing for their status. Even if they would become Rebbitzins of Satmar it would not change their status as non Jews. Without a proper conversion even if they do all the Mitzvos in the world with proper Kavanos (intent) it does not qualify them as Jews anymore than it would if the Pope were to do them. At least not according to Orthodox and Conservative Judaism.
Which brings me to Susan. I never met this woman. But a recent post I wrote related to this subject where I had mentioned these laws motivated her to comment on my blog.
Susan is the product of a Jewish father and a non Jewish mother. She wrote the following in response to my assertion that Reform Judaism does not mandate any behavior that is uniquely Jewish:
As a Reform Jew, a lot about me identifies my Jewishness. I pray at synagogue every Friday night and Saturday morning. I participate in Torah study every week. I observe Jewish holidays. I don't eat pork, or shellfish, or meat with dairy. This is not a comprehensive list. There are a lot of Reform and Conservative Jews who have a lot of things that identify our Jewishness. You may say we are not "real" Jews, but that is just your opinion. God knows I'm Jewish.
I was born of a Jewish father, but not of a Jewish mother. I was born with a Jewish soul and I am Jewish…
If being born of a Jewish mother makes one Jewish even if they don't do anything Jewish - (our) continuity comes from us identifying ourselves as Jews, by finding meaningful Jewish things to do, by upholding the values of Torah, etc.
This is an astounding comment. Here is a person who sees the beauty of Judaism and actually tries to fulfill many Mitzvos. She may in fact have somewhere within her the inner soul of a Jew waiting to come out. But she is not Jewish according to Halacha neither according to Orthodox Judaism nor Conservative Judaism. Despite her best efforts she is not Jewish in the eyes of vast numbers of the people she identifies with. Her Jewish soul beckons to come out. But the only way she will have universal recognition is if she undergoes a full and formal conversion that will be unquestioned by any denomination.
I would encourage her to do so. Even though she disagrees with the Orthodox definition and considers herself Jewish – what harm can there be in doing so? If she is as sincere about her Judaism as she says (and I have no reason to question that) why not do this thing so that there will be no doubt in anyone’s mind about it?
She seeks to be a Jew by doing Mitzvos and learning Torah – neither of which her own denomination requires of her – even if it might encourage it. What better motivation can one have than this? What better expression of one’s Judaism can there be than to want to keep Shabbos and Yom Tov, keep Kosher, learn Torah and more?!
One may ask if she is indeed keeping those Mitzvos properly. My answer to that is that it doesn’t matter. What matters is that she values doing them at any level. How many secular Jews even care to know what the Mitzvos are let alone keep them any of them?
We want people like this. Judaism has never encouraged missionary work. We have no desire to make the whole world Jewish. We believe that non Jews can follow the basic laws of humanity and earn a place in heaven. We consider such people to be completely accepted in the eyes of God. Judaism is not required.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean we discourage them either. To the extent that we do is to the extent that we warn them about the consequences of converting… that it entails additional hardships... that limits the freedom they have enjoyed in the past... that some of those freedoms become serious violation of Halacha when done by a Jew. Some of which have severe consequences in this world and in the next. And that Judaism includes a history of anti-Semitism.
According to the tenets of both Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism Susan has the option to retain her status as a non Jew and remain in good standing in the eyes of God. In the eyes of her own denomination, Reform, she has those freedoms even as a Jew. And yet she chooses to observe the difficult tenets of Judaism. What an amazing human being Susan must be.
I would urge Susan to take a serious look into Orthodoxy and consider a full conversion. It would make her status unquestioned by anyone. We could use a lot more like her.