Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Who is Jew?

When I read a story like this I don’t know whether to feel sad or angry. I guess I feel a little of both.

A very nice and sincere young man by the name of David Wilensky(pictured here - probably around his Bar Mitzvah) wants to increase his level of observance. The problem is that he is not Jewish. He is the product of an intermarriage where the father was Jewish and the mother was not. He was however raised as a Jew. And as a member of the Reform Movement he was considered a full fledged Jew - since they have adopted the notion of patrilineal descent.

Eventually the mother converted too. I’m not sure it was a Halachic Orthodox conversion (probably not) but that is entirely irrelevant. I only mention it to show that this young man was probably raised to be Jewish from the day he was born and not indoctrinated with the tenets of any other faith. He was educated as a Jew and learned to love Judaism so much that he wanted to more fully participate in it.

So he ended up in a Conservative synagogue. Since his lineage was unknown to them at first, he fully participated in their rituals, including being called to the Torah, and acting as a Shaliach Tzibur (Chazan) for them. Eventually he told his rabbi, Francine Roston. It surprised her. She told him that she would have never known had he not said anything.

But she also informed him that the Conservative Movement does not accept patrilineal descent and that he would have to convert. He did so for practical purposes but resented it:

The Conservative rabbinate protests that it cannot recognize patrilineal descent because that would violate its understanding of Jewish law. Coming from people who drive to services on the Sabbath, that reeks. When reality, reason and the changing worldview of the Jews in the pews have called, the Conservative movement has managed to trot out new Halacha that changes the previously unchangeable.

Using the Conservative Movement rationale for changing Halacha– David ends his essay with a plea that it is time for them to consider patrilineal descent a legitimate form of identifying who is a Jew.

I can’t say that I blame him. And he is absolutely right in challenging the Conservative movement. By inference he actually concedes that Orthodoxy is consistent in not changing Halacha to fit the times and would not expect us to change Halacha. Outside of conversions - only matrilineal descent can determine one’s status as a Jew.

What is sad for this young man is that if he continues his search for spirituality and ends up in Orthodoxy he will require yet another conversion.

This is why I am both sad and angry. I am angry at the Reform Movement for creating this monster called patrilineal descent. They have created an entire category of Jews who are not Jews. While it may be true that many of them won’t care one way or another, I am sure that there is more than one David Wilensky in the world. That he considered himself Jewish and was not considered so by either Conservative or Orthodox Jews is a both sad and unfair. He has been convinced by a non Halachic movement to believe he is Jewish, and yet he is not universally considered so.

How sad it must be to live in this kind of purgatory - to know that many of your own coreligionists do not consider you Jewish.

How could the Reform Movement be so uncaring about their people that they are willing to make them Jews only in their own eyes? How desperate they must have been for members when they decided to accept non Jews as Jews. How selfish of them to bolster their numbers in this way!

Removing the yoke of Torah is one thing. That never affected anyone’s personal status. But - leaving out heterodox conversions for a moment - in the past if a Reform Jew wanted to become more observant and seek an Orthodox venue to do so he could do it without any problem. Not so anymore.

Then there is the Conservative movement. They are on the other side of the coin. How inconsistent of them to not allow for patrilineal descent!

This is what you get if you say you claim to be a Halachic Movement and yet allow Chilul Shabbos. You get inconsistency and nonsense! I don’t know how they can live both “here and there”. Either they accept that Halacha is binding or they accept change at their own convenience – which makes them no different than Reform.

Not that I advocate their acceptance of patrilineal descent. That would make the problem even greater than it is now. But this is what happens when there is division in Judaism. There is no universality on the status of one’s Jewishness – even if one is completely sincere about their Judaism and wants to be more observant. “I am a Jew here - but not a Jew there!” What an insult to them! And what a tragedy for us.

What is interesting and encouraging to note is that even while disastrous decisions like accepting patrilineal descent has compromised the universal definition of who is a Jew - the Reform movement is beginning to change course in other very significant ways. They now enthusiastically urge observance of rituals they once completely abandoned. I would suggest to them that they reconsider their views on patrilineal descent. It may create hardships for those who are already considered Jews under that doctrine. But it will help towards a more universal approach to who is a Jew.

I would further urge that both the Reform and Conservative movements defer all candidates for conversion to Orthodox authorities. I know it sounds self serving for an Orthodox Jew to advocate this, but that is not my motive. It is so that all converts can be fully recognized by all denominations. That is the only fair way to go. Orthodoxy cannot and will not ever recognize Reform or Conservative converts.

That there is controversy even within Orthodoxy with respect to its own conversions is a sad fact of life as well. But that is outside the scope of this essay. Assuming we can find a way to satisfy all Orthodox segments - it would behoove all Jewish denominations to have one central conversion authority whose conversions will be recognized by all. This way there will never again have to be another David Wilensky who wants to be more observant; thinks he is Jewish - but is not Jewish at all.