Lessons from "Who is a Jew" by Orrin Tilevitz
Volume 2 , Issue 3 (Feb, 1989 | Adar I, 5749)
Now that the proposal to amend the Law of the Return has temporarily been shelved with the formation of a Labor-Likud coalition, it is time to reflect on the misnamed ?Who is a Jew?? controversy and learn some lessons from it.
The principle that all Jews have the right
to citizenship in
Religious parties in
Let us first digress to the non-issue. Under Jewish law, halakha, a ?Jew? is either a child of a Jewish mother or a convert. How or even whether one practices Judaism has no effect on one's status as a Jew under halakha. Even a convert from Judaism, an apostate, is still a Jew in the eyes of halakha (although he might be required to immerse himself in a mikvah before a rabbinical court, before being reaccepted into the fold of Judaism). A fortiori, a Reform Jew, Conservative Jew, Reconstructionist Jew or plain unaffiliated Jew has the same status as a Jew under halakha, provided of course the person is either the child of a Jewish mother or a convert. Because very many of its members marry non-Jews and thus beget halakhically non-Jewish offspring at a prodigious rate, Reform Judaism also recognizes as a Jew the child of a Jewish father even if the mother is not Jewish. Conservative Judaism currently accepts the halalchic definition of a Jew, although many of its leaders support accepting the Reform definition. In any event, the definition of a Jew under the Law of the Return is thus basically the halakhic definition, except that an apostate is a Jew under halakha but not under the Law of the Return. Furthermore, in contrast with Reform Judaism, the Law of the Return does not recognize as a Jew the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. Again, the proposed amendment to the Law of the Return would leave the basic definition of a ?Jew? unchanged.
Under halakha, to convert to Judaism one must immerse oneself in a ritual bath. a mikvah, before valid witnesses, accept the mitzvot, the commandments, and show that the conversion was the result of a sincere attachment to Judaism and not due to ulterior motives; a male convert must also undergo ritual circumcision. Reform Judaism subscribes to neither ritual circumcision for converts nor to the entire notion of a mikvah, and generally does not view mitzvot as obligatory; hence, it dispenses with the technical requirements for conversion. Conservative Judaism, in theory, accepts the technical requirements for conversion kehalakha. Therefore, in theory, under halakha, all conversions under Reform auspices are invalid and all those under Conservative auspices are valid.
At least as to Conservative conversions, this is not so simple, even assuming that the Conservative convert undergoes ritually correct immersion and circumcision (which, given the lax attitude of Conservative Judaism towards observance generally, can hardly be assured). Acceptance of the mitzvot implies acknowledgment that one is Divinely required to perform them. But Conservative Judaism at times apparently denies the Divine origin of at least some portion of the Torah; does little to encourage observance by its members of such basic mitzvot as Shabbat and family purity; and has actually abrogated certain Jewish laws with such rulings as permitting one to drive to the synagogue on Shabbat, permitting a kohen to marry a divorcee, and tacitly sanctioning marriages and divorces witnessed by women. Therefore, in many cases one must question precisely what ?accepting the mitzvot? means to a Conservative con?vert. Despite these reservations, it would appear likely that if the Law of the Return were amended to require that conversions be kehalakha and the matter were litigated in an Israeli court (a virtual certainty), given the apparent technical compliance with halakhic requirements, the court (a secular body) would find that Conservative conversions were, in fact, kehalakha within the meaning of the statute.
Since conversions performed under Orthodox auspices are, or at least
would be found to be. kehalakha by definition and since a court would likely
find Conservative conversions also kehalakha, then the proposed amendment would affect almost exclusively converts
under Reform auspices. Also, the official Israeli rabbinate, all of whose
members are in theory of the Orthodox persuasion, in theory already
control all matters of Jewish personal status in
Magnitude Hard to Understate
The magnitude of this ?problem? is hard to understate. The vast majority
of immigrants to
Some might assume that all people in this class ought to be kept out of
But how important? The insistence--to no avail--by the religious
leadership, both here and in
Worse, the ?Who is a Jew?? controversy was reported and misreported in
the media, including The New York Times,
for weeks. Conservative and Reform leaders found an ideal excuse to belittle
religious Judaism. to advocate reducing support for
One unfortunately expects this sort of conduct from the Israeli
religious establishment, which has an almost unblemished record of generating
adverse publicity for religious Judaism and religious Jews. Not many years ago
an article appeared in The New York
Times chronicling the petty quarrels of then-chief rabbis Shlomo Goren and Ovadia Yosef. On many occasions, The New York Times has reported the exploits of one chief rabbi or
another dramatically flying over an archaeological excavation and banning
further work for the reason that the site is supposedly a cemetery. And the
American public probably knows by now that those who drive through certain
But should we not expect greater sophistication from American Jewish
leaders? Do they not realize that publicity can be a bad thing; that non-Jews,
too, read The New York Times; that
giving religious Judaism a bad name will do nothing to promote Torah
observance? Doesn't anyone, either here or in
The major lesson of this round of ?Who is a Jew?? is that responsible Orthodox Jewish leadership in the United States needs to take more seriously its obligation to present religious Judaism in the best possible light, and to avoid at almost all costs internecine warfare, which degrades Judaism. It needs to figure out a way to educate the great majority of Jews who know nothing that halakhic Judaism is the only normative Judaism, not to attempt to cram this concept down their throats. If a sufficient number of Jews are properly educated, the ?Who is a Jew?? controversy will go away all by itself.