This past week, two of my Rabbis Without Borders colleagues have shared their perspectives and struggles with the religious identities of individuals who have a Jewish father and not a Jewish mother, and who have been recognized as fully Jewish by the Reform movement in the USA. Rabbi Alana Suskin focuses on her personal challenges in working compassionately and appropriately with congregants while respecting the strictures of halachah as it has evolved on conversion and questions of who is a Jew. Rabbi Ben Greenberg takes a step back from the pastoral questions and considers the complications caused in a larger network of Jewish interactions across multiple institutional and movement-based systems that do not all work with a shared understanding of who is considered a Jew. I’d like to bring another framework to the discussion.
We rabbis are very good at explaining “the rules” of Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism was a law-based system, created to provide governance to communities that were locally based, once we no longer had a monarchy-based nation and a sacrificial system in Jerusalem. But while we rabbis may be well versed in the rules, we live in a time where, across all faiths, large swaths of the population are not interested in the “rules” of faith. They are interested in the meaning of faith.
Reform Judaism has made a conscious decision not to be a halakhic movement, in the traditional sense of the word. However, there are still principles that govern how we interact with Rabbinic tradition that help us navigate the path between tradition and change. These principles include equality, human dignity, a re-examination of ethical foundations, and more. Sometimes, it is true, there is also a degree of pragmatism – the religious leadership of the movement may not have been looking to make a change based on principles, but the recognition that change has happened in our society requires of us a decision as to whether we will make certain changes so as to continue to travel with our people in their life journeys. My sense of freedom to change in these ways comes from my understanding that Torah and Rabbinic Judaism are human constructions that are responses to God’s Revelation, but not the specific content of the Revelation itself.
Now, let me be clear. Does this mean that anything goes? No, absolutely not. Having specific ways to observe a ritual, celebrate a holiday, eat food, pray as a community, to respond after a death, etc. provides structure to the cultural signs and expressions of our faith. There is no question that such structure is necessary and also evokes a connection to a sense of shared heritage. For some people, the lack of simple clarity of what the ‘rules’ are, and the ever-shifting ground that is a result of re-conceptualizing Revelation as something that is continuous, is destabilizing and discomforting. But for others, it is incredibly freeing. I see that in the audible sigh of relief that comes from someone who has struggled with believing the literal surface of Torah but has new vistas opened when they are shown how to read it as sacred myth that provides gateways into the inner spiritual life of the individual and the community. And I see it when someone who has lived a Jewish life and claims that identity as meaningful to how they navigate life, where they feel they belong, and the community of which they choose to be a part, has that identity affirmed by their rabbi.
Patrilineal descent was affirmed by the Central Conference of American Rabbis because it was the right thing to do. It conforms with our principles of egalitarianism, and it is an expression of our understanding of kiruv – embracing and encouraging the living of Jewish lives in the context of Jewish community. Furthermore, as Rabbi Phillip Hiat and Rabbi Bernard Zlotowitz demonstrated in their 1983 paper, “Biblical and Rabbinical Sources on Patrilineal Descent”, a close examination of the evolution of halakhah on the issue of who is a Jew reveals changing tides over time and very little meaningful basis for continuing to only recognize the matrilineal line other than ‘that’s what we’ve been doing for a long time.’
But what of Rabbi Greenberg’s concern that, by acting alone, new complications have arisen for klal yisrael with regard to whether someone’s Jewish status is accepted or not? I believe that this is a red herring. The truth is that such questioning exists along a continuum that exists even within movements. Within the Orthodox branches of Judaism, only certain rabbis are recognized by the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel as performing accepted conversions. So yes, I agree with my colleagues that we have a responsibility to make our converts and our patrilineal Jews aware of the larger context, although I admit to doing so apologetically because I don’t find these explanations to make Judaism very appealing.
I wish to end by returning to the individuals whose lives and identities we are talking about. Here’s the bottom line. The reality is that if someone is observing Jewish practice, celebrating in Jewish time, identifying with the Jewish people, or perhaps doing none of these things but, when asked, makes a claim to be Jewish or “part Jewish” because of their ancestry, it is largely irrelevant to them whether you or I agree or approve. When it does become relevant is when they seek access to our institutions, and especially our synagogues. At that point, we rabbis become the gatekeepers. And we are entitled to abide by whatever formulation of what makes a Jew that we, or our larger denominations, decide. We all have our requirements. And we all have good reasons for those requirements that we can articulate to those seeking entry. But let us recognize that what we are doing is gate-keeping, and let us be mindful of how and when we act as gatekeepers and what our purpose in those moments is. And let us celebrate and be proud of sustaining and sharing a religious heritage that others wish to claim as their own and live by.
But why would they choose Judaism?
This is a question I hear often. In my work helping to celebrate the racial and ethnic diversity that is endemic to the Jewish community, I also have the privilege of connecting with many people who have chosen to become Jewish. In Jewish tradition, when someone becomes Jewish the community is meant to accept them as they are, not to dwell on their status as a convert. Yet often, converts are met with curiosity or worse, suspicion. From Jews by choice, I hear that this can often feel like personal rejection.
Whenever I am asked about why people choose Judaism, I recall late night dorm conversations I had as a college student. A good friend was studying to be a cantor. He had grown up in Europe, in a country without a strong Jewish past, in a family that had no Jewish past. A chance encounter with Jews on Purim pulled him into the Jewish orbit and eventually he made the choice to make Judaism his own. We spent many hours talking about Judaism, I did not for a minute doubt his commitment or his place in the Jewish people. Nonetheless, time and again, I repeatedly returned to ask him why he had chosen Judaism.
At the time, I was struggling. I had not chosen Judaism and it felt like a burden that I could not escape. While I went through the motions of observance and community, I was pained by so much in our tradition particularly as it related to women’s roles, hierarchy and power. Israel, which had once been the idealized center of my Jewish identity, had given way to the complex realities of adult understanding. My awareness of the legacy of anti-Semitism robbed me of the ability to imagine true security. Why, I wondered, would anyone choose the very thing that on some level I wished I could escape?
There is nothing more that I love about being a rabbi, than hearing those who choose Judaism explain their choice –which they do as part of the conversion process. Jews by choice come to Judaism without the baggage that Jews from birth carry. Time and again, I hear that the ambiguities of Judaism, the very thing that was so challenging for me as young woman, are among the things that newcomers value in Judaism. Just like Jews by birth, they struggle with difficult issues like women’s rights or the State of Israel, but they feel confident that whatever struggles they have fit into the flexible but enduring Jewish framework. Among Jews by birth, I often hear that learning Hebrew was the bane of Jewish childhood. And yet as the member of a conversion board, I’ve heard grown men wax eloquently about the power of learning an ancient language and unlocking timeless wisdom by studying it in the original. In Uganda, where Rabbi Gershom Sizomu has officiated at hundreds of conversions, it is the magic of Shabbat- which allows people to stop work, come together with other, focus on the finer things- which is the most powerful draw. Those choosing Judaism see joy and possibilities. They accept the complexities as part of the beauty of the system they are entering into. Judaism through their eyes never fails to inspire me.
I know that for some portion of the Jewish by birth population it is hard to accept that a person from Scandinavia, the mountains in Peru, or plains of Africa- who does not know about gefilte fish, did not have ancestors forced to leave a homeland, and knows not from Woody Allen- can or should be part of the Jewish people. And this is highly problematic. But often, I think that the questions to converts or to me, as a rabbi who often has the privilege of working with individual converts as well as communities of converts, speak to deep seated ambivalence and struggles, even shame about our own Jewishness. I did in the end emerge from my struggles and find my own answers, but not before I inflicted my own ambivalence and doubt on my friend. Our own challenges and doubts need to be addressed, but not at the cost of making newcomers feel unwelcome.
This summer I had a conversation with a group of sixth grade students at a Jewish school in Buenos Aires. Discussing diversity of Jews around the world, they fixed on the concept of conversion. They wanted to know what conversations rabbis have with a conversion student when they sit at the biet din, “court” for conversion.I explained that each conversation is unique but then turned the question back at them. Forced to consider what they might say, they came up with some pretty compelling answers: peoplehood, ritual, customs, Israel. But more important than the content was the realization that they had answers for themselves. Ultimately, no matter how inspiring, someone else’s answer about why they have chosen Judaism will never take the place of each Jew finding his or her own reasons to be Jewish.
What are yours?
Jordan, whose mother is Puerto Rican and father is Ethiopian, has been Jewish for 12 years and involved with Judaism for more than half his of his life. But only recently he decided to publically come out of the closet about being gay.
Growing up in Baltimore, Jordon did not have a strong Black identity. His diverse group of friends and his interest in punk rock – he shaved his head and sported a Mohawk for a while- set him apart from other black kids. But even as a young kid others identified him as gay and bullied him. Yet as a teen, when he was drawn both to drag and to an observant life, he felt he had to choose between his identities. And so being gay was not officially part of the equation for many years. Ironically, as he became more observant and involved in the hassidic community, being black became more central to his sense of self. Eventually, however, hiding part of himself, meant that he felt less able to fully embrace the mitzvot that originally drew him to Judaism.
So for Jordan, coming out is a coming together of all of the elements of his self. Speaking by phone he explained, “Prioritizing identities, that’s a concept does that does not exist, I am never more one thing than another… now I am able to express myself fully.”
While there are those in the Orthodox world who have condemned him for coming out, the reaction has been overwhelmingly supportive. Both the hip hop and Orthodox worlds have reputations for being homophobic but Jordan’s experience since coming out publically in Out Magazine suggests that the world is changing. Last week rap impresario Russell Simmons reached out and so did some prominent Orthodox rabbis. It makes him wish he had taken this step years ago.
Y-Love has long been a role model for Jews of color, advocating for diversity in the Jewish community. Now he has added the LGBTQ community to the list of those he seeks to motivate and strengthen. “I’ve heard from a trans woman who says I’ve inspired her to continue studying towards conversion to Judaism and from other rappers who say they wish they had my courage to come out,” says Jordan clearly gratified that his choice to come out is inspiring others.
A few weeks before I began rabbinical school, I took a vacation and went to visit my in-laws where they were volunteering in the Peace Corps in the Ukraine. Although it was far from the first time I had traveled overseas – I had done quite a bit of traveling actually- visiting the Ukraine was quite different to any other experience I had had.
To travel to Ukraine, one had to apply for a visa, which was not always granted; Ukraine was still a relatively closed country, and did not welcome outsiders. It is a beautiful and interesting place, and we stayed for about a week, visiting different cities, meeting with people, talking to the people my mechutonim (in-laws) had been working with – all lovely. But after a day or two, something struck me as odd. I couldn’t quite place my finger on it, but as the week progressed, I finally realized what it was: there was an extreme regularity about people’s appearance. The relatively closed borders had resulted in a population where there were only a few facial types, skin shades only within a very narrow range (and of the rosy-cheeked variety that one reads about in fairy tales, but I had rarely seen in actual people), and so on.
Growing up in an urban area of the South Atlantic seaboard, I was used to seeing people of all sorts of colors, shapes, ethnicities; people who had immigrated in their own lifetimes or their parents’ or grandparents’. But in Ukraine, I saw none of that. Except, occasionally, I might see someone who looked different: they were easy to point out as “not Ukrainian.”
Until that trip, I had never really understood antisemitism. Not that I hadn’t experienced it – even in urban areas, we were still a location where one might encounter the sort of person who upon getting to know me might mourn, “you’re so nice, it’s such a shame that you’re going to hell,” or ask to examine my horns. But I never really understood what it meant for a person to live in a society where physically, they stood out as “other,” to the extent where they could be pointed out in the street. And when I suddenly grasped this in Ukraine, it was a bit of a revelation.
When the Israelites left Egypt, the Torah tells us that there were 600,000 men, plus children, and also an erev rav, a mixed multitude, went with them. This term, erev rav, later came to have a variety of connotations, not necessarily good ones: some commentators blamed this group for the Israelites straying after the golden calf. But the Torah makes no claims about who these people are at all.
I like to imagine that among them were the now-elderly Shifrah and Puah, the midwives to the Hebrew women who refused to slaughter Israelite sons, and whom, the Torah tells us (Exodus 1:21), God rewarded. I expect that among this group were also other, non-Hebrew, slaves. Perhaps there were also Egyptians, neighbors and friends of the Israelites, or those who simply could not endure the oppression of the Pharaoh towards the Hebrews, and were glad to leave.
Whoever these people were, the Torah, after announcing their presence, goes on to remind us that while foreigners and hired servants who are not circumcised and part of the Israelite family do not eat the Passover sacrifice, if a person joins the community and the males of that family are circumcised, they become fully part of the community and partake of it. Moreover, whether they do or not, “there shall be one Torah for the citizen and for the stranger that lives among the Israelites (Exodus 12:49), that is one law, one justice, the same for everyone.
Until recent times, and in some places to this day, nationality is, indeed, a racial or ethnic category. In some places, it’s easy to point out who belongs, and who looks different, who isn’t “one of us.” But for Jews, this isn’t – or at least, ought not to be- the case. Jewish law insists that one who takes on our practices, who goes through conversion and lives by Jewish law is a full member of the family, regardless of color or origin. Jews who make a distinction between converts and natal Jews, or because someone doesn’t “look Jewish” are, in fact, in violation of Jewish law.
But, I don’t think it’s enough to stop there. In some parts of the Jewish community great care is taken to physically separate themselves from non-Jews, or from Jews who practice in different ways. It is true, that this has some effect in preventing exogamy, and thus increases the number of Jewish grandchildren. But it also misses the point. If Judaism has a mission, then surely that mission involves engaging with the world, and offering to it some of our gifts. But before those of us in liberal communities get too comfy, let me add that that separation doesn’t always take a physical turn. It is also a form of separation to use fear of the other as a fundraising tool, or to refuse to engage with others whom we fear.
When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, we ceased to offer sacrifices, and so there is no sacrifice partaken at the Passover seder. When we eat a seder meal, we invite in to eat “all who are hungry” in remembrance of a rabbi who opened his house to the hungry every night at the time of the Talmud. We invite all who wish to partake of a Passover meal. In earlier times, that was surely only and always other Jews, but today, it’s likely to be quite the erev rav. Many, if not most, of us have non-Jewish relatives. We invite non-Jewish friends who are curious about the seder, or moved by the story of the exodus. While the rabbis of past generations often saw non-Jews as a threat, or a seduction, today, in America at least, they are family, neighbors, and friends.
The Jewish community spends a great amount of time and money worrying about assimilating ourselves out of existence, but we often forget that that threat is there only because we are part of the fabric of every day life. More than tolerated, we are part of the American family.
In a place where everyone looks alike, and you can point to the person who looks different and say, “she’s the outsider,” there could once again be pogroms. And we are not done with that in the US either; as we have seen from recent events, being black in America is still “different,” and still dangerous. And of course, not everywhere is equally heterogeneous. But we are also not the Ukraine. If nothing else, America is a great erev rav, where everyone looks different, and whatever risks there are in that, we live in great blessing, where the Jewish community itself comes in a rainbow of colors, through marriage, conversion and adoption, and no less so are we part of a country where people from everywhere, of all colors, with a thousand different accents, live more or less in harmony.
Are we done with learning to get along? Not quite. Not completely. But it would be a mistake to think that we haven’t gained a great deal by mixing with our neighbors. I love the fact that at my seder table always has non-Jewish friends, people who look differently, think differently. I don’t fear my neighbors, no matter what they look like. We forget what an incredible blessing that is. In running the risk of getting mixed up, we also gain perspectives we never could have gotten from staying separate. There is holiness in separation, and we should continue to recognize our distinctions, but those distinctions are only relevant when we are among others with whom we can compare and discuss them.
This Passover, I’m feeling blessed not only in having been redeemed from Egypt to serve God, but I am thankful that I live in a place that when I walk down the street, I can see so many different kinds of faces, and God in all of them.