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.
I have always loved telling the Chanukah story because it is so much about the strength of the Jewish people. My own Jewish identity is nourished by powerful pride in our improbable survival for all these many centuries of challenges. Chanukah is an opportunity to celebrate the courage, smarts and drive of the Jewish people. Not only did our ancestors find a way to prevail during the Syrian Green conflict of the second century BCE, but we have also been inspired by their story at many subsequent crucially challenging moments.
How does that story relate to us today? In our increasingly individualized society, how many of us have the kind of commitment to any cause that we would risk our lives for it? How much are we willing to fight for what we value? Do we value our people enough to be courageous and selfless for the preservation of Jewish civilization? What would that courage and devotion look like?
Last week was a significant anniversary on the Jewish calendar. December 6 was the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the huge march on Washington to Free Soviet Jewry. 250,000 participants came from all over the country, even from other countries. Their presence, coinciding with the White House meeting of President Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev caught the attention of the American president. He told his guest that he could not ignore these constituents. American aid to the Soviet Union would depend on freeing Soviet Jews. Slowly but surely the doors opened and our brothers and sisters were permitted to emerge from behind the Iron Curtain. We did it – courage, drive, devotion, sacrifice and intelligence won again.
It can be easier to find the resolve to respond in a crisis. But what about the in-between times? In many ways our people has thrived and contributed to the world out of day-to-day devotion to our shared destiny. We are in it for the long haul. Our covenant with God has inspired us, our belonging to the Jewish people has grounded us; we have lived for the “us.”
American culture presents a renewed challenge to Jewish peoplehood. This calls for transformed commitment to the “us,” to the ideals of the Jewish people. It’s worth fighting for our people – it is really not so selfless – after all, we are the beneficiaries of this great Jewish civilization.
Chanukah celebrates the victory for religious freedom that the Maccabees won for us. In every age we have new opportunities to renew that victory, as the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry and the National Council on Soviet Jewry did in 1987. Every year Chanukah gives us an opportunity to celebrate pride in being Jews. We are the newest Maccabees, fighting for “us.”
Victory will be seen by the gifting of our talents, time and resources to make our Jewish organizations as engaging and soulful as the next generation needs them to be. Chanukah means “dedication.” Renewed dedication to the Jewish people’s well-being would be a triumph worthy of the celebration of light that we enjoy.
Best wishes for a joyous Chanukah, filled with light, inspired by courage and devotion.