Joined at the Soul
A suggestion I made after the first results of the National Jewish Population Survey 2000 were disclosed brought a response from someone with whom I feel very close despite the considerable distance between many of our views.
Leonard (Leibel) Fein, a celebrated writer and activist with deep feelings for his fellow Jews and an intense commitment to the Jewish ideals of justice and kindness, is discomfited by my proposition that the Jewish past' s definition of Jewishness should be embraced as we head into the future.
That definition - having been born to a Jewish mother or converted according to Jewish religious law - rankles my friend because its first part smacks to him of "racialism" and its second of "belief," which, he asserts, most contemporary Jews lack.
My definition of the Jewish People, however, is simple: we are a family. That is how our tradition characterizes us, and how in fact Jews have regarded themselves since the time of Jacob. Are families not defined, most basically, by blood? While ancestral identity theories may have been used for evil purposes in history, the Jewish clan is charged with being a light, not a blight, unto the nations. We Jews regard our national distinctiveness as a sacred charge to aspire to spiritual achievement, not a means of dominating others.
Mr. Fein is correct that it is not "Jewish genes" in the literal sense of the phrase, that matter - or that they even exist. Judaism's "genetic" component is not based on any chromosomal marker but rather on parentage - which, while biologically determined, is meaningful in a realm far beyond what an electron microscope can reveal.
To be sure, there is another way of joining the Jewish people, analogous to joining a family through marriage: sincere conversion, accompanied by an acceptance of the laws of the Torah -which is what spiritually empowered the Jewish people in the first place, and what underlies its specialness no less today.
But, Mr. Fein objects, many, even most, born Jews lack such a commitment themselves. That is true, tragically, but the calculus is not much different from, say, citizenship; a Chicago-born anarchist is, willy-nilly, a U.S. citizen; yet a Canadian immigrant must undergo a process, which will include a declaration of respect for the law of the land, to become one. Shouldn't there, though, Mr. Fein implores, "be a way to join" the Jewish people "that involves study and commitment" to other Jews but without "belief"? Well, one thing is certain. That way lies a terrible, traumatic family breakdown.
That is true if for no other reason than the Orthodox world's deep-seated and sincere conviction that the only way a non-Jew can become part of the Jewish people is by his or her entering the Jewish covenant, through a conversion in accord with halacha.
What is more, every Jewish movement has its own standards for considering a born non-Jew to have joined our people - and they all differ. A standard Reform conversion is not acceptable to most Conservative rabbis; a humanistic Jewish congregation's acceptance of a congregant as a fellow Jew would not likely be recognized by the Reform movement. The only standard that no Jewish group can conscionably object to is the one that has been used for millennia, that of Jewish tradition.
What is more, there is a fatal flaw in my friend's suggestion, something he in fact acknowledges. Namely, that redefining Jewishness as simple commitment to study and to the welfare of other Jews would render countless Jews "who know little and perhaps care even less" outside the pale. One can 't, after all, have it both ways. If blood - or, better, one's mother's Jewishness - is not a meaningful benchmark, as per the Fein plan, hundreds of thousands of people considered Jews by the Orthodox (and others) will be suddenly considered, at least by the redefiners, Judaei non grati.
No, the Jewish future cannot lie in redefining the word "Jew." It lies, rather, in the recognition that we Jews are all, as it were, joined at the soul. And in understanding what in fact joins us: our Torah, whether we choose to accept it or not. Not our observance of the Torah, but rather its incumbency upon us. Our bond is our mandate.
Which is why our differences of opinion, even our diametric views on some issues, cannot affect our essential Jewish bond. Why, despite our own differences on many, many things, Leonard Fein and I remains brothers, indeed - I hope he'll forgive me - blood brothers.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America