Bulgarian Jewry's Patrilineal Prez
03/29/2011 - 18:32

JTA, my onetime employer (I used to joke that they were going to call it the Jewish Associated Press, but the acronym was too problematic), has a fascinating article today about Alex Oscar, Bulgaria’s Jewish community president.

Oscar, 32, can’t be called to the Torah at any synagogue in his country, because his mother isn’t Jewish. 

Not surprisingly, he’s calling for a greater diversity of Jewish options:

“The challenge today is how to bring Judaism more to the people of the community,” Oscar told JTA in an interview in Bulgaria’s capital city. “What I mean is, 99 percent of the members of the community are non-Orthodox; they are Liberal. Unfortunately, there is only one way of belonging to the synagogue, which is the Orthodox way. And now the challenge is how we make the community more pluralistic and open.

“We have a bunch of people, let’s say 10-12 people, observing all the mitzvot. Let’s say they are Orthodox,” Oscar said. “The rest of the people, they are really searching for a meaningful Jewish way which is different from the traditional Orthodox way.”

How sad that this guy who is pounding the pavement (and eschewing many perks other European Jewish community leaders apparently get) for Bulgarian Jews isn’t welcome on any local bima.

Yes, I can anticipate the Orthodox responses. 1) Oscar could solve his problem by undergoing an Orthodox conversion. 2) There is no meaningful Jewish way that is “different from the traditional Orthodox way” — Orthodoxy is the only authentic, legitimate way of being Jewish. 3) Hey, quit complaining: at least the guy is allowed to serve as community president even though he's not "really" Jewish.

Not surprisingly, I (a card-carrying member of a Reform temple) disagree that Orthodoxy is the only authentic, legitimate way of approaching Judaism. And I think it would be disingenuous for Oscar to undergo an Orthodox conversion, especially as the Orthodox conversion requirements (at least in Israel) seem to be steadily growing.

But even if one just takes a pragmatic, rather than ideological approach, the fact is that Orthodox Judaism is never going to appeal to the vast majority of the world’s Jews. Do Orthodox and traditional Jews, particularly in Europe where the Jewish population is already small, really wish to be alone in the world and deprive themselves of the leadership, talents, camaraderie, contributions and perspectives of liberal Jews?

There are many people like Oscar who seek Jewish community, wisdom and culture — and have much to contribute — even if the “wrong” parent is Jewish. I hope we can find a way of not only including them, but listening to them and embracing them.


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At the moment most of the Jewish world seems to agree that there is no such as a patrilineal descent. Children born to Jewish fathers and gentile mothers are of "the seed of Israel." Fine. So he is connected to the Jewish people thru his dad but that connection must be "formalized" before he can take an aliyah. If that is the consensus across the Jewish spectrum -- US Reform and UK Liberal movements excluded -- then he should either start his on branch of Judaism, become a Karaite, associate with the above mentioned movements or undergo conversion. He could i.e. do a Masorti conversion with the European Beit Din in London. No?

Anonymous asks, "if Judaism can change whenever and however we see fit, then what is that we are trying to preserve when we talk about Jewish preservation?"

Part of what we are preserving is Judaism's tradition of changing over time to fit the times. As our understanding of the world and Judaism grows, our interprestaion of Torah also grows.

To pretend that Jewish law has been the same for over 2,000 years is demonstrably untrue. To try to freeze Judaism and the interpretation of its laws would be to turn Judaism into something it never was.

To preserve Judaism's traditions of debate, as found in the Talmud, for example, and its tradition of changing over time, we need to continue to challenge old, outdated laws and interpretations, contunuing to refine our observance and understanding over time.

I have a great idea. Why doesn't Oscar find like minded people and start his own congregation? Simple. Problem solved. By the way, where is Bulgaria? Maybe they haven't heard that the USSR is no more. As in, the iron curtain has fallen. Is Bulgaria a free Democratic State? Just wondering...

The ideal solution would be for Oscar to undergo formal conversion to Judaism. Some will say that it shouldn't be necessary, while others will argue that if he does convert, he should spend years studying and agree to become a strictly Orthodox Jew.

What is a strictly Orthodox Jew? Good question. The bar is rising all the time. According to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel (who seem to be doing everything possible to make conversion as difficult as possible), it would appear that a life as a Young Israel modern orthodox Jew isn't "good enough" anymore. Black suit and black hat all the way seems to be the new requirement.

Some will argue that a convert should agree in advance to live a completely observant lifestyle. Although this has become the modern standard, it is not mandated by all of the traditional sources. Here's a link to an excellent article by Rabbi Marc Angel:

Jewish life under communism was very difficult. Let's have some compassion for Alex Oscar and others like him. Let's give him some credit for all the good things he's done in a country where living a Jewish life isn't easy. Let's make it possible for him to undergo formal conversion without putting a lot of roadblocks in his path. It can be done without violating Halacha and it should be done!

You have the right to disagree as to whether or not orthodoxy is the only legitimate form of Judaism,however, there must be a reasonable basis for that position. For example, the Orthodox believe the Torah and its laws, philosophies and traditions are binding. Therefore, something that is not consistent ith or thats seems to contradict these sources would naturally be rejected. Thus I have a way of determining whether something is Jewish or not. Parilineal descent was never Jewish. The classical Jewish sources openly reject it. Therefore, it would seem to be that the only reason to accept it now has nothing to do with Judaism. Isn't it sad that Judaism means so little to you that if it doesn't match up to your desires, you just change it as you see fit. Well, my only question to you is, if Judaism can change whenever and however we see fit, then what is that we are trying to preserve when we talk about Jewish preservation? It sounds to me that you are more interested in pursuing your own desires and social goals, and then after the fact labeling it Jewish.

Good article, but Bulgaria is not the only place with this dilemma. Traditionally the Orthodox persuasion has reined in most European locations and even in Germany, where reform Judaism began before the second world war, reform Jews must struggle with the central authority to get recognized. I have visited the beautiful synagogue in Sofia, and will be back there this month. The few people in the congregation were friendly to me when I visited with a non-Jewish Bulgarian friend (apparently not a common occurrence) for a Sabbath morning service. The main argument for Alex Oscar is that he can decide how to be a Jew. No one else can do that for him. He is no less a Jew than someone who chooses total observance.

I don't agree there is necessarily a contradiction between his "civic" Jewish role as President of the community and his halachic status in a synagogue. I was once a Federation Director. The fact that I'm not a Rabbi did not prevent me from assuming this role (nor even my particular level of Jewish knowledge), nor would it in most communities if I were either a patrilineal Jew or a non-Orthodox convert - but obviously it would be a barrier to my assuming the religious leadership of a traditional synagogue.

I also don't think this is simply an "Orthodox" issue as you (and he) portray it. He wouldn't get an aliyah in a Conservative synagogue either. And the Reform movement in Israel, and in most other places outside the U.S., does not recognize patrilinial descent - so there are many Reform settings worldwide where he wouldn't get an aliyah either.

So in terms of the pluralistic approach he espouses (meaning in this case, recognizing patrilinial descent), what we basically mean is the American Reform movement. Now if he wants to start a liberal synagogue in Bulgaria that would adhere to American Reform standards, and if as he claims, 99% of the population is liberal and non-Orthodox, then why doesn't he just start one? Seems like if what he says is true, he has plenty of opportunity to work on a grass roots approach instead of complaining about the establishment.