Gabby Giffords And Other "Illegal Alien" Jews
01/27/2011 - 12:20

I apologize for being such a delinquent blogger this past week. Part of it was being distracted by my reporting responsibilities (see my recent article on new Hebrew charter schools if you don’t believe me!)

But also I’ve been struck with something of a blogger’s block trying to decide whether and how to respond to my colleague Jonathan Mark’s “No, Not Everyone is Jewish Enough” post.

I think what most troubles me is not that we disagree but that he (and others) think I am disrespectful and, in the words of one commenter, “militant.”

I would like to think that I have not been disrespectful, but rather a respectful dissenter. I don’t ask Orthodox Jews to accept patrilineal descent in their synagogues, schools or marriage partners, but I would like to see more of them recognize that they do not have the monopoly on Judaism, that there are multiple ways of understanding what it means to be a Jew and that, particularly as such a tiny (and shrinking) minority in the world, Jews can afford a more expansive, welcoming (and dare I say emotionally sensitive) view of who and what can be accepted within our community.

It is also important to remember that even among those who see Jewish law as binding, this law is flexible, evolving and open to a wide array of interpretations and considerations. Even the Talmud gives space to competing, often widely divergent, views. Just because one interpretation is stricter does not make it more authentic or more correct. And while there are risks to dispensing with too many standards, there are also risks in imposing too many obstacles to people who genuinely want to engage in Jewish life even if they are not engaging at Jonathan Mark and Chief Rabbinate-approved levels of education and ritual observance. Plus, there are risks in insisting on an ideologically monolithic Judaism, on dismissing liberal voices as uneducated, uncommitted chutzpah-dik less-Jewish intruders. 

And Jonathan’s assertion that non-Jewish spouses and patrilineal "illegal aliens" tend to be disrespectful of Judaism (as opposed to "pure" and "noble") is just ludicrous, particularly based as it is on a link to a tongue-in-cheek exchange on the New York Times’ dining blog, in which a writer (who never states whether she is gentile or Jewish) is irreverent about her boyfriend’s kosher observance.

Ultimately, perhaps this whole “who is a Jew” debate, at least in the diaspora, is a silly semantic exercise. Gabrielle Giffords will consider herself Jewish, as will many other people; some traditional and Orthodox Jews will not. Unlike U.S. citizenship, which Jonathan compares to Jewish identity, in the diaspora at least there is no Jewish government, no single entity authorized to enforce such matters, no voting rights within the entire Jewish world, no single Jewish passport, no power to deport people or strip them of their Jewish identities. And that is probably, given the dysfunctionality of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, a very good thing.

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I love Jonathan Mark's writing and commentary - usually. However, here he is off base. And mixing metaphors like comparing being a Christian to being a Mexican doesn't help his argument. Ruth, said "Your people will be my people and your God my God." Pretty much a Jew there and then, no? Ruth didn't have a Jewish mother and, as far as I know, there were no Rabbis around to 'convert' her. Mark correctly points out that you don't have to accept God to be "saved" in Judaism, but that's not the issue. We're not talking about salvation. We're talking about defining "Who is a Jew?" The first mitzva begins "I am the Lord, your God..." Accepting the God of the Jews as God ("I am the Lord") and including yourself (in your own psyche) among God's people ("your God") defines you as a Jew in my book. Orthodox Jewish. Conservative Jewish. Reform Jewish. Culturally Jewish. Secular Jewish. All those groups are entitled to declare whether you belong to their category or not, but they have no right to define you as a Jew (or not). That's already been established by your own belief and devotion to the first mitzva.
As a Jewish Secular Humanist, I don't really feel like I have a dog in this fight. That said, what is rather amusingly sad is that this issue, not surprisingly, fits with a general rule in Jewish Life. Regardless of who you talk to, many feel like those to the left of them are evil heretics, and those to the right of them are crazy zealots... :-)
And no Jew-hater will care what your lineage is when you identify as Jewish.