‘How to Prove You’re a Jew’ – Afterthoughts, aftershocks

Obama Converts to Judaism” says a headline on Huffington Post, which I found via the eternally alert Laura Rozen at War and Piece.

Buffeted by criticism of his controversial Christian pastor while continuing to quell rumors that he is a Muslim, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill) took a bold step today to settle questions about his religious faith once and for all.

“I am converting to Judaism, effective immediately,” Mr. Obama told reporters…

I know this is meant humorously, because it ends with:

…the move raised the ire of one of his harshest critics, former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro. “Barack Murray Obama wouldn’t be in the position he’s in if he wasn’t Jewish,” said Ms. Ferraro…

but I still wanted to zap a message to Obama warning him: For heaven’s sake, don’t do it. It’s enough he has to prove he’s pro-Israel. Must he add the problem of convincing the Israeli rabbinate that he is a Jew? Believe me, it won’t be easy.

When I wrote “How to Prove You’re a Jew” for the New York Times Magazine, I guessed it would stir interest. I didn’t imagine how much. One friend told me it had been emailed to her 20 times. She also told me she’d had a terribly difficult time proving she was a Jew when she got married here in Israel a couple of years ago, despite a packet of letters she brought from Orthodox rabbis. She’s not the only one to provide me with the back story to weddings I attended, or of lives I never would have known about. Several people wrote to me about the multiple conversions they underwent until they passed muster. It’s a good thing they loved Judaism, because otherwise the state-appointed bureaucrats of faith would have convinced them to hate it.

Since the Times article was a feature story, genre restrictions kept me from including my own conclusions. At the American Prospect, I’ve now written on some political implications,

Most obvious, Israel needs to separate state and synagogue…

The point of separation is not only to protect nonbelievers but also to protect Judaism from the state. As Tulane University sociologist of religion Brenda Brasher once pointed out to me, the United States is the most religious country in the West precisely because of its unusual separation of church and state. America is a hothouse of religious innovation and variety, because religious institutions have to attract people to come through their doors… Judaism in Israel, tied to the state, alienates most Israeli Jews.

But there are several more points worth making.

First, some people who wrote to me, or who commented in various places online, would like to believe that the rabbinate only causes problems for people who aren’t Jewish under Orthodox law, or for those wayward Jews who grew up Reform or Conservative.

If my article as published wasn’t enough to dispel that notion, here are a couple of paragraphs that had to be cut to fit the article on the Times’ pages. They concern the experience at the rabbinate of Yehudah Mirsky:

Mirsky… is an Orthodox rabbi, as were his father, who was dean of Yeshiva University’s women’s college – and his grandfather, a famed scholar at the same university. Mirsky’s extended family, he notes with a wry laugh, includes ultra-Orthodox Israeli politicians. When Mirsky and his Israeli fiancée registered for marriage in 2002, he recounts, he arrived at the Jerusalem rabbinate with a letter from “an impeccably Orthodox rabbi” in the U.S., written on the letterhead of Young Israel, a major Orthodox organization.

The registrar “looked at it and said it’s not good enough. He didn’t tell me why,” Mirsky says. Mirsky had brought his own ordination certificate; the registrar wouldn’t look at it. Afterward, he returned with a letter from Rabbi Yehudah Amital – the retired dean of a major Israeli yeshiva – with whom he’d studied years earlier. With that, he was approved. “I asked myself what happens to the average Jew on street who wasn’t fortunate enough to have warm relations with a famous rabbi,” he says.

The old assumption of the American Orthodox establishment that it has a partner in the Israeli rabbinate belongs in the archives with flat-earth geography and heliocentric astronomy. The ultra-Orthodox rabbis of the state system doubt the Jewishness of anyone from outside their own closed communities – and for them, a great many Orthodox American Jews look like outsiders.

Nonetheless, trying to maintain the illusion of the old partnership, the Rabbinic Council of America recently concluded a humiliating agreement with the rabbinate on conversion. From now on, only conversions performed in a new network of RCA rabbinic courts will be guaranteed acceptance in Israel. As rabbis Marc Angel and Avi Weiss have written, the accord deligitimizes most American Orthodox rabbis. Worse, it calls into question conversions performed years ago – an affront to every person who has made the choice to accept Judaism, to their children and grandchildren.

The underlying error of the RCA members who accepted this diktat – and of many other modern Orthodox Jews – is that they believe it possible to agree on a standard of conversion that will be accepted by everyone. It’s an illusion. Ultra-Orthodox communities cast doubt on conversions approved by the Israeli rabbinate. The Israeli rabbinate casts doubts on conversions by US Orthodox rabbis. There is no agreed standard. There is no possibility of restoring agreement on who is Jewish.

Modern Orthodox rabbis who want to remain open to the complexities of the modern world, and of of the lives of people who sincerely want to become Jews, must recognize the obvious: No matter what they do, their converts – like their own Judaism – will be regarded with suspicion by those within the self-created ultra-Orthodox ghetto. Therefore, they should give up on trying to satisfy the ultra-Orthodox.

And one last note: The policy of doubt I described in my article, the attitude that a person who says she is Jewish must bring proof rather than being trusted, is a radical innovation in Judaism. It is just one more example of how people who claim to be maintaining tradition in the face of modernity have created an entirely modern form of religion. This is true not just of the ultra-Orthodox but of Christian fundamentalists and of various strands of Islamicism. What’s sold as “old-time religion” is a new invention. Caveat emptor.

3 thoughts on “‘How to Prove You’re a Jew’ – Afterthoughts, aftershocks”

  1. Gershom,

    While I agree with your article that the current situation is deplorable, I feel that you should have noted that many of the roots of the current arrangement which gives the Chief Rabbinate jurisdiction over personal matters are to be found in the millet system which was inherited from the British Mandate who in turn inherited it from the Ottomans. It doesn’t mitigate the problem, but may even show how un-Jewish the current situation is.

  2. As an Orthodox Jew, I believe that only separation of shul and state can save religion in Israel. But, while many writers (such as yourself) see that point, it seems that politically, it is a dead issue. Thus, what can be done? Is this yet another of those Israeli issues that will serve to frustrate the majority for years to come, or is there a solution? Maybe when dati Jews begin flying to Cyprus, an answer will be found. For now, I advise anyone thinking of getting married in Israel to get civilly married in the States first, and then have a religious wedding with a rabbi of their choice in Israel.

  3. To follow-up on Brenda Basher’s and Gershom’s points, the historical source of America’s religious freedom isn’t the Puritans, it’s the Quakers in Pennsylvania, the Dutch in New York – the groups with respect for diversity and the opinions and lifestyles of others.

    Can you imagine the United States today if the Puritans had been able to wrest bureaucratic control of marriage licenses, and define who was really a Christian (and hence “truly” American in their view?) Would our “nation of immigrants” have ever occurred? Our greatness?

    The shift from “give us your Jews” to “give us your certified, well documented, undeniably Jewish Jews — but only if they’re orthodox” is striking. It doesn’t sound at all like what the “founding fathers” intended for Israel sixty years ago. As Gershom says, separation of state and synagogue is needed, or both will be diminished.

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