THE news that Cardinal John O’Connor of New York was born of a Jewish mother surfaced a while ago. This week there was an extensive article about it in The New York Times. Not only was the cardinal born of a Jewish mother, but her father, the Cardinal’s grandfather, was a rabbi and a shochet. His mother converted to Catholicism when she was 19 and never spoke of her Jewishness. She died a devout Catholic, while sitting in a chair praying with the rosary.
The theory and consensus are that the cardinal was unaware of his Jewish ancestry.
Interesting that his tenure as cardinal was so significant in friendship to the Jewish community.
He walked the grounds of Dachau.
He stood in solidarity with the Jewish community fighting for Soviet Jewry’s freedom, even going so far as saying at a rally, “I’m proud to be with you, this day, a Jew.”
He played a crucial role in getting the Vatican to recognize Israel in 1993.
Was it his pintele Yid, his spark of Jewishness, speaking? It’s hard to know. But touching nonetheless.
Although it’s true that in Judaism, Jewish identity comes from the mother, when the mother is an apostate (in this case a convert to Catholicism), it is not quite so simple. In the final analysis, the rabbinic and halachic consensus is that being born of a Jewish mother makes and keeps one Jewish.
However, there are some major halachic decisors who disagree, most notably the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.
Although his opinion is not accepted as mainstream, it is worth noting in order to understand that apostasy is, in Judaism, not a simple status.
Throughout Jewish history, when there were forced conversions of Jews, most famously in the Spanish crypto-Jewish community, this halachic reality was dealt with extensively.
It is not something we think of as a contemporary halachic discussion.
Then you read the news about the cardinal.
Because of assimilation and the difficulty of being Jewish in anti-Semitic times, many did convert or passively assimilate. It is sad to imagine over the years the loss of so many Jews and its consequences.
IT seems that people keep coming out of the woodwork with Jewish ancestry. Secretary of State John Kerry, a descendant of the Maharal of Prague? Madeleine Albright? And recently, after discovering his Jewish ancestry, the astonishing transformation of Csanad Szegedi, once a member of the anti-Semitic far right political party, Jobbik, in Hungary. Today, he is Sabbath-observant, eats kosher and his wife is converting to Judaism along with him.
So much was lost — with the accompanying anguish within the Jewish community — yet even within the loss there are sparks of Jewishness or even sparks of return.
Even if, according to some opinions, an apostate may lose his or her legal status as a Jew, on a personal level the dictum “a Jew is a Jew” is so true. Sometimes this identity might be concealed until after a person dies. Sometimes for generations. But at some point, somehow, somewhere, there is some kind of an awakening, or an awareness.
THE cardinal’s mother made a choice to leave the people she was born into. But somehow, even if generations later, fate validates the identity she was born into by revealing this layer of Jewish identity and status in the cardinal. His mother remained a Jewess.
And like Cardinal John O’Connor himself, who chose a path of spiritual leadership, his very own grandfather was, of all things, a rabbi.
Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News