Friday, May 29, 2020 -
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Jewish geography: more than a game

We all know how to play the game. You go to a party and the woman next to you mentions that she just moved from Detroit and for the next few minutes, the conversation goes something like this.

“Really? I have a cousin in Detroit, or maybe its West Bloomfield,” you say with an immediate sense of connection. “Do you know David Greenberg? He used to be the president of Congregation Beth Israel.”

She smiles and responds that her best friend from high school is a member of Beth Israel and that she goes to a gynecologist named Greenberg, so its probably the same guy.

The banter goes back and forth like a ping pong match as you affirm the reality that for many Jews, there is only one degree of separation between you and someone’s closest friend, physician or high school sweetheart.

And truthfully, there’s something comforting about feeling connected to other Jews — even those you barely know — not because of affiliation, profession or ideology, but simply because we are members of the same tribe living all over the country and the world.

At the heart of this seemingly innocuous game however, lies a question whose answer has become quite contentious and often hurtful to Jews and non-Jews alike, especially those living in Israel.

The questions of who qualifies as a member of the tribe (MOT) or in modern parlance, “Who is a Jew?” has serious and diverse legal, religious and political ramifications that did not exist in Biblical times when simply being a member of one of the 12  tribes determined the answer.

The original name for the people we refer to as Jews today was Hebrews (Ivri in Hebrew) and was first mentioned in Genesis to describe Abraham. Tradition teaches that the word means “from the other side,” referring to both the fact that Abraham came from the across the Euphrates and that he was different from the other nations both morally and spiritually because he understood that there was only one true God.

Later in the Torah, the Hebrews are called the Children of Israel or the Israelites, referring to the fact that we are descendants of Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel when he wrestled with God and received His blessing.

The word “Jew” itself (in Hebrew, Yehudi) comes from the name Judah, the only one of Jacob’s sons who offered his own life up to protect his younger brother, and who was named as one of the 12 tribes of Israel.

When the Children of Israel came together at the foot of Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah, everyone who stood before God that day –– from the heads of tribes to the wood choppers, from the elderly to the women and small children –– came together as one people, the Jewish people, to receive the Torah.

The question of who is a Jew has taken on new meaning since the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. Israel is a Jewish democratic society, but unlike American democracy, there is no separation between the domain of religion and the state, whether that religion is Judaism, Islam or Christianity. Jews in Israel are subject to state-run religious institutions which are regulated by the Orthodox Rabbinate.

Jewish law, or Halachah, is officially recognized and permeates many aspects of Israeli life — from the prohibition of public transportation on the Sabbath to who may marry whom to where a person may be buried.

According to Halachah, a Jew is anyone born to a Jewish mother or who has been converted according to Halachah. For many Israeli citizens who emigrated under the Law of Return, and others, this definition is problematic and controversial.

When Israel was founded in the aftermath of the Holocaust, one of its first acts as a government was to abolish all prior restrictions on Jewish immigration, such as those enforced by the British. In 1950, the Knesset passed the Law of Return, which gave every Jew the right to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen.

The initial law deliberately avoided using any religious definition of Jewish identity, but conflicts arose between the state and the rabbinate, with many issues ending up in the Knesset.

The Law of Return was amended in 1970, which both expanded and limited the definition of “who is a Jew.”

For purposes of immigration and Israeli citizenship, anyone with one Jewish grandparent is considered Jewish. But for purposes of national and civil law (including marriage, adoption, conversion and divorce), only a person with a Jewish mother or a mother who is legitimately converted is considered Jewish.

To add to the confusion, legitimate conversion is not specified in the Law of Return, giving rise to new questions such as to “who is a rabbi?” and “who is a convert?”  

Today there is much controversy caused by this dual definition.

For example, marriages in Israel which are not officiated by an Orthodox rabbi are considered invalid. Because there is no civil-law alternative for marriage, many Israelis leave the country to get married, including those who are not Jewish under Halachah.

Or, a child born to Russian immigrants whose mother cannot prove that she is Jewish, is not considered Jewish, even though as an Israeli citizen he is required to fight in the army.  

American Jews can criticize or support these policies. But the fact remains: As Jews in America, we are privileged because our disagreements will always remain within the confines of our synagogues and religious institutions, and not be determined by the state. For those American Jews who accept

Jewish pluralism and consider it as much a part of our being Jewish as it is as being an American, we have more freedom to navigate through the waters of dispute.

We must understand, however, that Israel faces problems that are unique and perhaps even necessary to the only country in the world that calls itself a Jewish democracy.

Amy Lederman

IJN Columnist | Reflections

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