Photo: Israel Bardugo
'We are fortunate to merit so many people to take interest in continuing Jewish life and tradition'
Photo: Israel Bardugo

'Ki Tissa': Who is a Jew?

A Jew is anyone who wants to be Jewish and integrates into Jewish community; we should embrace newcomers rather than be afraid of them.

When I entered the auditorium she was already standing at its center, singing and strumming on her guitar, and surrounded by various musicians. Amidst all this, she made sure to greet everyone with a warm glance and smile.


I tend to be critical regarding charismatic people, but her glance contained a naive and gentle quality, as if she were not fully aware of her charisma. Even more than that, there was a feeling of authenticity, recognizable when she sang innocently, enjoying it and simultaneously able to be attentive to herself and her audience.


Her gentle facial features testified to her Korean background. Her smile made me feel like a welcomed guest. I sat down in a good, middle seat. Near me sat two fathers with their two mutual children. Behind me sat an African-American woman. I stared fascinated at the diversity of race and life style around me.


If you still haven't guessed, this impressive woman is Angela Warnick Buchdahl and she is the new rabbi at the 8,000-member strong Central Synagogue in New York. Whomever would like to see the rabbi and listen to her voice is welcomed to click on the below link. In this clip you will hear her speak about feminist commentary, and of course sing.


This is really not my community

I am Israeli and the culture of my community is very different from that of the members of the Central Synagogue. However, both the different and the wrong (in my eyes) were full of magic and life, and their choice in a serious demeanor was easily apparent.

This past Friday I prayed in a prosperous and knowledgeable Jewish community to whose opinions great attention should be given in regards to all Jewish issues, above all the urgent question: "Who is a Jew?"


The historic question

The appearance both of the rabbi and some of those in attendance praying suggested that they joined the Jewish community through conversion. At the beginning of the service, the rabbi invited us to shake hands with someone next to us we didn't yet know, introduce ourselves, and wish them "Shabbat Shalom."


The man who extended his hand to me stated apologetically: "I am not Jewish. Our marriage is an interfaith marriage and I love coming here. On Sundays my wife comes with me to church."


Pleasantly surprised and challenged, I asked myself if there is, in fact something new under the sun, as the Jewish society in Israel is composed of people whose skin, eyes, and hair color all suggest diverse backgrounds, and how the Jewish people is a product of a balanced order of guarding a closed community and integrating with foreign communities.


How did people join the Jewish community in the past? They joined in all sorts of ways. Certainly some joined through various forms of conversion. Some just arrived and stayed. Some of the mixing is the product of secret sexual relations. And some...


It is easy to assume that every means has been attempted. There was not always one uniform type of supervision for all of the diverse Jewish communities, nor was there always a mechanism for supervision at all. It simply happened. People joined, the seed of others mixed with ours and so it was for many years. This is how we find one people who has dark skinned descendants and others who are white with blue eyes.


Nurture, not nature

It takes an extreme amount of naïveté and intentional disregard for historical facts and people's and society's souls to believe that all Jews (except for those who had an official conversion) are descended from one original family. The process of creating a nation is far more complicated than that overly simplistic formula. This is especially true in light of the circumstances of Jewish life that are, and have been in the past, so complex.


The decision "who is a Jew" was never exclusively in the hands of mother nature or conversion institutions. The decision on the composition of the Jewish people has been nurtured by Jewish culture and as such is dynamic, changing with the community. In every generation societal and communal leaders decided on what and how much to be punctilious, when they turn a blind eye, or even welcomingly embrace the foreigner into the community


Who is a Jew?

Returning to Israel after Shabbat, I was subjected to a surprising security check. Within the framework of the many questions I was asked by the security officer a question I'm not sure was more strange or angering: "Did you stay at the house of a Jew?"


The vulgarity of the question embarrassed me and I didn't know how to respond. I stayed at the home of a wonderful woman. She too is a Reform rabbi. She too is not Jewish by birth. I responded to the security checker: "I don't know... She is Jewish in her body and soul... But would she qualify for the right of return? Would the official Rabbinate of the State of Israel consider her Jewish? It depends on who you ask. As for as I am concerned she is Jewish." At this point the security officer gave up and moved on to investigate people with simpler answers.


It seems to me that the exact and honest answer to the question "who is a Jew" is: A Jew is anyone who wants to be Jewish and integrates, one way or another, into the Jewish community. I think that this has been the correct answer throughout history. I think that with all the complexities that accompany this answer, we must cleave to it.


"The Holy One, Blessed-be-He, acted charitably in scattering Israel among the nations" (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 87B)


When I saw Rabbi Angela, the brave Talmudic teaching "The Holy One, Blessed-be-He, exiled Israel amongst the nations solely so that converts will be added on to them" echoed in my heart. I thought how fortunate we are to have merited someone like Rabbi Angela and so many others who choose to join the Jewish people.


There is no doubt that we are at a crucial moment for American Jewry, and therefore for all of Judaism. We have the choice of being alarmed by the Pew poll or welcoming the data with an open and brave heart.


The statistic that 58% of American Jews are married to non-Jews can stir up fears of extinction, but it can also encourage and hasten Jewish communities. It can encourage potential communal renewal through the addition of "new players" to the communal field. It can hasten us to freshen world views and Jewish laws, so that they will be appropriate for the absorption of new families. This is not the first time in history the Jewish community changed the rules of the game in order to open the gates.


"Sennacherib has long since come and intermingled all the nations" (Mishnah Yadayim 4:4)


The Aggadah, Rabbinic lore, tells that at the end of the first century C.E., in the great days of Yavneh, when Rabban Gamliel was expelled from the presidency, and he was replaced with more collective leadership, the Rabbinic Sages refreshed some central laws. Among others a convert named Yehudah tried his luck. Yehudah's name testifies to the fact that he converted, but because his previous nationality was Ammonite, until that very day, it was forbidden for him and his descendants to join the community of Israel.


But on that day, Rabbi Yehoshua decided to change the rules of the game for joining the Jewish nation, and the communal gates opened for Ammonites and Moabites (Mishnah Yadayim 4:4): "On that day Judah, an Ammonite convert, came and stood before them in the house of study. He said to them: 'Do I have the right to enter into the Assembly?' Rabban Gamliel said to him: 'You are forbidden.' Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: 'You are permitted.' Rabban Gamliel said to him: 'The scriptural verse (Deuteronomy 23:4) says: 'An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter in the Assembly of the Lord, even to the tenth generation...'. Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: 'But are the Ammonites and the Moabites still in their own territory?! Sennacherib has long since come and intermingled all the nations.'"


Theoretically as the ban on Ammonite and Moabite joining the Assembly of the Jewish people is an issue of the nation's very essence, and could therefore hurt the future of the entire nation, one should have had to rule more stringently as Sennacherib has already intermingled all the nations and it could be better to play it safe as we can't know if someone's true nationality of origin is Moabite or Ammonite, and not accept converts at all from the intermixed nations! However Rabbi Yehoshua understands well that the answer to the question 'Who is a Jew?' or 'Who is an Ammonite?' is not decided by 'Mother Nature', the answer to the question 'Who is a Jew?' is the product of cultural determination and of cultural responsibility. The answer to the question 'Who is a Jew?' is given to the people to decide.


Furthermore, I will state that the answer to the question is not entirely up to the rabbinical courts to determine. Communal decisions come to be accepted after traveling twisted paths.


Who is a Jew? Whomever chooses to be a Jew and lives with the Jewish community. How fortunate we are to merit so many additional people to take interest in continuing Jewish life and tradition. It is possible to embrace the newcomers, and not be frightened of them. Who knows, maybe the Jewish people will not shrink in population, but actually grow? It seems to me that it is up to us to make that happen.


The converts made the golden calf?

At the center if this week's Torah portion is the story of the golden calf. Standing at Sinai, with all its light and lightening, had barely passed and the children of Israel are already worshipping the golden calf.


Biblical commentators address the question why didn't all the miracles help, and how a people that was just saved from slavery rebel against their redeeming God. One of the answers is that the golden calf wasn't constructed by the "real" children of Israel but by the "rabble" that joined the children of Israel as they departed Egypt (Exodus Rabbah, Ki Tissa, 42): "The Holy One, Blessed-Be-He, said (to Moses) 'until they were in Egypt I told you... not to intermingle with them a mixed multitude. It was you that was humble and insisted always to accept captives. I knew what they would do in the future... They are the ones that created the golden calf as they were previously idolatrous. They created it and caused my nation to sin...'"


From this we can conclude that: (1) Always, since the days of the Exodus from Egypt, there were people who joined the people of Israel. Therefore the definition of "people of Israel" is unclear. (2) It is easier to blame those who joined rather than support them. (3) Blaming newcomers means removing the responsibility from ourselves. We are capable of doing so much more than that. Wouldn't it be a waste not to?


Shabbat Shalom!


Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas


Click here to read this article in Hebrew


פרסום ראשון: 02.14.14, 14:29
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