Tuesday, March 04, 2008

This is sad

And laughable, and pathetic, and a whole lot of other things, too.

In recent years, the state’s Chief Rabbinate and its branches in each Israeli city have adopted an institutional attitude of skepticism toward the Jewish identity of those who enter its doors. And the type of proof that the rabbinate prefers is peculiarly unsuited to Jewish life in the United States. The Israeli government seeks the political and financial support of American Jewry. It welcomes American Jewish immigrants. Yet the rabbinate, one arm of the state, increasingly treats American Jews as doubtful cases: not Jewish until proved so.

More than any other issue, the question of Who is a Jew? has repeatedly roiled relations between Israel and American Jewry. Psychologically, it is an argument over who belongs to the family. In the past, the casus belli was conversion: Would the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to any Jew coming to Israel, apply to those converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbis? Now, as Sharon’s experience indicates, the status of Jews by birth is in question. Equally important, the dividing line is no longer between Orthodox and non-Orthodox. The rabbinate’s handling of the issue has placed it on one side of an ideological fissure within Orthodox Judaism itself, between those concerned with making sure no stranger enters the gates and those who fear leaving sisters and brothers outside.

...Today the meaning of being Jewish is disputed — a faith? a nationality? — but in Israeli society the principle of matrilineal descent remains widely accepted. Sharon’s mother was Jewish, so Sharon knew that she was, too. And yet it seemed impossible to provide evidence that would persuade the rabbinate.

Sharon left the office infuriated. Her mother was Jewish enough to leave affluent America for Israel; her brothers had fought for the Jewish state. Now, she felt, she was being told, “For that you’re good enough, but to be considered Jews for religious purposes you’re not.”

This is also the logical result of allowing an increasingly conservative (and apparently somewhat xenophobic) minority unbridled power over state institutions. In a pluralistic Israel, like in plenty of other Jewish communities around the world, it wouldn't MATTER how Jewish one's mother was (or wasn't). If individual people want to do background checks or stigmatize Jews because their credentials aren't good enough for them, fine, let them. But it's absurd that in a country where the vast majority of citizens are not anywhere close to Orthodox, Orthodox laws should dictate government policy. How can Israel credibly claim to be anything close to a "homeland" for the world's Jews when it is bending over backwards to disenfranchise so many of them? And for what? It's not like most of the politicians actually believe in (or care about) halacha. It's politics, pure and simple. It's the deadly weakness of the parliamentary system that gives disproportionate strength to smaller parties, thereby allowing them to hijack national policies. And it's the historical failure of countless Israeli governments to stand up to the Orthodox minority and draw their lines in the sand. The founding fathers of Israel could laugh in the face of five enemy armies but cowered under their desks when men with black hats and beards came around.

I want to stress that I do not hate the Orthodox. I admire the strength of their beliefs and think that some of their values are laudable (and brave and decent people like R. Seth Farber, mentioned later in the article, have a special place in my heart and in heaven). But halacha is NOT the law of the land of Israel, and the mere preferences of one group of Jews should not be the deciding factor of who gets to be counted. And it is this perception of a total unwillingness to compromise, as well as an encroachment on the personal lives and dignity of others, which is going a long way towards harming the image of the Orthodox among other groups of Jews, in Israel and abroad. If the Orthodox activists have their way, not only will large portions of people who presently identify as Jewish (my own cousins included) be cut off from the supposed Jewish homeland because their mothers aren't of the right "tribe" or their rabbis aren't from the right denomination, so will people like myself, Jewish on all sides as far back as we can trace, who don't have "sufficient" documentation:

“He ended up being my husband,” Suzie said with a laugh. He wasn’t Jewish, a twist in the story line. They left Israel together to wander through Europe and married in a civil ceremony in England. Those details would later loom immense: Had he been Jewish, had they married in Israel, she would have had a ketuba, or religious marriage contract issued by the rabbinate, for her daughter to show years later.

...The main function of the rabbinic courts is divorce, also a purely religious process in Israel. A secondary function is providing judicial rulings on whether a person is Jewish. For that, the main clientele is immigrants from the former Soviet Union. A fairly standard procedure exists for them. It includes examining Soviet-era documents, like birth certificates, that list a citizen’s nationality. (In the Soviet system, “Jewish” was a nationality, parallel to “Russian” or “Uzbek,” listed in everyone’s official papers.)

At the court, Sharon told me, the clerk who opened her file told her to bring her mother’s birth certificate and her parents’ marriage certificate. “I said: ‘But my mother’s birth certificate doesn’t say “Jewish.” It’s from the United States. They don’t write that. And the marriage license — they had a civil wedding.’ ” After she waited hours to see a judge, he told Sharon to return with “any document that would testify to her mother’s Jewishness.” She asked a court official if a letter from a Conservative rabbi would solve the problem. Her mother has a cousin in Florida who is a rabbi, son of the uncle who originally sent Suzie to Israel. No, the official said, “that won’t help. It has to be someone Orthodox.”

See, my parents don't have a ketuba, either. They married in a civil ceremony, and even though the person that officiated was a cantor (a first-cousin once-removed, actually), apparently HE isn't good enough because he didn't belong to the right denomination!

This is, pure and simple, lunacy. To all the aliyah-pushers out there who keep saying that us Diaspora Jews are somehow defective because we aren't "going home," how are we to react to this? I could break up with my non-Jewish girlfriend, go to Israel right now, as a "full-blooded" Jew according to the strictest halachic standards, and I might STILL be discriminated against because I don't have the right credentials! (Or maybe not: we have Hebrew tombstones and some Ellis Island documents that say we're "Hebrew"- but there's no Orthodox connection! A shanda!)

Who the hell are these bozos to make these calls? Did I miss a memo or something? The best part is that all of these hurdles are just to get to the point where one can be married in an Orthodox ceremony by an Orthodox rabbi, neither of which I have any interest in. It just keeps getting better, doesn't it? (Breaking news- the Orthodox rabbinate in America has just been informed it gets to be "kosher" again. And all it had to do was lick the Chief Rabbis' boots. Truly, a victory for all!)

Sorry, folks, but this isn't democracy. This isn't Zionism. It isn't humane or respectful, either. This is the Talibanization of Judaism and Israel, and it's disgusting. And if this is the realization of Herzl and so many others' dreams, it's no dream I want any part of.

Hat-tips: DovBear and FailedMessiah.


Jack said...

It is always nice to deal with someone else's narishkeit. This will change.

Ben-David said...

This is a non-issue in Israel, because:

1) The vast majority of Israelis are far more conservative and respectful of Halacha than you describe, and have no problem with this definition of Jewishness. Only a small minority take umbrage.

The numbers are almost exactly opposite the numbers in America - 70-80 percent of Israelis believe in the Divine origin of the Torah and Halacha even if they are not strict in observance.

which leads to...

2) The vast majority of American Jews have zero connection with Israel - they are so ignorant/indifferent that they don't even join Reform or Recon synagogues.

If you're not present, you don't have an influence.

Many traditional-minded Israelis read this story as "the Chief Rabbinate closing the barn door after the sheep have flown" - as a necessary drawing of lines, and adding up the Jewish people's losses to assimilation.

Can't have it both ways: none of the people like you - huffing and puffing about Pluralism - none of you would want the Law of Return, which expresses Jewry's link to Israel, to be repealed. Well, if being Jewish has legal ramification, then the government must be involved.

Things are different here in the Jewish state.

Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...

Hi Ben-david,

I don't question that things are different in the Jewish state. For one, yes, there is a large number of Jews who, while not observant, are also not ready to throw their lot in with non-Orthodox movements- the "the shul I don't pray in is Orthodox" crowd. That's fine with me. I don't get it, I don't agree with it, but I don't have to. (At the same time, I'm by no means convinced that this is equivalent to "being respectful" of halacha. I think it's more that since the law does not immediately AFFECT them, they have the luxury of not NEEDING to care about it- sort of like how whites didn't need to care about Jim Crow.)

However: I find it very hypocritical for people to be pushing aliyah at "all Jews" and representing Israel as the proper home for "all Jews" when it's clear that IN Israel, some Jews are more equal, more Jewish, than others.

And for those of us who DO believe in pluralism, this is obviously going to be something of a stumbling-block. Your one good argument is that you need feet on the ground to have an impact- and to that end, I suppose I should congratulate the non-Orthodox Jews that keep making aliyah, regardless of the fact that their Jewish practice and status is treated as less than equal. I don't agree with it, but that's good, too. And who knows- maybe if more Reform Jews go to Israel, they'll be able to change things.

As far as your other point:

The vast majority of American Jews have zero connection with Israel - they are so ignorant/indifferent that they don't even join Reform or Recon synagogues.

I don't see how the Israel connection has anything to do with whether one belongs to a synagogue. Hell, Neturei Karta people belong to synagogues. And there have historically (and continue to be) plenty of secular Zionists, in America and elsewhere. I'm not following your argument here. I would say that if one looks from the other direction, there are probably a fair amount of non-Orthodox Jews, particularly in America, who are not very attached to Israel. But, number one, this seems to be changing, and number two, it seems foolish and bizarre to criticize them for this when the Jewish state doesn't seem interested in acknowledging or respecting their existence in the first place.

Many traditional-minded Israelis read this story as "the Chief Rabbinate closing the barn door after the sheep have flown" - as a necessary drawing of lines, and adding up the Jewish people's losses to assimilation.

Losses to assimilation? We are talking about people that are moving TO Israel to live IN the Jewish state and who identify AS Jews, and are being turned away. You've got a pretty funny idea of what constitutes assimilation.

I don't see how I'm trying to have it both ways. The Law of Return is a CIVIL law that the Knesset and High Court wrote, based on a variety of different perspectives and agendas. I am saying that, as a non-Orthodox Jew, I do not understand the argument for saying the government of Israel, which should supposedly be representing all Israelis and which purports to be the homeland of ALL JEWS, to automatically accept the Orthodox interpretations of halacha, say that only Orthodox rabbis are rabbis, that only Orthodox marriages are valid ones, and so on down the line. Frankly, I don't think that should be the government's decision, and, to be perfectly honest, I resent the hypocrisy from people saying that "we" (be it the youth, be it Americans, be it non-Orthodox) aren't engaged with or attached to Israel enough, even while we're being spat on (oh, and asked for money, of course). To be frank, it's getting old.

Israel's important to me. But it's not my home. And news like this isn't likely to make me change my mind.