Monday, July 16, 2012

Playing by the Rules

I have a new post up on intra-community liberal Jewish friction/differences over at Too Cool For Shul, but the money quote relevant to this post is here:
with us slowly starting to take more mitzvot (or pseudo-mitzvot) on, the idea of belonging to a community that actually purports to follow some version of halacha-- in both positive and, perhaps "restrictive" ways, no longer feels quite so at odds with our own philosophies. Mrs. Yid told me shortly before we got married that for her to feel connected, she needed to feel like she was actually doing Jewish things, and I think there's something to that. 
...Though I'm still not exactly sure how much halacha I'm prepared to personally accept, I think I'm becoming more comfortable with the idea of being part of a community that at least seriously considers what halacha has to say, and I think worship style is part of this evolving sensibility as well. However, some of our foundational core values are also inclusiveness and diversity, so I think balancing those two elements is going to be an ongoing process as we try to take our Judaism and our community-building more seriously.
So that's background to this interesting piece by Rabbi Jason Miller, where he mulls over what to do about intermarriage and non-halachic Jewish kids.
it is important to understand that the Reform Movement's 1983 resolution allowing patrilineal descent didn't create this mess, but it did complicate it further. In the almost 30 years since that decision, there has been much crossover between the Conservative and Reform movements in America. Thus, when the Reform movement issued its resolution (which was in the works for more than 35 years), it might have thought the implications would be wholly positive and would really only impact Reform Jews (the resolution specifies "in Reform communities"). However, that resolution has had negative impacts on both the Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements. The question of "Who's a Jew" has less implications for the Orthodox Jews in America as it is unusual for them to marry outside of their sect. It is when a Modern Orthodox or Conservative young person wants to marry an individual who has been considered Jewish through the Reform movement's notion of patrilineal descent that we are posed with the problem. Jewish young people in these more liberal denominations interact throughout adolescence and the college years in youth groups, summer camps, Israel trips and college Hillels. Additionally, following college Jewish communal organizations like Federation and B'nai Brith do not distinguish between patrilineal Jews and matrilineal Jews at young adult singles' events. 
...this issue must be resolved for Jews from the more liberal movements of modern Judaism (Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Modern Orthodox) whose followers are marrying each other and raising families together. 
Over the years, there have been several recommendations to fix this matter. Some have suggested mass conversions for all Jewish children before bar or bat mitzvah. Others have recommended that all brides and grooms go to the mikveh as a form of conversion before the wedding to assure Halachic Jewish status. 
My proposal is to set a time limit on the status quo. Until the year 2020, matrilineal descent is the only accepted form of passing Jewish status genetically. Jewish individuals who are raised Jewish in a home with a Jewish father and identify as Jewish are to be considered Jewish from a cultural perspective, but must undergo a formal conversion for recognition as Jewish from a Halachic understanding. 
After the year 2020, it will be understood that because of modern genetic testing (DNA tests) it is now possible to ascertain patrilineality with complete certainty. Therefore, a Jewish individual with at least one Jewish parent will be considered Jewish from a Halachic perspective for all matters. While the Orthodox will not agree to this, it will not have the same negative implications as the fissure between the Reform and Conservative movements that has existed for the past three decades.
More than almost any other issue, I find patrilineal descent and "Who is a Jew?" to be one of the most painful and raw problems in contemporary Jewish society today. On the one hand, as a person who has patrilineal Jewish cousins (and matrilineal cousins who have never set foot in a synagogue and were raised Christian), I find the standard Orthodox response that my uncle's kids are less Jewish than my aunt's both unreasonable as well as downright insulting. (Particularly given the scholarship suggesting that at various points matrilineal descent was not the determining factor of Jewishness.) At the same time, I also acknowledge that my standard response ("My future kids can deal with their Jewish status if they want to at a later date") may be on the overly-glib side.

The real issue comes down to whether you accept halacha (or Jewish customs/folkways) as in any way binding, and if you do, how you integrate that understanding and worldview into modern life, including the important value of treating others with respect and decency. As such, though I'm not sure that Rabbi Miller's solution is necessarily workable, it's refreshing to see someone from the liberal community at least treating the topic as an actual issue that needs to be thought about and that needs some sort of resolution, even if it's not the one he proposes.


Antigonos said...

Rabbi Jason Miller is kidding himself if he thinks ANY halacha-observant Jew will accept patrilineal descent, now or in 2020. Matrilineal descent is first mentioned in the Mishnah, which, short of being explicitly laid out in the Torah, makes it about as authoritative -- and ancient, nearly two millenia old -- as you can get.

There is a big difference between being "Jewish enough" for the Gentiles of the world, [and the Israeli government, to allow aliyah under the Law of the Return] and the religious definition [which isn't religious at all, just to confuse things]. The saying that the arbiter of "Who Is A Jew" is someone like Hitler is quite true, but that's not the end of it.

Every society, or religion, has rules. A Hindu can walk into a Catholic Church, imitate the genuflections and kneeling, etc. of the worshippers, even take Communion -- but it doesn't make him a bona fide Catholic in the eyes of other Catholics, even if he sincerely believes he is .

I further dislike R. Miller's use of the term "sect" for what has been for most of Jewish history, mainstream Judaism. Both Conservative and Reform movements are products of the post-Haskalah age. IMO, neither is holding up too well. The former seems to be splitting either in the direction of the Orthodox and the Reform, and the latter is developing into a religion that is largely jettisoning its Jewish content. Only in the past 30 years or so has a certain branch of the Reform [by no means all], under the influence of Reconstructionism, made any attempt to re-establish some basic Yiddishkeit, if not halachic observance. The fact is that people like yourself are struggling to maintain SOME sort of connection to traditional Judaism with very little guidance, since most of you reject standard Orthodox observance as being too stringent [alternately, we are witnessing the BT phenomenon, which is so off the wall that the ORTHODOX have problems with its cultishness] and too time-consuming and restrictive. In other words, it's a case of "have your cake and eat it too".

I don't claim to be either Orthodox or a good Jew. That's between me and God. But I don't kid myself that one can rewrite the rules to please myself and then claim that I AM a good Jew, which is what I see happening in the US. Two quotes from Parashat Nitzavim come to mind: Devarim 30: 11-16, 19-20 [in fact, the entire parasha is awesome].The Torah and the Oral Law form a complete framework, which has kept us a distinctive people for for at least 2000, possibly as much as 3000 years. That, if nothing else, is the vindication of halacha.

rejewvenator said...

With Orthodoxy undergoing its own convulsions over conversion, there may be a generational opportunity heading our way.

Ultra-Orthodox conversions standards have shifted to the point that basically, only conversions by Hareidi rabbis of Jews who then take on Hareidi Judaism are going to be valid - and conversion will be controlled largely by Israel's Hareidi establishment.

If more modern Orthodox elements refuse to concede their authority in this regard, they may well coalesce around standards set by more left-leaning rabbis. Some kind of Bnai-Mitzvah conversion ceremony would be a boon to all, allowing everyone to undergo the ritual so that nobody faces any shame, while re-incorporating matrilineal descent as the 'true' halachic marker of conversion.

More subtly, incorporating a conversion ritual into Bnai mitzvah helps turn the ceremony into a true entrance into Jewish community, rather than the exit ramp that often becomes in non-Orthodox communities. Alongside that, it also introduces into Orthodoxy an element of personal agency that is often missing. B-Mitzvah becomes a true taking on of obligations personally, rather than the sense that those obligations now descend upon you irrespective of your wishes.

Friar Yid said...

Hi Antigonos,

I found R. Miller's solution far-fetched as well. But I do like that he's raising the issue and acknowledging that it poses a problem for people who both take halacha seriously but also don't want to disavow non-halachic Jews. I take your point about community and societal norms, but Judaism and Jewishness don't really function the same as Catholicism since we don't have a centralized ecclesiastical hierarchy-- and haven't for a very long time. If part of our definition of Jewishness is determined by “community considers them Jewish,” the liberal approaches seem to have earned themselves a place at the table if only by pure numbers. (OJ is growing but they're still far from a majority.)

Your points about the term "sect" and the present challenges facing the liberal movements are fair, but numbers aren't everything: despite its growth, the Orthodox camp doesn't seem to have all its issues ironed out, either-- which is part of why folks like me have no interest in joining it. Everything I read tells me that centrist MO is continually being attacked by its right-most flanks and urged to become more Haredi, abandoning the precepts of Torah u' Maddah and cutting off those outside of their haskafic sphere. A Judaism like that does nothing for me (to say nothing of the fact that my marriage, philosophy and politics would seem to already disqualify me). As a liberal Jew I can take on as much as I want, and all I'll be is eccentric. In the Orthodox world, as I understand it, I'd be seen as hypocritical at best and downright rejected at worst. Centrist OJ, in my view, has done wonders for Jewish pride and visibility in modern society, and has also done quite well in passing on its values and community identity to the next generation. But looking at it today, watching it becoming increasingly Haredi and turning away from the very values that made it great-- there just doesn't seem to be anything there for me.

The OJ world doesn't seem to understand, or perhaps doesn't care, why so many young Jews like me flat out refuse to investigate OJ. The fact is that someone with an extremely limited Jewish background who is interested in positively claiming a Jewish identity but frankly isn't sure they buy into Torah mi' Sinai, much less the whole halachic system, isn't very likely to start checking their clothes for shatnez or rush out to start buying glatt-kosher steak. OJ has never been able to find a good way to speak to unaffiliated people in their own language as to why they should follow halacha, and I suspect part of this is because so many OJs are born within that system and never leave it, so the idea of not having the foundational assumptions doesn't enter into their thought process.

I take your point about rewriting the rules. Intellectual honesty is very important to me, which is why, for instance, I don't claim to be keeping kosher by virtue of buying organic meat. Though I'm in the process of doing much more than I used to, I don't claim the "halachic" label, either. That said, I’m skeptical that everything presently claimed as halacha by the Orthodox, both by leaders and lay people, was historically normative. And I don't buy the argument that a chumra or custom need to be followed as if they were written in stone because "That's just the way things are now," or "That's the price of staying separate." That kind of thinking has no appeal to me.

For now at least, we'll stand where we stand and do what we do, and eventually maybe we'll do more and continue to find fulfilling ways to be Jewish. At the end of the day, my first priority is educating and improving myself and my family. Whether liberal Judaism ultimately retracts or shifts hashkafically is not going to be the ultimate decider for our lifestyle or personal practice.

Friar Yid said...

Hi rejewvenator,

I think your proposal of cementing a modified conversion ceremony as part of b'nai mitzah, is an excellent one. I particularly like the idea of making it a standardized practice so that everyone under a certain tent would have the same status, at least per their own rules, as opposed to it only being done for those of "questionable" status. Orthodoxy would still be a challenge, but I agree that actually doing something to attempt to resolve the issue could help demonstrate to some in the LW-OJ camp that the liberal movements are serious and potentially move some of them to support it.

As to your second point, not only do I think that the idea of personal agency would be resonant, I think anything that might encourage young liberal Jews to stay engaged with their communities post B'nai mitzvah is worth trying.

Antigonos said...

If part of our definition of Jewishness is determined by “community considers them Jewish,”

But you see, that is NOT the defining criterion for Orthodox Judaism: the fact that your mother is [according to halacha]. They don't know, and don't care whether you accept the "ol hamitzvot" [the yoke of the commandments]. Contrariwise, your wife may keep a great many of the commandments, but she is at best a "gera toshevet" [resident alien]; she's simply not a Jew, nor will your children be, unless she converts [k'halacha] Moreover, they have no interest in approaching you with modifications in their outlook; they know they are living in the correct manner, and you are welcome to join them if you wish. Although most standard [not haredi] Orthodox rabbis will admit that there are Jews in the Reform Movement, they have grave doubts whether Reformism is Judaism any more.

Do different rabbis have different opinions? You betcha. There are modern Orthodox minyanim even here in Israel [one is just down the street from me] where women read from the Torah [but separately from the men, because of the prohibition of kol isha]. There are varying degrees of kashrut -- I work with several nurses who won't eat anything in my kosher home at all, and others will. One of the joys of being Jewish is that there is a wide range of opinions, yet there are parameters that don't get crossed. Shrimp will never be anything but treif; but there is fake shrimp out there which is kosher. But YOU choose what you eat and no one tells you to leave the shul because he caught you out. No one can sit in judgement on you, unlike a Catholic priest.

I think that you've never actually met any "reasonable" Orthodox Jews. The stereotype is the haredi lunatic who spends all this time worrying whether his tzizit are kosher or not. A lot of MO find them very embarrassing, btw. I should remind you that the Vilna Gaon actually excommunicated the Hassidim [who are the haredim par excellence] because some of their beliefs are heretical. R. Samson Rafael Hirsch wrote extensively on how to live as both an Orthodox Jew and a modern man: "Torah im derech eretz", at a time when German Jewry was struggling with much the same assimilatory influences that today's non-Orthodox Jews are confronting in the US.

To be cont'd.

Antigonos said...

Part 2:
I personally think that education -- major education -- is the only answer. American Jews are amazingly ignorant of their heritage and religion, as a Reform rabbi [davka!] pointed out to me years ago. It won't make all young liberal Jews suddenly become frum, but they will be making choices from a standpoint of knowledge rather than ignorance. The problem is where to get it. The Reform Movement has a reason not to push education in traditional Judaism much, if at all. There don't seem to be very many motivational Conservative rabbis out there. I began my very long journey because of an exceptional Reconstructionist rabbi [who grew up in an Orthodox home, btw]. Studying with Orthodox Jews commits you to nothing, except having your horizons widened by seeing things from another viewpoint. YOU then make the decision to either accept or reject that viewpoint, and it's nobody's business but your own.[Just do me a favor and don't think that kashrut and organic food have anything to do with one another :-)]

Incidentally, an eminent Reform Rabbi of several decades ago required all his converts to convert under Orthodox auspices, for the simple reason that he wanted no ambiguity whatsoever about the validity of their conversions. Not a few potential converts objected, not wanting to go to the mikveh,etc. but he told them that, if you care enough to convert at all, you will want to do it in the classically acceptable way. It might be possible to get some respected Orthodox rabbis to sponsor easy conversions for patrilineal Jews, but there is a real question whether such Jews would agree to it. We have had situations here in Israel where there were very strong feelings of outrage by US Reform synagogue members who thought themselves entirely kosher but were not, according to the standards of the Orthodox here.

Reform Jews love to use the "not historically valid" excuse to ditch a lot of the Oral Law, when it suits them. They like to claim that they want to "go back to basics"; i.e. Torah. The Karaites did that too, and there aren't any more Karaites. Judaism is the sum total of BOTH the written Torah and the Oral Law, and the Oral Law is constantly evolving as history progresses. Remind me sometime to tell you the story about whether tuna fish is kosher or not. But it's not "anything goes"; halachic interpretation is derived from particular rules of exegesis. No rabbi can simply decree something ["shrimp is kosher"] to suit himself. But if you read my blog post of several years ago about the reasoning behind the rabbanut here requiring my "conversion" to clear up my marital situation, you'll see that there is a method in their madness.

Glad this came through, btw. I really don't know what's happening with Blogger.

Antigonos said...

More subtly, incorporating a conversion ritual into Bnai mitzvah helps turn the ceremony into a true entrance into Jewish community, rather than the exit ramp that often becomes in non-Orthodox communities. Alongside that, it also introduces into Orthodoxy an element of personal agency that is often missing. B-Mitzvah becomes a true taking on of obligations personally, rather than the sense that those obligations now descend upon you irrespective of your wishes.

Sounds nice, but you don't have to undergo any ceremony to be a bar mitzvah. A boy automatically becomes one when he is 13 years and 1 day old. In fact, the celebration is really quite new, as Jewish history goes. Even today, in many Orthodox homes, it is a very muted business; the boy acts as shaliach tzibur for the first time, and his father makes the blessing that he's thankful he's no longer religiously responsible for his son, and that's it.

Orthodox girls often don't have anything more than a nice birthday party, although the religious kibbutz I lived on some years ago had the girl give a drasha at the seudah. [Girls, btw, are bat mitzvah at 12 and a day, and the main result of it is that they are eligible for betrothal --but not for marriage -- afterwards]

So pairing bar mitzvah and "conversion" probably wouldn't work out in reality.

Anonymous said...

Hi Friar Yid, I have a novel idea.
Antigonos was mentioning the Karaites. Actually there are Karaites still around. I think that those patrilineal Jews who do not want to "convert"/"re-convert" to Judaism, should consider becoming Karaite. Why? Because Karaites are definitely committed to Torah Mi'Sinai as part of their "halachic" system. Also they are more observant than Conservative. You could call them Modern Orthodox from a parallel universe. Their attitude toward is officially anti-Oral Law, however they do actually study it the way someone might study a practical guide, but they do not treat as divine. I know this is so, because in some of their "teshuvot/ responsa" they refer to passages in the Talmud.
Furthermore, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate recognizes Karaites as Jews. Whether they would accept patrilineal rabbinic Jews who become Karaites in the U.S. or elsewhere as Jews is something else. Another thing- because the Karaites go by patrilineal descent, a patrilineal Jew can walk into their synagogues and is not treated as a 2nd-class citizen. Regards, Dave.

Antigonos said...

Could you give me a source for your statement that the Karaites recognize patrilineal descent?

The Talmud isn't divinely revealed; and no one says it is. Its authority derives from the stature of the Sages who developed it. As I wrote, matrilineal descent was already accepted without demur by the time of the redaction of the Mishnah, which was about 250 CE, and there isn't even a dissenting opinion [which frequently occurs in the Talmud, since it isn't a codification of Law but a discussion of it]. Certainly the rabbanut in Israel does not recognize patrilineal descent in any form, and I don't know of ANY Orthodox bet din that does. So if you can quote me a reliable source, I'd like to read it.