Beyond ‘Yes or No’ Jewishness

Opinion

By Susan P. Fendrick

Published February 16, 2011, issue of February 25, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Who “counts” as Jewish?

Our community’s response to the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords highlighted the complexity of this question. In Jewish newspapers and on blogs, discussions about her Jewishness multiplied. Born to a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father, she embraced Judaism only as an adult. Yet countless congregations recited mishebeirach prayers for her as one of “those who are ill among the Jewish people” — including, it seems likely, many synagogues in which, as one colleague of mine noted, Giffords would not be considered sufficiently Jewish to receive an aliyah to the Torah.

But classifying someone simply as “Jewish” or “not Jewish” has never been cut and dried. Over the centuries, a variety of individuals have been considered Jewish for one purpose but not for another.

For example, Jewish law does not recognize the ability to shed all aspects of one’s Jewish status. However, ethical and communal obligations toward members of the Jewish community have been classically understood as inapplicable to one who leaves the fold through conversion to another religion, as his or her status is no longer that of a “brother” Jew.

In the contemporary context, the boundary issues around identity and community are both more complicated and more common. There are people born to two Jewish parents who have no connection to Jewishness, individuals with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers whose Jewish identities and commitments are unambiguous, and fellow travelers — life partners and other family members of Jews who identify with no other religion and whose long-term choices make them part of the wider tribe (or “Jew-ish,” as a friend of mine calls himself).

We need language that is both precise and expansive, naming and reflecting the multiple ways that people are and aren’t Jewish — not only to avoid hurt and alienation, but to name and see our Jewish world, and the people in it, as they are.

It makes no sense, for example, for traditionalists to just say that a woman with a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, raised in a Reform synagogue “isn’t Jewish,” full stop. That’s untrue on the face of it — the individual clearly is Jewish in some ways: She identifies as Jewish and lives as a Jew. Even if she isn’t Jewish halachically, she’s Jewish sociologically and psychologically — an accepted member of a Jewish community, who identifies as a Jew.

When I worked with such a person as a conversion candidate, we talked about “solidifying” her Jewish status (while knowing that a Conservative “conversion” would still not resolve her status in the eyes of most Orthodox rabbis). I could not insult her manifest Jewishness by pretending that she was simply moving from being not-Jewish to being Jewish.

The State of Israel, with its many profound problems around personal status, recognizes the advantages of distinguishing “Jewish for what purpose?” Non-Orthodox converts to Judaism, and other Jews without documentation sufficient for their Jewishness to be recognized by the Chief Rabbinate for religious purposes, are welcomed as olim to Israel under the Law of Return. The state’s designation of eligibility for immigration doesn’t resolve those individuals’ ritual status, and their ritual status doesn’t undermine their right to citizenship.

This arrangement makes a distinction between being civilly a part of the Jewish people (about which it is easier to compromise) and religiously Jewish with respect to personal status (about which there is tremendous disagreement). Even on the very contested and conflictual terrain of Jewish status in modern Israel, Jewishness-for-citizenship isn’t held hostage to Jewishness-for-the-Orthodox-rabbinate — or to all-or-nothing definitions of Jewishness.

In North America, whether we are inside or outside of communities in which halachic status is an important category, we gain nothing by ignoring and failing to name the ways that an individual’s Jewishness “counts” — whether they live a Jewish life and identify as a Jew, come from a Jewish family or are “half-Jewish,” or are simply identified by other Jews as being “one of us.”

Developing terminology for multiple ways of being (or not being) Jewish may drive the demographers mad — but simple yes/no definitions of Jewishness are inadequate to the task of naming reality. We need to make room for descriptions that tell us about Jewishness as it is, not obscure its realities and complexities.

Rabbi Susan P. Fendrick is a senior research associate at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.