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.