Time to Reconsider What Makes Someone Jewish

You are not wrong. But the American Jewish community, as you know, struggles right now with your question. Perhaps you might join others in making the case that since a growing number of American Jews live with partners who are not Jewish by birth or conversion, it would be prudent for the Jewish community to train a cadre of rabbis who have mastered the art of building a Jewish family in which only one parent is a Jew. Your life, that is, may well qualify you for rabbinic leadership in today’s American Jewish community.

On another note, you report that your husband does not want to convert. My guess is that if we understood and enacted conversion differently than we do presently, he might indeed yet choose to go through that process. Consider, for example, that David Ben Gurion, first Prime Minister of the state of Israel, believed that anyone who immigrated to Israel, spoke Hebrew and served in the military could legitimately be deemed a Jew. His view mirrored the ancient Biblical reality in which a foreigner could join the community of Israel simply by marrying an Israelite and settling into his or her family.

While the Talmud regards Biblical Ruth as the archetypal convert, Ruth’s so called conversion was actually enacted by her choice to live with her mother-in-law, Naomi, in the land of Israel, rather than returning to her Moabite family of origin. “Where you go, I will go,” Ruth declared to her mother-in-law, “Where you dwell, I will dwell, your people will be my people and your God will be my God.” Biblical law regarded a person who made that choice as a ger, an immigrant who was accorded the rights and privileges of a native born Israelite.

But Talmudic law (halacha), recognized two types of ger, the ger toshav, that is, the immigrant, and also the ger tzedek, a gentile who accepted the authority of Jewish law for the shaping of his or her life. The category of ger tzedek provided a mechanism whereby a people no longer living in its own land could welcome fellow travelers to a life style that was both distinguished from mainstream culture and also open to it. That is, in conditions of exile adherence to Jewish law replaced residence in the land of Israel as a marker that established Jewish identity.

Perhaps in America today where most Jews do not regard themselves as living in exile and do not follow the strictures of Jewish law, your husband might already be aptly deemed a ger toshav, a resident who has entered from without. After all, he has cast his fate with the Jewish people not only by marrying you but by actively partnering with you in raising Jewish children.

Further, since we can no longer map with certainty the boundaries of the Jewish people and can no longer declare one form of Judaism to be authoritative and authentic to the exclusion of all others, I think we do well to continue reforming and reconceiving our various Jewish self-understandings, our own answers to the question, “Who is a Jew?”

Your claim is simple and compelling: I live as a Jew, raising children who will grow up as Jews with a husband who supports me in my commitment, even though he is technically not a Jew. My life choices ought not disqualify me from the opportunity to study the texts and traditions of my people in a seminary, nor from receiving from that seminary confirmation that I deserve to be designated a rabbi, a teacher and a leader of my people.

James Ponet is the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain Emeritus at Yale where he also is a visiting lecturer at the Law School. Fortunately he has been married over 40 years to Elana Ponet with whom he has four children and six grandchildren.

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Time to Reconsider What Makes Someone Jewish

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