"Accept the truth regardless of its source "
The burning issue of 'Who is a jew' has become one of the most controversial problems in Jewish life today. It has stirred upmuch debate, animosity and recriminations. It threatens to split the Jewish people as perhaps never before in its history.
Accusations and attacks, more often than not descending to the personal level and appealing to base sentiments, misiniformation and disinformation, are hurled about in a free-for all that seeks to take advantage of the general ignorance about the issues and problems involved.
This book will hopefully throw some light into the darkness. It does not pretend to offer new information or make new revelations. It tries simply to bring some order and clarification where there is so much chaos and confusion. It may appear repetitious, at times, but only where it is relevant and necessary.
Our purpose is not propaganda, nor polemics. Many questions have been, and continue to be asked. Very often these are tendentious, but more often they are expressions of sincere concern. We quote these questions and offer our answers. We will not necessarily change anyone's mind. No doubt that some people will disagree with a number of statements and propositions. Some may even feel offended, especially by Part Two. If Part Two appears to be polemical, careful reading will reading that it is not.
In the last few years there has been much activity to establish interfaith dialogues between certain Jewish leaders and their colleagues in other faith-communities. They have become so involved with the outside-world, that they forget and neglect our own, Jewish world. While our enemies are striking out at us in every conceivable way, we are torn asunder from within.
There is no more reasoned dialogue between Jews of different persuasions. We hardly talk to one another, except to argue and to condemn one another. Power-hungry groups demand that they be appeased and accepted on their own terms, regardless how this may and will affect the unity, sanctity and survival of the Jewish people and faith. To achieve their personal ends, they lower themselves to the gutter-level of issuing threats and acts of boycotts, financial blackmail and sanctions against their co-religionists and the State of Israel. Self-interest, arrogance and narcissism (on the individual and organizational levels) within our own people threaten to achieve what our worst enemies could not.
This book, then, is an appeal for communication, a response to the prophetic cry of "Come and let us reason together." We do not propose compromise, where there cannot be compromise. We do not believe in appeasement, where that would be self-defeating. But we do believe in, and propose, reason, knowledge, and understanding. And above everything else, we believe in, and propose, truth and peace. Not a chameleonic truth and artificial peace, but one that is based and built on justice.
Our sages of old taught that the world endures by virtue of "justice, truth and peace." (Avot 1:18) They taught also that these three are totally intermeshed and interdependent to the point of being really one and the same. This book is dedicated to this affirmation.
J. Immanuel Schochet
Toronto, Ont., 28 Menachem Av, 5746
1. WHAT IS THE DEFINITION OF A 'JEW'?It is often debated whether jewishness refers to i) a race, ii) a nationality, or iii) a religion. The problem arises when seeing so many different kinds of Jews: religious and nonreligious; black and white; oriental and western; and even some who proclaim themselves as atheists or secularists. What is their common denominator? Let us look at the three possible definitions:
Race: A racial definition of Judaism is obviously impossible. There is no such thing as a "Jewish race." "Race" denotes a biological distinction, common ancestry, etc. Yet there are Jews of every race and color: black and white, oriental and Occidental. Descendants of every conceivable race have joined the Jewish people throughout the ages. They have become integrated with the Jewish people and were universally recognized as Jews.
Nationality: Nationality can hardly be a definition for a people that has been dispersed throughout the world for close to two thousand years, without a country or homeland of its own. For about two thirds of the years of its existence, the Jewish people lived among different nations: Egyptians and Babylonians; Persians and Greeks; Romans and Arabs; Germany; Poland; France; Russia; America; China; etc.
During these years of dispersion the Jewish people was joined by thousands of men and women none of whose ancestors had ever been in the ancient Land of Israel.
To define Jews, then, as a nationality, is historically untenable.Religion: Religion remains as the only logical definition.
Non-Jews became Jews, and were integrated and accepted as such, universally, by converting to the faith of Judaism. It did not matter who or what they were, where they came from in terms of race, color, creed or nationality: by accepting the Jewish faith, they and their descendants became Jews.
It is the Jewish faith that distinguished the Jew from the non-Jew, that made the jew unique or different in non-Jewish environments. In fact, it is also the Jewish faith exclusively that relates the Jew to the Land of Israel (the ‘Holy Land'). If not for the Bible, if not for the religious aspects and obligations relating the Jews and the Land of Israel, there would be no bond whatsoever between the People of Israel and the Land of Israel.
In short: Those who partook in the original covenant of the Jewish faith, which established the eternal bond between God, Torah and Israel, and those who decided to join this covenant at later stages, they and their descendants are Jews.
This now raises an obvious question:
2. CAN ONE BE A 'NON-RELIGIOUS' OR 'SECULAR' JEW?
To join a faith-community is not a light matter, It is a commitment. The original Jews chose to enter into a covenant with God. They chose this for themselves and for their descendants. Those who joined at a later stage (converts), too, made a commitment -for themselves and their descendants - to enter this covenant.
The simple biological fact of birth to Jewish parents, then, automatically confers Jewish identity. This may be compared to citizenship in a country: The founding members of a nation, and those who later decided to join them, established and/or assumed citizenship. Most nations have a rule that the biological fact of birth within the geographic boundaries of the country automatically confers citizenship. You may not like the country, you may disapprove of its social and legislative system, you may even agitate against it, but you are a citizen nonetheless.
The analogy, however, is not complete. National citizenship can be renounced or revoked in various way. This is not the same with membership in the Jewish revenant. The Jewish faith determines jewishness as an integral and permanent characteristic of the Jew, somehow analogous to a racial or ethnic identity. To be sure, everyone retains the freedom and liberty to act as he or she pleases, even to the point of ostensibly dropping one's religious identity or joining groups without beliefs. Such behaviour will forfeit for him/her all the privileges of Judaism. Nonetheless, that person would still be regarded as a Jew and remain subject to all the obligations of the Torah.
Without contradicting our definition of jewishness in no. 1, there is, then, a 'racial-ethnic-nationalist' aspect to Jewish identity as well. It differs though from the normative definition of racial or nationalist identity. The latter is usually understood in terms of a common source of genetic or geographic origin, and/or common physical features. Quite obviously this does not apply to any definition of Jewish identity. The ‘racial', 'ethnic' or 'nationalist' aspect of Judaism and Jewishness, and the ‘common denominator’ shared by all Jews, is based on, established, and defined exclusively by the religious criteria: the religious premises of Judaism determine who is a Jew, what constitutes Jewish 'race,' and how we define Jewish nationalism.
(Note that this has a parallel in secular law as well: some countries will view their natural citizens as subject to their own laws even if they have renounced their citizenship.)
As Judaism is essentially a religion, the terms "non-religious Jew" or "secular Jew" are anomalies, self-contradictions. Nonetheless, the Jewish faith regards such people as Jews. Even as one cannot renounce the fact of biological relationship so one cannot renounce the fact of this covenantal relationship which is determined by the very rules and principles of the Jewish faith.
3. ARE ALL OFFSPRING OF JEWISH PARENTS 'JEWISH'?
Before answering this question, we must understand animportant principle:
Every country, and only that country, can determine the rules for citizenship within itself. Likewise, every organization, and only that organization, can determine the rules for membership within itself. Now the very same principle applies to religion as well.
The religious code of a faith-community is the sole authority to determine legitimate membership within itself. As stated above, Judaism is a religion. The foundation and guiding code for this religion is the "Jewish Bible", the Torah. The Torah defines for the Jew his religious obligations. It sets the rules as to what is obligatory, permitted or forbidden. The Torah, the "constitution" of the Jewish faith, determines what constitutes a Jew or Jewish identity.
The rule with regards to "offspring of Jewish parents" is quite simple: The status of the biological mother (exclusively) determines the status of the child. If the biological mother is Jewish, then, regardless of the biological father, all her children are Jewish. If she is not Jewish, regardless who or what the father is, all her children are not Jewish either.
4. DOES IT MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE TO A PERSON'S RELIGIOUS STATUS IF JUST ONE OF THE BIOLOGICAL PARENTS IS JEWISH?
The only difference is as stated above, no. 3: If the mother is Jewish, her offspring is Jewish; if the mother is not Jewish, neither is her offspring. The father's status is altogether irrelevant.
In other words: Judaism recognizes only matrilineal descent. Judaism does not recognize patrilineal descent at all.1
For the relative purposes of some purely secular census, for tracing identities of purely physical descent in purely mathematical terms, one may perhaps speak of "half-Jews", "quarter-Jews", "eighth-Jews etc., even as one speaks of "half-black" or "quarter-black', "half-American" or "quarter-American" etc. In reality, however, in terms of true definition, there are no such things. "Jew" and "non-Jew" are mutually exclusive opposites. "To be or not to be," that is the question. There is no in-between.
5. IS IT POSSIBLE FOR NON-JEWS TO CONVERT TO JUDAISM?
Most definitely, yes!
6. HOW DOES A NON-JEW CONVERT TO JUDAISM?
Conversion to Judaism involves two basic steps on the part of the would-be convert:
1) Acceptance of the principles, the teachings and the practices of the Jewish faith; and
2) circumcision and immersion in a mikveh (ritual pool) for male converts, and immersion in a mikveh for female converts.
These two steps must be undertaken with the guidance and supervision of authorized representatives of the Jewish people (a qualified Bet-din - to be defined and explained below, nos. 11 and 12).
Now let us explain in greater detail what all that means:
7. WHAT DOES "ACCEPTANCE OF THE PRINCIPLES, TEACHINGS AND PRACTICES OF JUDAISM" MEAN?
Before answering this question, we must first define what 'conversion' means:
To choose or accept a religion means to accept for oneself a special way of life. Religion is not a social affair, like joining a club or organization. Nor is it like choosing a new wardrobe or acquiring some other product. Religion means intellectual and emotional conviction: a profound conviction of what the believer perceives as absolute truth regarding the ultimate values of life, or reality. Religion teaches the concepts of God, revelation, morality, ethical conduct, man's purpose, afterlife, and so forth, and it alone defines its perception and definition of these.
In other words, religion deals with the most important aspects in human life. It involves both conviction and commitment. By implication, then, it is the most serious decision one could make.
To speak of "conversion for convenience's sake" is thus altogether absurd. One does not change convictions, understanding of truth, or moral standards, for the sake of being sociable, to be accepted in certain circles, or even for the sake of marriage. Religion is not a frivolous thing. It is not something to experiment with, or to change, even as one changes a dress or a hair do.
Proper and meaningful conversion to Judaism, therefore, requires: (a) a basic knowledge of Judaism - what it is, what it teaches, what it stands for, what it demands; (b) a sincere conviction on the part of the would-be convert that Judaism reflects his perception of truth; and (c) a compelling desire and decision to follow this truth in practise, and to become part of Judaism regardless of anything else.
A country will accept as new citizens only such candidates who are willing to accept the prevailing constitution, code of law, and norms of that nation, and agree to share in all obligations and responsibilities. So, too, with citizenship in the faith of Israel.
Conversion, therefore, means a full acceptance of the principles, teachings and practices of Judaism. By definition, this is not only the very first, but also the most important aspect of conversion, the very essence of conversion. It signifies a total, profound and comprehensive transformation of one's inner nature and being. Only then can we move to the second step: the formal, ritualistic induction into the faith of Israel by means of circumcision and immersion in a mikveh.
8. WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF CIRCUMCISION AND IMMERSION IN A MIKVEH?
Circumcision is the "sign of the holy covenant." The Almighty entered into a holy covenant with Abraham (who, through his special covenant with God, became the first Jew) and his offspring. On the human part this covenant is demonstrated and reaffirmed by the circumcision in the flesh of every male that is, or becomes, a part of Israel.2
Immersion in a ritual pool, as designated and defined by Torah, signifies rebirth. Man cannot survive immersed in water. Total immersion in the waters of a mikveh, then, signifies cessation of previous existence or status. The one who leaves the mikveh is reborn, as it were; not the same as the one who entered it.
Note, however, that these two acts are of a ritual nature. They are absolutely essential, and without them there is no conversion. Nonetheless, they are basically formal, comparable to the formal or external requirements and procedures performed when becoming a citizen.
9. WHO CAN CONVERT TO JUDAISM?
Any non-Jew who feels sincerely convinced of the truth and relevance of Torah, who is prepared to follow and observe the traditions of Israel, and therefore wishes to join the community of Israel, is welcomed as a convert.3
10. HOW DOES JUDAISM VIEW CONVERSION AND CONVERTS?
Conversion, as stated above, means a transformation. It must grow from within the convert himself, from his own consciousness. When forced upon a person by physical force, emotional pressure, brain-washing, or induced by the expectations of personal gains (whether material or spiritual), it is altogether devoid of any religious or moral value, thus worthless and meaningless. Little wonder, then, that Judaism is opposed to any form or manner of proselytizing!4
If, however, the convert wishes to join the community of Israel out of conviction, as stated earlier, he must be welcomed and becomes a full-fledged Jew in every sense of the word. For all practical purposes, he/she is like a newly born Jew whose past is, as it were, erased.5
11. WHAT IS THE MEANING OF "WITH THE GUIDANCE, APPROVAL AND SUPERVISION OF AUTHORIZED REPRESENTATIVES..."?
Conversion to Judaism means to become part of Judaism, to join the Jewish people. There are thus two parties involved: the People of Israel and the convert.
Membership in Israel, even as in any other association, cannot be a unilateral act. The convert must wish to join, and the People of Israel must agree to accept the new member.
The People of Israel, by definition, is a people united by religion. To join Israel, therefore, means to join a religious association. This requires, then, religious consent; that is, the conversion must be sanctioned by religious rules and regulations relating to conversion. This consent can be given only by the religious authorities, i.e., by those authorized to pass religious judgments.
Conversion, therefore, requires an ecclesiastical court of judges who have been ordained to serve as religious judges. Such a court is called a Bet Din. The Bet Din is charged to examine the would-be convert and to see to it that all requirements for conversion have been followed properly. It will supervise the procedures and grant its approval of the conversion. The convert will then become a legitimate member of Israel.
Here again we draw upon the analogy of acquiring citizenship: there are specific authorities designated especially to supervise the proper and legal procedures of attaining citizenship and then to grant it.
12. WHO IS AN "AUTHORIZED REPRESENTATIVE" TO SERVE ON A BET DIN?
The Bet Din is to represent the faith or religion of Israel.
First and foremost, therefore, to be a member of the Bet Din one must be a Jew wholly and totally committed to the traditions of Israel and the observance of its laws and statutes.
It is self-evidently absurd, and altogether unacceptable, to appoint as a representative of the Jewish faith someone who denies all or a part of that faith.
Here again, we draw on the analogy in secular law and procedures: Most countries demand that members of the government and the judiciary must be sworn in with an oath of allegiance and commitment to uphold the constitution and laws of the land before assuming office.
Secondly, a member of the Bet Din (called dayan - judge) must be fully familiar with all relevant laws. One can hardly pass judgment when ignorant of the law. Familiarity with the law does not mean simply a reading and memorizing of the basic principles stated in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Religious Law), but also familiarity with all nuances of the law as expressed in the canonical literature (commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch; the Responsa-literature; and so forth). it implies tested and proven ability to decide legal problems in conformity with the Jewish code of law.
Thirdly, in addition to knowledge of the law and a commitment to its observance, one must also be ordained, that is authorized by a legitimate and qualified Bet Din to act as rabbi and dayan.
In some instances there is an allowance for laymen to be associate-members of a Bet Din, provided, however, that (a) they are religiously committed and observant Jews (following the dictates of the Shulchan Aruch), and (b) that the Bet Din is chaired or guided by a qualified dayan.
13. IS THERE NOT MORE THAN ONE INTERPRETATION OF JEWISH LAW AND TRADITION?
There are many different groups or organizations who differ in their view of Jewish law. In America, for example, there are those who call themselves Orthodox, or Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and even Secular Jews. Some of these groups subdivide into several segments, each holding its own views on matters of Jewish beliefs and identity.
The basic difference between all these groups, to put it most simply, is their attitude to Jewish law and tradition. The so-called orthodox accept the whole Torah, the "written Torah" (the Bible) and the "oral Torah" (recorded in Talmud and Midrashim), as Divinely revealed: All the commandments and laws of the Torah (codified in the Shulchan Aruch) are obligatory and binding for all times. This includes customs and traditions that have been sanctioned and incorporated in Jewish law in the course of time.
The non-orthodox groups reject the principle of the immutability of the Torah-laws. Some say that the commandments and laws are purely optional nowadays. They may concede that observance of the laws may offer ‘cultural identity' and 'ethnic continuation,' but say that they are not obligatory or binding. Others again do recognize an authoritative legal tradition (Halachah), but view it as subject to change and adaptation. They claim that as the circumstances and conditions of social norms, modes and life-styles change and mutate, so does religious law. A simple motion and vote by their individual or collective leadership, or membership, is sufficient to adapt or change traditional laws, customs and practices, be it moderately or drastically.
To be sure, this split or division is not a new development of the 19th and 20th centuries alone. It has occurred earlier as well, and already in the times of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem there were different sects who questioned or denied minor or major parts of Jewish tradition, By the same token, however, it is universally agreed that Pharisaic (Rabbinic or Talmudic) Judaism was and remained the mainstream of Judaism, "original Judaism."
Whether one admits the immutable character of the Torah and its laws, or not, is not really relevant to our purposes. The issue on hand is not whether or not one must still this day fast on Yom Kippur, sit in a sukah on Sukot, refrain from work on the Sabbath, refrain from eating or possessing chametz (leavened bread, etc) on Pesach, refrain from eating pork or lobster at all times, and so forth. When speaking of original Jewish law and tradition, all, without exception, will agree and admit that the above laws are prescribed by the Torah. No one, not even those who regularly eat and enjoy them, will ever dare suggest that bacon or lobster are kosher and acceptable according to the Torah.
To return then to the question about different views of Jewish law: Different people or groups may offer different opinions, and some will even try to justify their personal beliefs. There is no disagreement, however, as to what is stated in the Bible, Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch. The degree of personal observance, or lack of it, will not change the explicit formulations of the laws which, throughout the ages, have been followed by the vast majority of Jews all over the world, and were recognized as the code of mainstream Judaism.
To put all this into somewhat different wording and into practical context:
It is readily seen and admitted that there are extreme differences in approach and belief. It is just as readily seen and admitted that all movements recognize 'orthodox' judaism as a historically valid and legitimate expression of Judaism. All recognize that at all times large numbers of Jews could be classified as 'orthodox' in terms of the definition given above. They may disagree whether the orthodox view of Torah is correct, whether the mitzvot (commandments of the Torah) are binding and obligatory laws of G-d Himself, or human conventions; but even they concede that nothing is lost of "Jewishness" by following the mitzvot.
The 'reform' and 'reconstructionist' movements will also recognize the legitimacy of the 'conservative' movement. They would dispute the validity of the 'conservative' premises regarding the 'conservative' view of Halachah (even as they dispute the 'orthodox' view), but they can live with it as a legitimate expression of Judaism. The 'conservative' movement, in turn, may grant the reformers and reconstructionists de facto recognition, by affirming the reality of religious pluralism; yet at the same time they may also refuse to recognize the legitimacy of 'reform' and 'reconstructionist' policies and practices.
In fact, many leaders within the 'conservative' movement withhold recognition of legitimacy from colleagues within their own movement, because they deem them to have overstepped the boundaries of legitimate interpretation of Torah. Likewise with the reform movement: 'reform' strongly affirms the principle of "local autonomy" for individual congregations and their spiritual leaders; yet many among them will not necessarily grant validity to specific religious judgments and practices of their very own colleagues.
The orthodox too, acknowledge the fact of religious pluralism, but will never grant it any legitimacy. Orthodoxy is logically and practically precluded from granting such recognition to the leaders or ideologies of other movements. To recognize any of the heterodox movements or ideas as legitimate, would ipso facto undermine and deny the very beliefs and convictions of orthodoxy: One cannot believe in the Divinity of Torah, in the inviolable and immutable nature of the mitzvot and rulings dictated by the Shulchan Aruch, and simultaneously accept the validity of any system that denies these very premises.
There can be peaceful co-existence on the communal level, and even cooperation in matters of common concerns; but there is no common ground on the religious-doctrinal level.
'Reform' and 'conservative' can live with 'orthodox' standards and recognize the titular status of 'orthodox' rabbis. After all, 'orthodox' rabbis are ordained on the basis of their proficiency in knowledge and adjudication of Jewish law (Shulchan Aruch). This will not work in reverse, however, because the requirements for conservative and reform ordination are altogether different.
14. WHY WOULD THE 'ORTHODOX' REFUSE TO RECOGNIZE THE QUALIFICATIONS OF 'REFORM' OR 'CONSERVATIVE' RABBIS TO ACT IN RITUAL MATTERS (LIKE CONVERSIONS) WHICH REQUIRE AUTHORIZED RABBIS?
In nos. 11-12 we explained the Halachic criteria for someone to be authorized to officiate in all or any ritual matters which require an authorized rabbi or dayan. In no. 13 we explained the basic difference between orthodox' Judaism and the other movements. It is a deep-rooted difference concerning the most fundamental doctrines of the faith. Those three sections together, then, answer this question. But let us look at it also from another angle.
All people born of a Jewish mother (or converted according to the dictates of Jewish law) are Jews, without exception the fact that some of these belong to heterodox movements, support them and promulgate them, does not affect their Jewish identity in any way or manner. To deny their Jewishness would be as wrong-headed and ridiculous as to ascribe jewishness to non-Jews. There is a drastic difference, however, between accepting or recognizing the Jewish identity of individuals, and accepting or recognizing the Jewish legitimacy of their views and opinions. We cannot and must not confuse people and ideologies.
The mere fact that a certain idea, theology, or philosophy, is formulated and followed by a group of legitimate Jews does not, ipso facto, make it a legitimately Jewish theory or position. Alternatively, to take an extreme example, we would have to accept also Christianity which, after all, was originally founded, formulated and believed by members of the Jewish people. We would have to accept also the theology of the Donmeh (crypto-Jewish Sabbatians), the 'Hebrew Christians' or 'Jews for jesu', and so on and so forth.
These or other groups may wish to choose a new way for themselves. In a democratic society they may organize and incorporate themselves, and develop an independent institution that is fully entitled to all rights and privileges enjoyed by every other religious or secular organization. They cannot, however, demand recognition as a legitimate continuation or replacement of an original institution that is still very much in existence just because some - or even a majority - of that original institution has decided unilaterally to depart from the original ways, laws, conventions and ideas.
Let us take a simple example: Most countries and states have regulations for the practise of medicine or law. They have their own boards of examination or licensing. Most have their own schools for training doctors and lawyers in conformity with local standards. The fact that I may have completed an intensive course of studies in a renowned medical school in one country, and even practised there for many years, or even having become recognized as a great medical authority with an international reputation, still will not mean that I can automatically practise medicine anywhere else. Most states will demand that I submit to their local boards of examination and licensing, and some will even demand a term of locally supervised internship. The same applies to the legal and other professions.
Now this applies even in cases where there is complete overlapping in subject-matter. How much more so when the academic subjects or the adopted procedures in one medical school differ drastically from those in the others.
This is not a matter of mutual respect, equality, democratic rights, or discrimination. It is simply a matter of standards. Either they are the same, or fully comparable, or they are different.
The same applies to ordination. The traditional standards for 'orthodox' ordination and qualifications to act as a rabbi or dayan are quite different from those of other movements. Rightly or wrongly, 'orthodox' ordination is based essentially on proficiency in Talmud and Shulchan Aruch, proficiency and experience in adjudicating Jewish religious law in conformity with the dictates of the Jewish religious codes, and the would be rabbi's commitment to these standards. As stated already, one cannot appoint a rabbi who himself is not a role-model of a Halachic way of life.
The non-orthodox requirements for ordination are different. They differ not only in the academic subjects studied, but also in the practical procedures regarding the religious life of the Jew. If the approach, philosophy and ideological commitments are so drastically different from one another, there is no common ground.
The 'orthodox rabbinate' and the 'reform' or 'conservative rabbinate’ is altogether different professions. There is obvious overlapping in terms of the general principle of ministering to the needs of congregants, of offering certain services in the life-cycle (e.g., officiating at marriages or funerals etc.), and of offering classes and lectures, and so forth. These, however, are more social or 'pastoral' roles rather than ecclesiastical ones. They do not relate directly to the essence of traditional ordination, which is the granting of authority of Yoreh Yoreh and Yadin Yadin (authority to render judgments in matters of what is ritually permitted or forbidden, and to render judgments in cases of civil litigation). This hatarat hora'ah (authority to act as a religious decisor and judge), and not the social or pastoral ministry, or the position of 'preacher and teacher,' is the essence, substance and function of the ordained rabbi in Jewish tradition.
A lawyer or doctor may be the greatest in his chosen field, fully licensed and universally recognized as an authority, but that alone does not make him a legitimate dentist or plumber, and vice versa.
In short, then, the reason for 'orthodoxy' refusing to recognize non-orthodox spiritual leaders as legitimate rabbis - or dayanim, is not one of trying to preserve a monopoly, a power-trip for self-aggrandizement, or an act of discrimination. We are talking simply about altogether different and differing standards and positions.
This refusal by the 'orthodox' to acknowledge the legitimacy of the non-orthodox is not an ad personam bias, nor a political judgment against an organization. It is, rather, the refusal on principle to accept a philosophy and a way of life that contradict the foundations of Torah life, of Jewish tradition.
As noted before, 'reform, 'conservative,' and other leaders, themselves, quite rightly refuse to recognize certain groups or individuals, regardless of their Jewish identity and self-proclaimed claims of Jewish authority. For the very same reason, 'orthodoxy' cannot recognize 'reform' or 'conservative' ideologies or spokesmen to have authoritative status in matters of Halachah. As stated earlier, to recognize the legitimacy of the heterodox is tantamount to denying the legitimacy of the 'orthodox'. Unless, of course, one were to reduce all religious beliefs or ideologies to mere social conventions, lifestyles or folkways, subject to the individual caprices of vox populi - i.e., whatever people may want or desire at any particular time and place; in other words, a popular and democratic 'opiate of the masses.' No doubt but that this is a position rejected by all who take religion seriously.
P.S.: The absurdity of legitimizing all forms of self-professed 'religious expression', is easily seen by the following: For the 'orthodox' to recognize 'reform rabbis' without any pre-condition that the latter accept the norms of Halachah, would mean to accept all members of the official rabbinic association of the 'reform movement.' This, in turn, would mean that they have to recognize self-professed 'atheists' and, 'agnostics' as rabbis and teachers of the Jewish faith and religion! 'It would mean further, that they have to recognize the hundreds of members of the CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis, the 'rabbinical arm' of the 'reform movement') who perform intermarriages between Jews and gentiles. About 200 (two hundred!) of the latter advertise publicly that they will officiate at intermarriages without demanding any form of conversion! Nearly one half of these advertise that they do not object to a gentile clergyman participating in the ceremony, and many of these will officiate even in a church or chapel where there are visible signs of another religion!6
To be sure, many - perhaps most - leaders of the, 'reform movement' are unhappy with this unacceptable behavior, and disapprove of their colleagues who indulge in it. The fundamental doctrine of 'reform,' however, which proclaims freedom for every minister and congregation in their movement to act with absolute autonomy, ties their hands. Throughout the years there have been many motions before the CCAR conventions to condemn and delegitimize the incidents of its members officiating at intermarriages. The most they were able to extract, however, was a resolution of disapproval, even while reaffirming the principle of local autonomy.
15. WHAT IS THE CONTROVERSY OF "WHO IS A JEW"?
The State of Israel has a law which offers immediate entry and citizenship to any Jew wishing to immigrate to Israel. The question, though, is who is a Jew to qualify under this law? The Israeli parliament (Knesset) determined to recognize 'Anyone born of a Jewish Mother, and anyone who has converted to Judaism.'
The law does not define 'conversion.' This means that anyone coming to Israel, with any kind of 'certificate' that he/she is a convert, is automatically accepted, receives citizenship and a registration-card issued by the Ministry of the Interior which states that the bearer is Jewish.
It is well-known and documented that there are a good number of so-called 'rabbis,' most of which are members in 'national rabbinic associations,' who set their own "requirements" for issuing 'conversion-certificates.' For some the requirement is a course of studies lasting a few months, for others a few weeks or days, and for still others just a few hours. For some it is enough that the candidate for conversion utter a simple affirmation of 'accepting Judaism,' while for others a set fee is the sole pre-requisite. Some advertise 'conversion-classes' for individuals or groups, and many offer 'specials' of 'quickie conversions.'
From any historical, traditional and moral point of view, such conversions are altogether worthless and meaningless. Yet the way the Israeli law is worded at present, all and any of these conversions have to be accepted by the authorities.
If the State of Israel wants to grant citizenship to these or others, that is perfectly in order. The conferral of citizenship is a purely political decision. It is altogether different, though, for the State of Israel (a purely political entity) to issue identity-cards which register non-Jews (by any standards) as Jews. For this, and no other reason, there is a demand by religious and conscientious Jews of all persuasions that the State of Israel recognize as Jews only such individuals who are born Jewish or who have converted in conformance with the universally recognized standards of Halachah.
16. WHO IS AFFECTED BY THE PROBLEM OF 'WHO IS A JEW'?
All members of the Jewish people, throughout the world, are affected by this problem. The fictitious 'converts' present themselves as Jews, both in Israel as well as in the Diaspora. This aggravates the already serious and painful tragedy of religious inter-marriage.
Not only Jews, but the fictitious 'converts' themselves, too, are affected. Some of them believe in all innocence that they are indeed Jews. Thus they, too, and their offspring, are being deceived.
Most seriously affected will be the 'non-orthodox.' 'Orthodox' people, generally speaking, examine the origins of those who want to marry into their families. 'Orthodox' rabbis are obligated to investigate the antecedents of those applying to be married by them, in order to make sure that there are no Halachic impediments to the marriage. All this does not assure certainty in every case, but the likelihood of errors is minimized.
The major-problem, then, will be for the 'non-orthodox,' who are unwary and not so careful. But as all the Jewish people, without exceptions, are one entity, like unto one body with one heart and one soul, it is a tragedy affecting everyone17. ARE ALL CONVERSIONS PERFORMED BY 'ORTHODOX RABBIS' AUTOMATICALLY VALID?
The answer is NO! It depends on what is meant by thelabel 'orthodox rabbi.'
The fact that someone attended an 'orthodox' seminary, was ordained by 'orthodox' authorities, is a member of an ‘orthodox’ rabbinical body, and/or serves as rabbi of an 'orthodox' congregation, does not necessarily mean that all or any of his actions are kosher! The one and only thing that really matters is how the conversion took place: If all the stipulations of the Shuichan Aruch have been followed (as explained above, nos. 6-7, and 11-12), the conversion is valid; if not, it is invalid - regardless who the rabbi is.
In other words, the labels 'orthodox', 'reform' or 'conservative' are really meaningless per se. The only conversion universally accepted as valid is the one performed by a proper Bet Din (as defined above, no. 12), in conformance with the dictates of Jewish law.
18. WHAT IS THE STATUS OF A PERSON WHO UNDERWENT A NON-HALACHIC CONVERSION?
The status of a person who underwent a non-Halachic conversion has not changed from that person's original status as a non-Jew. He or she remains non-Jewish in every respect.
In the case of a woman, regardless of the status of her husband, her children, too, are non-Jewish. Unilateral action by any one individual, group of individuals, or even large organization, within the body of a people or nation, which contravenes or ignores the universal standards of the whole body, has no value or merit in terms of the whole body of that people or nation. One cannot simply force individual ways upon others for whom these individual diversions are historically, legally and traditionally unacceptable.
The subject of a non-Halachic conversion may be accepted as a legitimate member of the congregation or movement of the one(s) performing that 'conversion.' Other congregations or movements, too, may perhaps recognize that 'conversion.' That is a purely internal issue relating to the private policies of the particular congregations or movements. Acceptance will not, however, be universal
A person who underwent a non-Halachic conversion, at the very best, might be called 'reform,' 'conservative,' or 'reconstructionist' etc. He/she will not be a member of the Jewish people, but merely of an individual group. The one and only way to acquire jewishness, unqualified membership in the Jewish people and faith, is by following the unqualified universal procedures of Halachic conversion.
19. IS NOT THE PROBLEM OF 'WHO IS A JEW' AN INTERNAL ISSUE FOR THE STATE OF ISRAEL?
Most definitely not! As explained earlier (no - 16), it affects all Jews all over the world. The State of Israel only aggravates the problem of worthless conversions and intermarriages.
When alleged 'converts' produce nothing but their 'conversion-certificates,' their true status is easily determined. It is altogether different, though, when they come from Israel armed with an Israeli passport and an Israeli identity-card which states that the bearer is 'Jewish.' This must, and will, lead to chaos and tragedy in terms of unwitting intermarriages, and/or the traumatic effects when discovering before or after a marriage that this Israeli groom or bride is in effect non-Jewish.
Moreover, the political decision by the State of Israel to recognize all claims to conversion leads to the misunderstanding and deception that all and any forms of conversion are legitimate.
20. HOW CAN ONE RECONCILE THE PRINCIPLES OF PLURALISM AND DEMOCRACY WITH A NARROW VIEW OF 'LEGITIMATE CONVERSIONS'?
In a democratic society, anyone can adhere to whatever philosophy of life, religion, political ideology etc. he or she wishes to adopt. One can believe in democracy, autocracy, anarchism, communism or fascism. One can believe in white supremacy, black power, apartheid, slavery, polygamy, and what have you. One can believe in the tenets of any of the so-called major religions, atheism, agnosticism, Satanism, or of any group generally regarded as an anomalous cult. It does not matter whether any of these are formally organized or not.
Moreover, each organization, or individual, may choose to act on his/ her beliefs, for as long as one does not interfere with the freedom and self-determination of others. The principles of democracy demand this freedom of association, beliefs and private practices. In that sense there is pluralism.
Obviously, though, the principle of freedom of speech, association and action is not unlimited and unbridled. One cannot, for example, cry 'fire' in a crowded theatre. No one can do anything that would disrupt, or interfere with, the orderly and normative running of society. Each individual's freedom does not include the right to infringe upon the freedom of another etc. If there is an unavoidable conflict of interests, democracy and pluralism demand to find a compromise in terms of 'lowest common denominator,' as a universal premise that is acceptable to all.
In our context: From a democratic and pluralistic point of view, each group of Jews can determine its own constitution or charter relating to beliefs, tenets, practices, conditions for membership and leadership, interrelationships with others etc. These are individual and internal decisions. No group, however, has the right to impose its ideas and standards upon any other group or upon the whole people of Israel.
Any actions that affect the totality of Judaism must be based on a common denominator acceptable to all. The ‘lowest common denominator' for all Jews, without exception, is the historical and traditional standard of Halachah.
Jews who do not believe in Halachah, can live with it without compromising their personal freedom and integrity. Jews who do believe in Halachah cannot live without it. Everyone can partake in a kosher meal, but not everyone can partake in a non-kosher meal. Everyone can accept Halachic conversions, but not everyone can accept non-Halachic ‘conversions.'
Paradoxically, the narrow view of 'legitimate conversions,' i.e., Halachic conversions, is precisely the only view that can be defended on grounds of democracy and pluralism. It alone allows for the need of all Jews to be able to interrelate with one another.
21. HOW CAN JEWISH COMMUNAL UNITY BE PRESERVED IN VIEW OF THIS CONTROVERSY?
The only way we can preserve communal unity is by respecting one another, by applying the fundamental principles of democracy and pluralism, as explained above (no. 20).
Respecting one another does not mean to respect and legitimize ideas or philosophies which are unacceptable to our own. It means to respect and recognize the humanity and identity of our fellow-beings. We must never confuse ideas with persons. A person qua person remains my fellow-being, a creature of God like myself, even if his/her philosophy is not acceptable or repugnant.
We must not lose sight of legitimate premises, hallowed by original traditions, which cannot be compromised. Premises and ideas formulated by man are adaptable. Religious foundations, traditionally accepted as Divinely revealed, are not adaptable.
Those who have deviated from such religious foundations, for whatever reasons, will have to accommodate those who have remained faithful to them, when it comes to cases of communal conflict. Neither intellectual nor moral integrity would be compromised by such accommodation. Those who hold on to the tenets of their revealed truths cannot adapt them without in effect denying their own truth and forfeiting their integrity.
When understanding and appreciating these commonsense principles, Jewish communal unity can and will be preserved.
22. IS NOT THE ISSUE OF 'WHO IS A JEW' A POWER-PLAY FOR THE ORTHODOX RABBINATE AND ESTABLISHMENT? IS NOT THE WHOLE ISSUE AN ATTEMPT TO DELEGITIMIZE THE NON-ORTHODOX ELEMENTS?
Most probably there are unscrupulous persons in the 'orthodox' rabbinate and establishment, even as there are among all other groups. That, however, is not the issue.
The problem of 'Who is a Jew' is a problem about basic principles and Jewish survival. It affects issues which preclude compromise for the 'orthodox' position. It is not a case of competition, or a power-play. It is not a battle between competing ideologies. As stated above (no. 16), the gravest effects will be on the non-orthodox!
We are dealing with historical principles, with a historical tradition, which are the very essence of the religious identity of Jews and Judaism. If there is any power-struggle, it is not by those who seek to preserve the historical status quo of the Torah-way of life grounded in Sinai, the Bible, the Talmud, the Code of Jewish Law - but by those who seek to overthrow it, by those who unilaterally seek to impose their personal deviations from the historic norm.
The 'orthodox rabbinate and establishment' will not gain any benefits of prestige, power, or what have you, by prevailing in this battle for the soul and survival of Judaism. The sole concern is for the preservation of the unity and sanctity of the totality of the Jewish people.
23. WHY CAN WE NOT ALLOW THE PARLIAMENT OF ISRAEL TO RESOLVE THIS ISSUE AS IT SEES FIT?
First of all, the parliament of the State of Israel is a political body, and not a religious authority. The question of 'Who is a Jew' is a purely religious problem. It can be answered only by religious authorities. It is altogether absurd to have a secular, political body determine religious issues or make religious pronouncementS.7
The parliament of Israel can, and should decide matters of citizenship and immigration affecting that state and political entity. It has no right to decide questions affecting Judaism or Jews throughout the world.
Secondly, the absurdity of the Israeli parliament determining religious issues affecting Jews and Judaism is clearly seen when considering the fact that many of its members are Christians, Muslims, other non-Jews, and non-religious (and even anti-religious) individuals.8
On the other hand, the Israeli parliament has already passed a political law to grant automatic citizenship to any Jew. This law obviously creates confusion. The reality of confusion - (as, for example, cases of natural Jews who have converted to other religions, or renounced their Jewishness in other ways) -compelled the parliament to define Jewish identity. By including in this definition 'converts to Judaism' without defining the meaning of conversion, a most serious problem remains - and with it, more confusion. Thus it is necessary for the law to be formulated in unequivocal terms to refer to conversions which are universally acceptable.
The army of Israel must serve kosher food, so that all Jewish conscripts can partake thereof. The statutes relating to marriage and divorce are such as are based on minimal Halachic standards, so that the unity of all Jews can be preserved. So, too, any law relating to conversion must be based on minimal Halachic standards, to preserve the unity of all Jews in the State of Israel and throughout the world.