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What’s a Jew?

This week brought two interesting aspects of what it means to be a Jew to the world. The first, which actually started in January but didn’t get much notice until recently, has been seen as both a triumph of spirit and a desecration of memory. The second has the ability to eradicate what it means to be a Jew.

From Ha’Aretz:

A video clip of Adolek Kohn awkwardly shuffling and shimmying with his daughter and grandchildren to the sound of “I Will Survive” at Auschwitz and other sites where millions died during the Holocaust has become an Internet sensation.

I’ve viewed this video several times already, and I still don’t know how to feel. I want to embrace a Holocaust’s survivor’s right to live his life – to dance, to smile, to appreciate the irony that he’s dancing on those who didn’t make it out, like my great-grandparents – but at the same time, it makes me uncomfortable watching people be happy in a place where positive emotion didn’t exist.

The aspect of this that’s not being discussed in the media is the simple truth that this could never have happened without social media. Think this happens 5, 10, 20 years ago? Not a chance. But social media – where ideas flow freely – has created an environment where society’s dominant norms and mores can be demolished and torn down by a tweet, a status update or a user-generated video.

Watching this video, I wondered if my family would have participated (my grandfather probably would have sang). Would our Rabbi condone dancing on the graves of Jews? The pressures of being a Jew clearly didn’t prohibit the Kohn family, but what if they weren’t Jewish?

If the Knesset’s David Rotem, a member of the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, is successful in passing a bill which would give the Ultra-Orthodox authority of determining who is Jewish, then this would be an even stranger discussion.

As a Reform Jew, this is really scary. To make a sloppy analogy: imagine Congress passing a law that says if you don’t speak English, have great-grandparents who weren’t born in America and don’t adhere to every single rule/law in the U.S Constitution and local and state laws (no matter how inane – did you know that NY citizens may not greet each other by “putting one’s thumb to the nose and wiggling the fingers?”) you are not considered an American.

From Ha’aretz:

They (Reform/Conservative Rabbis) are concerned that for the first time, Israeli law is giving the Chief Rabbinate authority over conversion. The rabbinate does not have that power today. They are also concerned by the bill’s statement that conversion will be recognized only if the convert “accepted the Torah and the commandments in accordance with halakha.” This unprecedented stipulation excludes the Conservative and Reform communities.

Finally, they fear it would effectively overturn a 2002 High Court of Justice ruling that required the Interior Ministry to recognize converts of all denominations, whether performed in Israel or overseas.

The implications of this law are striking. It narrowly defines what a Jew is in an era where not only are there different sects of Judaism, but different ideas of what it means to be a Jew.

If this law passes, I will not be seen as a Jew by the Chief Rabbinate. I don’t adhere to every rule in the Torah. Seriously, my favorite foods are chicken parmigiana and bacon cheeseburgers – not exactly what one would call Kosher (although I do keep Kosher in my house). There’s already enough conflict between Israeli and American Jews (let alone the Eastern Bloc Jewry), this law has dire consequences for American Jews.

This bill has the potential to wipe out millions of Jews (particularly Jews of the future) who wouldn’t be seen (and then defined) as Jews by the Haredim.

However, the flip side of this discussion is what’s really at root at this bill in Israel: conversion.

Again, from Ha’aretz (The Conversion Bill Demystified):

Some 320,000 people who are not Jewish according to halakha (Jewish law ) live in Israel, most of them from the former Soviet Union. Though they are Israeli citizens, they cannot marry in Israel, and after their death, they cannot have a Jewish funeral. Yet many converts who invested many years and large sums of money in converting, including some who made personal sacrifices for their choice to be Jewish, have either discovered that their conversion is not recognized by the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox ) who dominate the Chief Rabbinate or even had it annulled by the rabbinical courts.

So it seems everyone is happy. Where’s the problem?

The ultra-Orthodox rabbis may no longer be part of the conversion process, but they have found a way to impact converts’ lives. Some marriage registrars refuse to register converts if they think they are not observant enough, and rabbinical court judges have revoked the conversions of converts who sought a divorce. The worst incident occurred in 2008, when the Rabbinical Court of Appeals retroactively annulled every conversion ever performed by Druckman’s courts. Since then, conversion in Israel has been stuck in a rut.

What difference will the new bill make?

Since the government’s conversion courts are weak, the bill offers a user-friendly process for those who want to undergo an Orthodox conversion. Its sponsor, MK David Rotem, proposes that municipal rabbis, who are part of the Chief Rabbinate, be allowed to set up conversion courts and carry out conversions even for those who do not live in their cities.

The bill increases the Chief Rabbinate’s authority over conversions and requires the rabbinate to approve the appointment of conversion judges. But Rotem’s assumption is that the Chief Rabbinate is not entirely Haredi; it also contains religious Zionist and modern Orthodox rabbis – and it is they who will perform the conversions. The bill also makes it harder to revoke conversions, saying rabbinical courts may do so only if the chief rabbis approve.

The Haredim, in contrast, hope the Chief Rabbinate will pressure municipal rabbis to adhere to their more rigorous conversion standards.

So what does it mean to be a Jew? Is it sharing a culture, a faith, a philosophy where you can simultaneously find happiness in the depths of the most evil created on this earth and be questioned of your lineage because a group of ultra-orthodox men want “to expand their authority from narrow questions of conversion to larger questions of Jewish identity. Since what goes for conversion also goes for all other clerical acts, only a few anointed rabbis will be able to determine the authenticity of one’s marriage, divorce, birth, death — and every rite in between.”

I guess I’ll just have to consult my Rabbi – who may or may not be Jewish.

About joshsternberg

Josh Sternberg is the content strategist for The Washington Post. Prior to that he was the media reporter for Digiday. Additional bylines include: The Atlantic, The Awl, Pacific Standard, Mashable, Huffington Post, Mediaite.


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