The question of what being Jewish means is one that has plagued our sages for centuries, eluding many contemporary scholars and spiritual leaders - myself included.
Although it is tempting to claim that Jewishness is based upon one’s adherence to the beliefs and practices mandated by the Torah, this is highly problematic, with divergent opinions postulating varying narratives on what the Torah mandates, the definition of true adherence, and what beliefs and practices we must hold..
Furthermore, if this were the sole criteria to be considered a Jew, then one who was born to Jewish parents could cease to be Jewish by not adhering to Torah-based beliefs and/or practices. And following the same logic, one could theoretically become Jewish without converting.
This rationale is rejected by most Jews, who hold that one is a Jew – like it or not – if born to Jewish parents, and there is nothing that can be done to jettison that identification (however, there is often disagreement about what constitutes Jewish parents).
Similarly, most Jews, regardless of affiliation or background, agree that one who is not born to Jewish parents can become a Jew only through some type of formal conversion process.
Therefore, it is paradoxical that many contend that in order for Israel to claim with integrity that it is a Jewish State, it must be governed “Jewishly”. This claim holds that being a Jewish State means not only having a Jewish majority ruled by a Jewish government, but also creating laws that are formed based upon Jewish religious directives.
The push for rabbinic control over civil institutions like burial, marriage, divorce, public transport, etc. is often advanced based on this argument, dictating that unless
Jewish law governs these institutions, the inherent Jewish character of the state will be compromised.
This narrative is based upon the aforementioned erroneous claim that Jewishness is defined based upon practice, as opposed to the near-universal acknowledgement that it is lineage or conversion-based.
Rabbinic control of Israeli civil institutions inherently weakens the Jewish character of the Israel, with the voices calling to control these rights frequently coming from segments of the Orthodox community.
Although I respect (though often disagree with) Orthodox authorities and their understanding of Torah, ceding control over the definition of what it means to be Jewish to one (numerically small) segment of the Jewish world diminishes Israel’s ability to be a Jewish State for all Jews.
Moreover, Orthodox control over Israeli civil institutions lessens the vibrancy and diversity of what it means to be Jewish – not only in Israel, but throughout the world – because it establishes that the Orthodox community has a monopoly on Jewish authenticity.
Tragically, the ability of a small community to control the Jewishness of the state shuts many Jews out of the civil institutions that are supposed to be rightfully theirs. Truly being a Jewish State means that no Jew ought to be left behind or left out.
On the other hand, being a Jewish State, means more than simply being a state for Jews (i.e. a state with a Jewish majority designed to be a safe haven for a specific persecuted people).
Israel has provided refuge for those in need, and it should continue to do so. But being a Jewish State is not simply a question of demographics. The meaning behind being Jewish transcends tribal/ethnic definitions, for there are norms of Jewish conduct, values and ethics.
The challenge, then, is for Israel to not only be a state for Jewish people, but a country that Jews throughout the world can be proud of and that lives up to the highest of Jewish values.
These values cannot be dictated by the fiat of one segment of the Jewish population. Rather, they should be the product, as they have been throughout Jewish history, of a broad communal conversation that is simultaneously sensitive to our contemporary situation and informed by our history, canons of sacred literature and diverse culture.
Michael Knopf is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple, a congregation near Philadelphia affiliated with Conservative/Masorti Judaism, and a recent graduate of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles.
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