Home Perspectives Big Ideas Landsberg: Who is a Jew? Who says?

Landsberg: Who is a Jew? Who says?

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A good 10 years ago, a man I like to claim as my rabbi made the most startling suggestion.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman said that when Jews marry each other, the couple should convert beforehand – even the most “glatt kosher” of Jews. Why? Rabbi Hartman’s rationale was that this would resolve the age-old question, “Who is a Jew?”

The couple would come together on equal terms, background notwithstanding, and commit to a shared Jewish path; their prior Jewish status would be moot. (It was a very interesting proposal – though not yet a requirement at most synagogues.)

The question of who is a Jew is deceptively simple.

Talmud relates part of the life story of Elisha ben Abuya, a rabbi who becomes called by the moniker Acher, “The Other”.  While there are diverse stories told about Elisha ben Abuya’s heresy, his otherness seems absolute.  Acher himself admitted, “I have already heard from behind the (Divine) curtain: ‘Return, rebellious sons – except for Acher.’ ”

Yet it is rarely so simple when it comes to relationships. One time, Elisha ben Abuya was riding a horse on Shabbat (a forbidden act) while his student Rabbi Meir walked alongside in order to learn Torah from him. After a while, Acher told Rabbi Meir to turn back on his own. Acher had been calculating the distance they had journeyed together and realized that they had reached the Shabbat boundary, the distance beyond which Jews were forbidden to travel on Shabbat. Acher protected his student from crossing a boundary he himself had already rejected. He respected Rabbi Meir on his own terms.

Complicated boundaries and relationships are not just about individuals and their personal choices. Over 800 years ago, the great medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides set out the bounds of relationship between rabbinic Jews and Karaites who did not accept rabbinic authority. In the middle of last century, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik addressed the complicated relationship between Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Jews. By seeing clearly what was plainly in front of him – that no single boundary could contain the world of Jewishness – Rabbi Soloveitchik boldly declared that there are two covenants by which Jews may live. One was forged in Egypt and suffering, the other at Sinai with God’s very presence.

The first is the covenant of fate, in which the shared identity as Jews in a dangerous world is born in solidarity. The second is the covenant of destiny, in which the yoke of commandment is one’s sacred endeavour. Jews, whether living within one or both covenants, were in some relationship with each other.

Reflecting on the “big ideas for the next 50 years,” I think this question – who is a Jew? – is crying out for new responses. Why? In an age in which individuals choose their own measure of value and worth, in which they are the arbiter of their own gender (as intimate a notion of self as one can imagine, for example), the notion that Jewishness will continue to simply be determined and bounded by rabbis is fanciful.


Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive director of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, articulately defended a traditional stance recently.  She wrote, “Judaism, as a continuous tradition for 3,000 years, promotes a highly counter-cultural idea in contemporary society, in that it finds special opportunity for spiritual and moral growth in the maintenance and appreciation of boundaries – whether around time, food, consumption, moral conduct and even relationships. Jews are meant to find the spiritual growth and meaning we seek in these ‘bounded’ spaces.”

Schonfeld’s language itself makes the problem evident.  Boundaries are “highly counter-cultural.” I would not disagree. Yet how often have you heard Judaism prefixed by a personal pronoun (“my Judaism” or “your Judaism”)? As much as it reflects heartfelt emotional engagement, it also reflects an undeniable personal authority to define one’s Jewishness on one’s own terms.  Sociologist Steven Cohen recognizes the cultural shift that has already taken place. He notes how “engaged young Jewish adults resist what they see as coercive expectations. They see once widely accepted normative standards – such as in-marriage and support of Israel – as optional, tentative and, at best, a means to expressing higher Jewish purpose.” The language of self-discovery has superseded any purchase that communal norms or custom may have had.

Further, this breakdown of authority is not solely due to the zeitgeist of the current moment. Within the institutions that claim authority to set communal boundaries – to answer the question of who is a Jew – the arguments have grown more fractious, more numerous and more granular.

Within the parameters of the Orthodox rabbinic world, the locus of authority is hotly contested. Just a few years ago, a large number of Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora (including here in Canada) were “blacklisted” by the Chief Rabbinate; their word was no longer considered sufficient to attest to the Jewish status of new immigrants for marriage. Conversion courts convened by congregational Orthodox rabbis may no longer be sufficient for the Chief Rabbinate to accept the Jewish status of the convert.

The debates over authority rage throughout the non-Orthodox rabbinic world as well. While conversions are often not recognized between the different movements (with some exception), Reform rabbis are internally divided about who is even born a Jew.

The American Reform rabbinate accepts as Jewish those born into intermarried families in which the father is the Jewish partner; the Canadian Reform rabbinate requires conversion for anyone not born to a Jewish mother. Leading Conservative rabbis are breaking with the movement over questions of status and marriage. And none of this addresses the hundreds of thousands of Russian Israelis who have the status of Jew by the authority of the Interior Ministry, but not according to the Chief Rabbinate.

Where does that leave us? Even for Jews who accept the notion of communal boundaries and rabbinic authority, the current state of affairs is hard to see persisting. The seemingly simple question – who is a Jew – cannot be answered simply, however appealing that would be; it may not be answered at all. Rabbi Hartman challenges us to find the strength to make “decisions which live with complexity and don’t try to resolve it.” This means that rabbis and communal leaders will grow more as leaders for Jewish empowerment, rather than as gatekeepers protecting the borders.

Who is a Jew? We won’t necessarily know. What do we need to know? Whether ahavat Yisra’el dwells in the soul before me.

Ahavat Yisra’el – “the love of Israel” – is a romantic and slightly fuzzy concept.  It brings to mind former U.S. Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart’s remarks from an entirely different context: “I know it when I see it.”

Whether through the serendipity of a love for a Jew, or through a vision of the divine journey that the pursuit of Jewishness can engender, and not least for those who feel in their heart the Jews have come so far, we should not forsake them now that there are many paths.

Ahavat Yisra’el – whether living among or alongside the Jewish people – is an allegiance that cannot be tested, but is at the core of that riddle that is Jewishness, and is no less real for all of that. Ahavat Yisra’el asks for empathy with the diversity of the many forms of Jewish expression rather than the insistent assertion of identity.