In a recent edition of The CJN, Rabbi Dow Marmur shared the evolution of his thinking regarding the acceptance of patrilineal descent as a means to define who is a Jew.
A letter writer named Ezra Franken disagreed with Rabbi Marmur, suggesting it would be “fairer” if we all adhered to the “universally accepted” determination of matrilineal descent.
The truth is, matrilineal descent is not “universally accepted,” given that most of the Reform world, and many in the secular world, accept patrilineal descent. And there’s good reason for that: intermarriage rates in the United States are skyrocketing and on a trajectory to rise even higher. Canada isn’t far behind.
Ultimately, the debate over who is a Jew is both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to maintain as Jews as many of the children of intermarriages as possible. The opportunity is to welcome into our “tribe” as many Jews by choice as possible through conversion. And there are several related issues, too, including the question of conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis, the validity of which are not currently accepted by the Orthodox world.
One of the beautiful things about Judaism is our ability to facilitate – indeed, encourage – free and critical thinking. Leaving aside the great value of that attribute in our daily lives, it has also spawned multiple approaches to “being Jewish” in the Diaspora.
Some would argue that by offering choice, we have diluted the religion and weakened the global Jewish community. I would argue, however, that by offering choice, we have encouraged millions to remain Jewish in a secular world that would otherwise have swallowed up a majority of Diaspora Jewry.
You need only look to Israel, where the ranks of the secular have grown dramatically, to see the impact of minimal choice when it comes to worship. There, it’s a problem, but not an existential one, because all Israelis wake up every day in a Jewish state. But in a secular Diaspora, that lack of choice in how one chooses to “be Jewish” could lead to a dramatic reduction in the number of people who identify as Jewish, support Jewish causes and advocate for Israel.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the impact of these “Who is a Jew” questions is potentially catastrophic to the unity of the Jewish People. Marriages of Jews to non-Jews or to Jews who have converted outside the Orthodox rabbinate are going to not only continue, but grow in number. To the extent that a significant and important part of the Jewish world excludes children of Jewish fathers from “the tribe,” and to the extent that Orthodox rabbis, with the presumed support of their congregations, continue to refuse to recognize the validity of conversions conducted by non-Orthodox rabbis, we are going to seriously challenge the fabric of our global Jewish community.
Two examples to make the point: if I’m a male Jew, identify as a Jew, practise Judaism and raise my child as a Jew, do we not want my child to be accepted as a Jew in order to add one more to our tiny community? And if not, how am I to respond to my Orthodox fellow Jews who reject my own offspring?
Similarly, if I, a male Jew, have chosen to marry a woman who is a Jew by choice, properly converted by a non-Orthodox rabbi, and we build a Jewish home and raise our children as Jews, how are we and our friends and family going to react if our children are not accepted as being Jewish by that same important segment of the Jewish world?
I am worried. We are in the middle stages of a simmering conflict that will either split the Jewish world or help to unite us. In the end, only the ability of the Orthodox world to recognize this, and to modify its thinking, will save us.
Michael Diamond is a business consultant, entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist. He is involved extensively in Jewish and non-Jewish community life and sits on or chairs several boards and committees of a number of non-profit organizations.