Responses to my ‘conversion’: The bizarre, the brazen and the best

Crossposted to davidamwilensky.com

In other news I'm topping the charts over at the Forward: The hed on my piece is 'What Would You Call Me?'

Right. So I wrote this op-ed for the Forward about how I underwent a Conservative conversion because I go to a Conservative shul these days, but I came from a patrilineal Reform background and so forth. And in it I suggested that it’s time for the Conservative movement to start accepting patrilineal descent.

Then the internet discharged platoon after platoon of Jew-baiting Jewish commenters with all kinds of nonsense on their minds. There were also some thoughtful comments and a ton of kind emails from friends and acquaintances.

Here’s one of the emails:

I so wanted to comment on your Forward article, but I simply could not wade into the aggravating mess of Jews baiting each other.

So for his benefit and yours, I waded neck-deep into the muck to pluck out the best of the comments — not only at forward.com, but on Facebook and twitter as well. And I’ll respond to a few too.

[I started writing this post yesterday so there are probably even more comments now that I haven't even looked at.]

Comments from Conservative rabbis

I don’t believe the Conservative position to be unreasonable — it’s cogent, I get where they’re coming from — I just think they’re wrong. But I have been surprised by how many Conservative rabbis I know personally and consider to be reasonable (where “reasonable” means, as it so often does to many of us, “generally in agreement with me”) have come out in disagreement with me. For instance, this comment from a C-rabbi I know, received via email:

It would be a mess, and I’d leave the movement, as would lots of others.

Joel Alan Katz posted a link to the op-ed on Facebook, eliciting this from one prominent Conservative rabbi:

I have just returned from Budapest where I led a Seder for Dor Hadash – a Masorti affiliated group of young people. I expect to write about this profound and moving visit very soon. I would guess that half of the participants were not Halachically Jewish (maybe more). But from my perspective, they were certainly Jewish in all but a technicality. David makes some points that are very worthy of discussion. These points are even more relevant in many of the former Communist countries.

I do not buy “The Rabbinical Assembly of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism should accept patrilineal descent: I am Exhibit A!” argumant. One could pull out B through Z to establish the opposite.
I rather suspect that patralinial may be the next big controversy in the Conservative Movement.

To which I responded that I’ve heard argument B through Z and I have answers for all of them. But I find his final statement about “the next big controversy” exciting, if a little ominous.

Another prominent Conservative rabbi:

The article, of course, has some poignant statements/anecdotes. And perhaps one day Halacha will evolve in this way. But, for now, the way I embrace those whose Judaism only derives from their father is this: identity is larger than Halacha. You are Jewish. The difference for you is your ritual eligibility.” And then I speak of a ritual of “affirmation”, which might resemble conversion, but has a very different emotional impact, given that it affirms this person’s Jewish identity

I like this “identity is larger than halachah” argument, especially when it comes up in Orthodox contexts where I know that halachah will never “evolve” in the direction I’m advocating. I’m curious to know more about this “ritual of ‘affirmation.’” If for this rabbi, a patrilineal Jew is not halachically a Jew, what would it mean to use any ceremony other than conversion for this purpose?

I might have accidentally triggered a major change in Reform/Liberal UK Jewry

Deb Blausten (@debzybee) tweeted:

switch ‘conservative’ for ‘UK reform’ and ‘reform’ for ‘UK liberal’ and then read this by @davidAMwilensky forward.com/articles/15465…and go hmm

In the UK, the Reform movement is more like our Conservative movement and the Liberal movement is more like our Reform movement. Anyway, the op-ed has produced a serious conversation on twitter about whether RSY-Netzer — the youth group of UK Reform, which as high degree of autonomy from the movement — should recognize patrilineal descent. Debz has started a Storify to keep track of this conversation as it develops.

I’m rude

Forward.com commenter “RCCA”:

[...] I would say to him, “Where’s your reverence and respect for the congregation you supposedly think is superior to congregations where you would be accepted without question?” If you don’t respect the tradition, why follow it? I found his attitude rude, I’m sorry to say. [...]

I am rude sometimes, but I’d rather be rude and right than polite and wrong. As I wrote in the piece the decision to undergo a Conservative conversion was a matter of moral rectitude, a matter of honesty. If my tone while explaining that crucial piece of this story was off-putting, so be it.

Fallout from the 1983 Reform decision to recognize patrilineals:

Forward.com commenter “@amazingdancing”:

[...] The Reform movement may or may not have known the implications of its decision. However, every Jewish denomination bases its decisions and does what it is necessary to reflect its philosophy, lifestyle and understanding of what it means to be Jewish.

[...] Sadly, the impasse seems unbridgeable and I don’t see it changing anytime soon.

“Shloime” responds:

the “impasse” was bridged with a simple, straightforward trip to the mikveh. and if his parents had worked as hard to complete his mother’s conversion, before the wedding, as they seem to have done to find a rabbi to officiate at an intermarriage, even that wouldn’t have been necessary.

Leave my parents out of it, schmuck. I regret dragging their their names into this just so you can pseudonymously mouth off about people you don’t know.

How could I betray myself like this?

A comment on the Forward’s Facebook page:

Joel Schiff: I read David’s article this morning. I cannot understand why he needs or wants to be a “Conservative” Jew. They humiliated him to take a ritual bath and “convert” to Judaism even though he was already Jewish. I think David should join a non-demoninational synagogue.

I don’t know if Joel bothered to read the whole piece, but it dealt with a lot of what he’s bringing up here. I have three responses to him:

  • First of all, I was not “humiliated.” I’m not sure where he got that from. I was quite clear that I felt secure throughout the ordeal and that my worries have more to do with my peers, who may not all be as confident in their Jewish identities as I am.
  • Second, I’m not a Conservative Jew, but I do happen to go to a Conservative shul. This entire issue is wrapped up in the increasingly fluid way Jews — especially younger Jews — look at denominational affiliation.
  • And lastly, I’d love to join a non-denominational synagogue. But not all of them — and I’ve been to several — are my style. There are also none near my apartment. Not all of us live in the major metro areas where choices are more diverse. And many of us who do (I work in New York City and I suppose I technically live in the greater New York metropolitan area) don’t live close enough to an offbeat shul to make regular attendance there practical.

There’s always someone further to the right to question the validity of your conversion…

An excerpt from forward.com commenter from “YefehQol”:

Very often, I meet Reform Jews visiting Israel, and some of them complain that the conversions done in their movement are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate. “Why”, I ask them, “do you feel that you need the approval of the Chief Rabbi?”

As I noted in my op-ed, practical considerations are also an important part of this debate. In Israel, practical considerations abound. In response to YefehQol, my New Voices colleague Harpo Jaeger wrote:

This is only partially about approval. There are also material disadvantages to having your marriage/religious status unrecognized. In your example, for instance, Reform Jews are not accorded some of the privileges under Israeli law that Jews whose marriages are recognized by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate are.

“Jaygatz78″ commented:

Sorry to say but according to halacha you are still not considered Jewish. i would ask why you didn’t convert under an orthodox rabbi but then again when you start the article off by saying you have always been a Jew obviously you make your own rules so what was the point of you making any conversion. You could have been raised as a bear but that doesn’t make you a bear

That last bit is by far one of the best lines to come out of this so far. The reason I didn’t convert under an Orthodox rabbi is that I don’t have any interest in actively participating in the ritual life of Orthodox community. (Though, as they say, some of my best friends are Orthodox.) In any case, there are plenty of Orthodox rabbis whose conversions aren’t good enough for some other Orthodox rabbis.

On the subject of confidence, Carolyn Klaasen:

[...] For others I can imagine the experience being devastating and alienating. In what way does it strengthen Jewish communities to question or exclude those of us whose Jewish identities are a little more complex?

In response to Carolyn, shloime:

“exclude”? even the local rotary club has rules and membership dues. if the only thing stopping you from being a member of the tribe is a quick trip to the mikveh (and possibly a course of study in judaism), i wouldn’t call that “exclusion”, but more like “self-selection”.

You can’t dismiss “a course of study in judaism” so quickly, shloime. That’s a little more of an undertaking than a quick trip to the mikveh. Thankfully for me it wasn’t so, but for many these two things are not the only thing stopping them: They may have to go through a rabbi who belittles their Jewishness first.

In response to shloime, “Dan_02″:

What’s ridiculous, shloime, is that conversion is something required of Mr. Wilensky, who can lead a service, while it would not be of me, who has trouble following a service. And all because it was my father who was Irish.

Any club whose standards would accept me as a member (and not Mr. Wilensky), isn’t one I’d want to join. The existence of standards is not the issue. Rather, our trouble is with the arbitrariness of which standards are chosen to be enforced.

And more from Dan_02:

[...] The idea that such a conversion, which could never be more than theater, expresses respect for a religious tradition actually denigrates it.

The award for almost — but not quite — getting what’s going on here goes to…

A comment on the Forward’s Facebook page:

Felix H. Alomar: I happen to be more or less in the same situation…I’ve born christian but I have a “jewish matrilinear line” so I’m Jew and practice Judaism… but not my son…

I’d say that’s less the same situation, not more. If I’m reading this correctly and this fellow grew up Christian, then the identity of his mother doesn’t matter one bit to me. (Frankly, I think he ought to convert.)

The award for least compelling argument goes to…

Forward.com commenter “SC&A”:

For over 3000 years matrilineal descant has been one of Judaism’s defining characteristics.

Think about that- 3000 years.

While I’m delighted there are those for whom Judaism has some meaning beyond an ancient tradition, I am not one to throw our past away like yesterday’s newspaper.

Belief in God over bagels, identity over ribald Yiddish jokes and finding comfort in faith over food has kept us who we are.

Yes, friends, for three millenia, bagels and Yiddish jokes have kept us who we are. Er. Wait.

Then shloime redeems himself by pillorying SC&A for claiming that matrilineal descent was in use among Jews in the time of the bible. SC&A then drives completely off the cliff:

So what?

Are you so willing to negate 3000 years of tradition? Are you a bible literalist? Do you live a life as mandated by Torah- or are is the cafeteria model good enough for you?

The award for most entertaining comments of the day goes to…

A comment on the Forward’s Facebook page:

Linda Tzoref: Judaism is matrilineal. End of story. If your mother isn’t Jewish neither are you.

In response to that moment of blazing clarity:

Dan Parvaz: If you aren’t married by an Orthodox Rabbi, you’re shacking up, and your children are bastards. End of story.

Ooh. This exclusionary game is fun! Who’s next?

Some great back-and-forth on the Forward’s Facebook page:

Aron Brondo: first of all, a female rabbi?? before you point an accusing finger, make sure your hand is clean…. kabbalah teaches us that it is the neshama that makes a jew ba’al teshuvah is merely a formality

Shocking though it may be, yes Francine Roston is a woman. I don’t know what ba’al teshuvah (a “lapsed” Jew who becomes Orthodox) has to do with this. Perhaps the initial commenter meant to type conversion. In that case, if it is the neshama (soul) that makes a Jew and the conversion is a mere formality, then I guess that’s exactly what happened in my case.

A response to that comment from my new hero:

Brian Kresge: Kabbalah has little to do with full participation in a Conservative community. And a patrilineal Jew isn’t considered by halachah to be ba’al t’shuvah. Aside from vacuum cleaner salesmen-come-kabbalah-scholars, kabbalah has little to do with the realities of American synagogue life.

Another response:

Brain, in the American frum world kabbalah plays a part. I wish the pill (answer) for this person was an easy one to swallow, but it’s not. As Mr. Olesh said that Conservatived need to come into contemporary times……. What’s that mean? The Torah doesn’t, hasn’t and will change with the times. So why should a movement?

Then:

Yosef Wil Goldstein: Brain, in the American frum world kabbalah plays a part. I wish the pill (answer) for this person was an easy one to swallow, but it’s not. As Mr. Olesh said [referring to another comment] that Conservatived need to come into contemporary times……. What’s that mean? The Torah doesn’t, hasn’t and will change with the times. So why should a movement?

A dose of cogency then returned to the conversation:

Martin Olesh: Since the subject of the article, Mr. Wilensky is addressing the Conservative movement, the Orthodox or “frum” reply is automatic and irrelevant .For an Orthodox Jew, Torah is never changing, in concept. Therefore the Orthodox community will reject, as Mr. Goldstein has, any effort to consider modern situations as relevant to doctrinal issues. But the Conservative and Reform movements are not that rigid. They do recognize practices in light of modern conditions that the Orthodox in no uncertain terms condemn and will never recognize.

The award for most fun to imagine the commenter having a total nervous breakdown while writing the comment goes to…

Ra’anan Elozory:

Then take out a switchblade, go to your nonorthodox temple, roll open the Torah scrolls & remove the offending passages. In fact, if your a CRAB LOVER, you can cut out those offending passages as well. You can cut those Torah scrolls to your HEART’S CONTENT! Ah, but please don’t call that “Judaism.” You can call it “renaissanceboyism” instead & you can stand justly by the hemorrhaging reform & conservative movements & be “right.”

But WHAT IF G-d really does not want male homosexuality, but you DO want it? Who do you think would be right, you or Him? What if every “victimless crime” really did have universal consequences, but we weren’t aware of them, similar to a guy in a cruise ship drilling a hole in the floor of his “private” room, yet taking the whole ship down with him? Why do you want to be Jewish at all even w/o your objections to some parts of Judaism? If we aren’t part of some supernatural/divine plan, then why in the world do we have to do ANYTHING Jewish? Is there any evidence that we are part of some supernatural/divine plan??? Have you investigated or are you too busy dismantling ideas that offend your sensibilities?

To conclude:

Forward.com commenter “benjilachkar”:

[...] Anyway, the writer is not halakhically Jewish but define himself as a Jew and is accepted as a Jew by a big part of American Jewry – so unless he decides to move to Israel, he has no problem and can live his life as he wants to. So why are we having this discussion at all ?

Amen, I guess.

50 Responses to “Responses to my ‘conversion’: The bizarre, the brazen and the best”

  1. For over 3000 years matrilineal descant has been one of Judaism’s defining characteristics.

    Think about that- 3000 years.

    While I’m delighted there are those for whom Judaism has some meaning beyond an ancient tradition, I am not one to throw our past away like yesterday’s newspaper.

    Belief in God over bagels, identity over ribald Yiddish jokes and finding comfort in faith over food has kept us who we are.

    Yes, friends, for three millenia, bagels and Yiddish jokes have kept us who we are. Er. Wait.

    you misunderstood the comment. “Belief in God OVER (i.e., more than) bagels…has kept us who we are.” In other words, cultural Judaism doesn’t cut it.

    I didn’t read all of these responses because I don’t really care what people think about your experience, but I did read your op-ed and I am simply not convinced (not just as a Conservative rabbi) that there is a strong need for acknowledging patrilineal descent precisely because of your experience. Those who care about it will pursue the ritual, those who feel like it’s unnecessary for themselves will not. Why does the movement have to change its definitions? There is a rabbi out there who wants to make a change to the movement’s definitions of kashrut, and say that all vegetarian pizza is kosher irrelevant of the ovens. his reasoning is because people will eat the pizza anyways, so it would be better if we said they were eating kosher food. this is silly reasoning. halakhah does not change as easily as you may think. there are processes which we follow. it’s not so simple as people want a change so we change it.


    justin · April 19th, 2012 at 4:49 pm
  2. I’m way down on the comment thread at the Forward, but took a bit of a different response that might be worth having here. You’re partially quoting the Reform policy, when you write, “In 1983, the Reform rabbinic leadership declared the child of one Jewish parent to be ‘under the presumption of Jewish descent.’ ”

    The full quote is: www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/patrilineal1.html
    “The Central Conference of American Rabbis declares that the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption of the Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people. The performance of these mitzvot serves to commit those who participate in them, both parent and child, to Jewish life.

    Depending on circumstances,1 mitzvot leading toward a positive and exclusive Jewish identity will include entry into the covenant, acquisition of a Hebrew name, Torah study, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and Kabbalat Torah (Confirmation).2 For those beyond childhood claiming Jewish identity, other public acts or declarations may be added or substituted after consultation with their rabbi.”

    In the Reform movement, while there is the decision to presume someone is Jewish if they have a Jewish father, they aren’t actually considered Jewish unless they follow a series of other criteria. This is actually a more rigorous standard for matrilineal descent than Conservative or Orthodox. Of course, these clauses are often ignored in practice. Just like the Conservative driving on Shabbat rulings included a bunch of restrictions that were rapidly ignored, there are clearly similar issues with any patrilineal descent ruling.

    Even if Conservative fears of the masses ignoring these extra clauses were unwarranted, the flexibility of Reform practice made the additional criteria possible in a way that I doubt could be adapted to the Conservative movement. I agree that there needs to be better ways to make people welcome and not unnecessarily exclude, but I’m not sure a blanket acceptance of patrilineal descent would be the solution.


    Dan Ab · April 19th, 2012 at 4:51 pm
  3. I always find arguments on this subject disheartening because as as a woman who was not born Jewish my children will have the exact same problem in spite of my conversion before their birth. As you addressed, there will always be someone, somewhere who will figure I didn’t convert the “right” way and that therefore the conversion wasn’t valid and my kids aren’t Jewish. I see no way to “win” this except to accept the fact that life isn’t fair and that I (and my children) may be asked to have another perfunctory conversion in the future to be fully involved in religious life if we ever get involved in a more conservative community. I have found peace with this (after all, who cares what people outside of my own community think anyway), but like you I do wish things could be different.


    P · April 19th, 2012 at 9:50 pm
  4. Thank you for including my comment and for considering me to be a “prominent” rabbi.

    But you missed what I think is an important part of what I added and which elicited virtually no response from others. I spoke of Zera Yisrael.

    We have be educated to see a person as either Jewish or non-Jewish. There is no in-between. But take a look at my full remarks and the final paragraph in particular. The Masorti rabbis in Israel, joining with a long line of greats, understand that those with Jewish roots who tie their fate to the Jewish people may deserve special consideration. To quote one thinker

    יתכן שלא כל לא יהודי הוא נוכרי


    Rabbi Andy Sacks · April 19th, 2012 at 10:43 pm
  5. David, I’m sorry the Jewish Internet poured out its crazy and uniformed mishigas on you. As for the substance of your piece, check out a series of three lectures by Rabbi Ethan Tucker from Yeshivat Hadar, he makes what I think is a very compelling case for a Halachic version of the reform tshuvah. The outcome would be presume that BOTH matrilineal and patrilineal Jews have complex identities, and require a dip (but not the whole conversion process) for both sets. More important than then the outcome is his reasoning and reading of the sources. Listening to the lectures really did change my mind on this issue.

    Check out the lectures here, here, and here.


    Chorus of Apes · April 19th, 2012 at 11:23 pm
  6. How can so much of the Jewish world ignore how much we need patrilineal Jews? Yesterday different Facebook friends posted links not only to your essay but to a blogpost by Maya Escobar and an article by Paul Golin, both of which speak indirectly to what you wrote and more directly to some of the talkbacks.

    Escobar asks, “Is being half-Jewish, like being half-pregnant?” (blog.mayaescobar.com/2012/04/18/fractured-jewishness). Golin, speaking of Canada where the intermarriage rate is much lower than in the U.S.: “…there are as many intermarried households created as in-married households (if three Jews intermarrying at 35%, two of those Jews marry each other to create one household, while one of those Jews marries a non-Jew to also create one household)…Fear of intermarriage as a motivating factor for doing anything needs to be expunged from our communal institutions, to be replaced by the joy of sharing what we love about being Jewish with all who might benefit (www.njjewishnews.com/article/9005/when-it-comes-to-intermarriage-experts-confuse-cause-and-effect#.T44Dx9l22So).

    As a Conservative Jew, I’d like to see the movement lead the way in finding halachic paths to greater inclusiveness. Will definitely check out the Tucker lectures!


    Chaia B. · April 20th, 2012 at 2:36 am
  7. Rav Haim Amsalem, a MK via the SHAS political party (he has now been ousted) published an excellent 2 volume set called Zera Yisrael (there is a shorter one volume edition) believes that the present situation of so many “half-Jews” constitutes a halakhic state of emergency and is an Eit La’asot. He cites the Radbaz who held that those of Zera Yisrael (Jewish roots)may be converted without acceptance of the Mitzvot.
    For a review, see Rabbi David Ellinson’s excellent work at: groups.google.com/group/Davidshasha/browse_thread/thread/c68f923e30008dab

    Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel (first Sefardi Chief Rabbi of Israel) insited that we must reach out to the children born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother even if we know that the mother will not become Jewish and the children will not likely be observant. He writes that failure to do so will result in the rabbis being called in front of the heavenly court to explain why they, as shepherds, did not seek to bring in our lost flock.


    Rabbi Andy Sacks · April 20th, 2012 at 7:02 am
  8. David, toward the end you repeated the quote beginning with “Brain, in the American frum world kabbalah plays a part”.

    Very often, I meet Reform Jews visiting Israel, and some of them complain that the conversions done in their movement are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate. “Why”, I ask them, “do you feel that you need the approval of the Chief Rabbi?”

    Most Orthodox rabbis no longer have the approval of the Israeli Rabbinate. Orthodoxy is fragmenting. The Haredim have commandeered the franchise and are self-destructing. As they go, they’ll be taking all of Orthodoxy with them.

    Until then, it’s time we recognize that the long-predicted schism has, in fact, taken place. We now have two religions, each going by the name “Judaism”. If you have no allegiance to Orthodoxy, their opinions regarding your legitimacy are irrelevant. You’re unlikely to interact with them, certainly in a liturgical setting, and if you happen to go to HIR or one of the other few remaining Left Wing Modern Orthodox (the only remnants of pre-war Modern Orthodoxy; everything else is Haredism Lite) synagogues – they won’t check your credentials at the door (neither will their colleagues to the Right, most likely, but something could slip out and it could become embarrassing).

    AS far as the Forward is concerned – I can’t take seriously anything that gets said there any longer. They’ve destroyed one of the last bastions of Jewish Liberalism. Their “journalism” has devolved to the level of a daytime talk show, and the comment threads have been hijacked by frummies and foaming-at-the-mouth Right Wingers who live for the moments in which anyone to the left of them wanders in innocently, so they can pounce upon him/her and scream the dirties epithet they know: “LIBERAL!”.

    Abe Cahan must be spinning.


    Jeff · April 20th, 2012 at 8:14 am
  9. @justin: There is a rabbi out there who wants to make a change to the movement’s definitions of kashrut, and say that all vegetarian pizza is kosher irrelevant of the ovens. his reasoning is because people will eat the pizza anyways, so it would be better if we said they were eating kosher food. this is silly reasoning.

    But that’s precisely what Chazal so often did.


    Jeff · April 20th, 2012 at 8:17 am
  10. Hi,

    I want to thank you for your essay. I’m undergoing remedial Jewish education, after a long philosophical education. I found the essay inspirational, despite the sense of conflict. I also found the essay representative of my experience – I have often found that Jewish children of intermarriage with patrilineal descent have better Jewish educations than people like me, of matrilineal descent. I suspect that there is a gender-related element to this, but any evidence I have is anecdotal.

    It seems to me that so much of this is about the attempt to re-integrate and consolidate the various conceptions of Jewish identity into something more coherent. I think there’s an intuition that there is such a conception, or – at any rate – that there ought to be, even if its coherence is, yet, messy. Your essay expressed that. It opposes a conception that relies almost entirely on traditional authority, and is against yet another which ties together loose strands of culture and politics. A whole segment of replies you did not quote also concerned the element of being defined by our enemies – we who are descendants of those who would have been rounded up and murdered, and also descendants of some of whom survived.

    I believe your essay went to the heart of that. And I found that your responses were largely motivated by attempts to move one element to the forefront, as opposed to the complex, yet coherent, mix. I believe and hope that there are a silent majority of readers of your essay who are sympathetic with your point of view.


    Dan O. · April 20th, 2012 at 9:03 am
  11. @Rabbi Sacks: Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel (first Sefardi Chief Rabbi of Israel) insited that we must reach out to the children born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother even if we know that the mother will not become Jewish and the children will not likely be observant. He writes that failure to do so will result in the rabbis being called in front of the heavenly court to explain why they, as shepherds, did not seek to bring in our lost flock.

    My understanding is that Haredim (used broadly to include Sephardi ultra-Orthodox) don’t believe that one is part of the “flock”, lost or otherwise, if one is born of a non-Jewish mother. Apparently, the “pintele yid”, the “extra soul”, is imparted to one upon conversion – upon emerging from the mikvah, I would imagine.

    I’ve been told by a Haredi that a patrilineal Jew is no different, in their eyes, from any other gentile.

    So, either R. Uziel is mistaken and is merely being sentimental, or the Haredim are once again making up the rules as they go along (shocking, I know).


    Jeff · April 20th, 2012 at 11:33 am
  12. @Jeff. I refer you to the book Zera Yisrael by Rav Haim Amsalem. I refer you, if you prefer an English source, to Transforming Identity: The Ritual Transition from Gentile to Jew – Structure and Meaning, by Zvi Zohar and Avi Sagi. You are correct that most of the non-academic Halachic world view a person born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother as no different from one born to two non-Jewish parents.
    But Uziel was not being sentimental. In fact he writes of this in several places. The problem is that this school of thinking to which Uziel belongs has largely fallen by the wayside over the past century. This may make it more difficult to remind those of us with a traditional education that it was once normative. But it can be done. Even in the States one need only look at the writings of Rabbi Mark Ange (www.jewishideas.org/ )to see that the concept special status to a person born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother can be on the agenda.
    *One more aside: Halachic information derived from someone Haredi is not necessarily any more likely to be accurate than from someone who is Jewishly educated and non-Haredi.


    Rabbi Andy Sacks · April 21st, 2012 at 1:56 pm
  13. Yes, what Rav Sacks said. The lectures I linked to above explore Rav Uziel’s position at some length. If you are interested, check them out. (Plus, you get to feel cool listening to Torah podcasts on your morning commute.)


    Chorus of Apes · April 21st, 2012 at 5:33 pm
  14. But that’s precisely what Chazal so often did.
    example?


    justin · April 21st, 2012 at 8:43 pm
  15. The comments allowed me to once again relish the irony that the people most concerned about intermarriage are also the most likely to insist that the Jewishly observant child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother is not Jewish.


    em · April 23rd, 2012 at 9:52 am
  16. I am simply not convinced (not just as a Conservative rabbi) that there is a strong need for acknowledging patrilineal descent precisely because of your experience. Those who care about it will pursue the ritual, those who feel like it’s unnecessary for themselves will not. Why does the movement have to change its definitions?

    I don’t know that this is particularly motivating for you or if it should be motivating, but this question creates a ton of status questions down the road, for future children, well beyond the status of the individual. When people come to you for marriage or other life-cycle events, are you going to take a don’t ask, don’t tell approach or are you going to start asking for documentation? I mean, I thought that was the whole reason people freaked out about the Reform movement’s position.


    em · April 23rd, 2012 at 9:59 am
  17. em,
    I trust people. And I do, personally, believe that identity is personal, so if someone tells me they’re Jewish, I believe them unless given evidence to support the contrary. I share your feelings that it is bizarre that a “Jewishly observant child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother is not Jewish.” Truly. However, to me this is not a matter of identity or philosophy, but one of halakhah. I do not believe that we should, in this instance, cater the halakhah to the demands of halakhically non-Jewish individuals. If someone is serious about living a Jewish life, why not partake in the beautiful ritual of mikveh? I can understand the apprehension of a grown man who needs circumcision, but again, someone who is serious about living a Jewish life according to halakhah, this should not be an issue. I recently oversaw the conversion of a 20-something who needed circumcision and voiced that it was simultaneously one of the most traumatic and meaningful moments in his life. I just don’t see why mikveh would be an impediment to someone wanting to be a part of a community that has upheld certain communal norms for a very, very long time.

    There are plenty of places in which we can move halakhah. I am not convinced that a) there is a particular need here, b) that there actually is a halakhic way here and c) the opinion of personal rabbinic figures matter as much as the consensus of Jewish communities.


    justin · April 23rd, 2012 at 1:20 pm
  18. I am not convinced that a) there is a particular need here, b) that there actually is a halakhic way here and c) the opinion of personal rabbinic figures matter as much as the consensus of Jewish communities.

    I find this confusing and contradictory. If the consensus of Jewish communities were that someone with one Jewish parent is presumed to be Jewish, regardless of which parent it is, then … what?


    em · April 23rd, 2012 at 3:40 pm
  19. then communal norms would shift. take monogamy. monogamy shifted more because of communal norms than because the Maharam wrote a takanah. but for at least two millenia, Jewish communities have held the consensus of matrileneal descent. So, maybe in 1000 years children on Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers will look back on matrlineneal descent like we look back on polygamy. So c) can be clarified by saying that the Jewish world is not being held back by rabbis or rabbinical bodies (i.e., the RA) on this topic. The norm is set by people adhering to it. People were up in arms over the reform movement, and continue to be, because, I think, they sit outside the consensus of global Jewish identity on many issues.


    justin · April 23rd, 2012 at 4:40 pm
  20. What I find contradictory is that you are saying there is no halakhic way for these people to be Jewish, but you are also saying that it is community norms that ultimately determine whether people are Jewish. That would seem to indicate either that halakha isn’t really the issue or that halakha is actually just a fancy way of saying community consensus.


    em · April 23rd, 2012 at 5:01 pm
  21. halakha is actually just a fancy way of saying community consensus.

    Which, by the way, is fine with me. I just think acknowledging that robs some of the force from the “there’s no halakhic way” argument.


    em · April 23rd, 2012 at 5:36 pm
  22. halakhah is a legal process ultimately driven by communal consensus, but from my belief and read on its evolution it doesn’t usually happen the other way around. so I would not be surprised if at some indeterminate point in the distant future communal consensus is that patrileneal Jews are accepted as full Jews who do not need conversion. I’m sure two thousand years ago people could not conceive of a halakhic reality whereby polygamy was forbidden. societal norm changed, and eventually halakhah followed suit. same goes for egalitarianism of women and homosexuals. but halakhah had no part in driving communal consensus. right now, for better or worse and as perplexing as it might be, communal consensus is such that patrlineal Jews are not halakhically Jewish. that’s all I mean. this is the great debate between minhag and halakhah, halakhah and aggadah and all that jazz.


    justin · April 23rd, 2012 at 9:11 pm
  23. Consensus of which community?


    BZ · April 24th, 2012 at 12:13 am
  24. Yay! I was hoping BZ would show up. No, you see, the consensus in the Reform community doesn’t count, even though it represents a plurality of American Jews, because it’s not a halakhic movement. Even though halakha just represents community consensus.

    What will really be rich is when, hundreds of yeas from now, we’ve resolved this by adopting the equivalent of infant baptism, and no one will believe we didn’t always do that.


    em · April 24th, 2012 at 1:05 am
  25. “I do not believe that we should, in this instance, cater the halakhah to the demands of halakhically non-Jewish individuals.”

    Which halakhically non-Jewish individual made a demand?


    Dan O. · April 24th, 2012 at 12:48 pm
  26. em – halakhah represents the communal consensus of communities who deem it as authoritative in their lives.
    BZ – I’ve been using “communities” and “communal” precisely because there is not singular “Jewish community”
    Dan – patrileneal Jews who say that halakhah should change to bring them into the fold…


    justin · April 24th, 2012 at 3:56 pm
  27. You’ve got to love a system where someone born of a Jewish mother and not participating in any way in Jewish life is authentically and halachically Jewish; whereas someone born of a Jewish father and living an affirmative religious, cultural, social, Zionist, Jewish life is not Jewish.

    No wonder the Conservative movement is foundering. The historic 30 year gap for it finally to follow the Reform movement is just about up on patrilineality. Let’s give them another ten years, during which they can lose another hundred congregations and another hundred thousand Jews. Eich naflu giborim.


    Hineni · April 29th, 2012 at 12:28 am
  28. Justin –

    The demands of halakhically non-Jewish individuals of patrilineal descent is irrelevant to the article. The “demand” (really – a presentation of an argument) was made by a halakhically Jewish person.


    Dan O. · April 30th, 2012 at 1:01 pm
  29. As if DAMW was the only person to make such a presentation…


    Justin · May 1st, 2012 at 7:56 am
  30. “As if DAMW was the only person to make such a presentation…”

    The authenticity of the author is a central part of the argument. The idea of grudgingly satisfying a duty, as opposed to taking a shortcut, clearly separates this case from those in which a group asks others to ‘cater’ to them. That is why your remark is irrelevant.


    Dan O. · May 1st, 2012 at 12:49 pm
  31. As a rabbi, I get approached on this issue from halakhic Jews, “non-halakhic” Jews and non-Jews. DAMW is not the first patrilineal Jew to toyvel. Those who value halakhah tend to not view it as an impediment, but as a meaningful experience. Those who say halakhah should change often don’t grasp what that actually means. For those who view halakhah as authoritative this is rarely an issue, which is why those who do not take halakhah as obligatory aren’t in a place to make demands. That DAMW dunked in a mikveh says, to me, that he recognized the value of the halakhic norm, but his participation in the ritual doesn’t validate the claim that it is unnecessary. I have also lamented on the illogical standard that non-observant matrilineal Jews are born into a status that is meaningless to some while patrilineal Jews who are observant do not have that privilege. But the origin of the law a) could not have foreseen 21st century American-Jewish life, b) is not as easily changed as people may think and c) is not in need of change as much as people think because changing it would fix nothing precisely because those who care about halakhah would likely do exactly what DAMW did. I think it is safe to say that a majority of the people who claim the Conservative Movement should accept patrilineal Jews are themselves or are not but also do not view halakhah as authoritative, obligatory and binding. Normative halakhic Judaism has been unified on this issue, and for good reason, for around two millennia.


    Justin · May 1st, 2012 at 3:58 pm
  32. Justin:

    …those who care about halakhah would likely do exactly what DAMW did.

    I think this should be amended to say “…those who care about halakhah more than feeling accepted as they are would likely do exactly what DAMW did.” Knowing DAMW, I can say that I’ve never seen him openly display feelings of discomfort or “otherness” in a Jewish community – despite his status as a non-Jew (according to a lot of people). Whether or not he chose to go through the ritual doesn’t speak to whether or not others should have to. I’m very glad that he found it to be a meaningful experience. Others might not. That wouldn’t make their desire to be part of a Jewish community any less meaningful or valid than was his.


    renaissanceboy · May 1st, 2012 at 4:55 pm
  33. I was learning Mishnah this morning with my (three-week-old) son, and we were struck by Bikkurim 1:4 – it seems to suggest that at the time of the Mishnah, there were converts who had Jewish mothers. What’s up with that?


    BZ · May 1st, 2012 at 6:17 pm
  34. Did he find it a meaningful experience? It wasn’t clear to me from the essay that he did. He called it absurd and a necessity and then a wrote an essay about how it shouldn’t be a necessity.


    em · May 1st, 2012 at 7:30 pm
  35. BZ, according to the Yerushalmi there are two possibilities for what אמו מישראל means:

    1) רבי יונה ורבי יסא תרויהון בשם רבי שמואל בר רב יצחק בבני קיני חותן משה היא מתניתא. ובני קיני חותן משה מביאין וקורין דכתיב [במדבר י כט] לכה אתנו והטבנו לך

    2) אמר רבי יוסי קיימה בנימן בר עשתור קומי רבי חייה בר בא בגוי שבא בעבירה על בת ישראל היא מתניתא


    justin · May 1st, 2012 at 11:58 pm
  36. Justin,

    The only way I can make sense of your argument is to assume that halakah is strongly holistic (i.e. all of halakah stands or falls with each individual halakhic norm). Strong holism is pretty common with simple systems of rules governing things like, say, blackjack (a game where it is okay to go over 21 just isn’t blackjack anymore). But it seems a rather odd view for things like complex legal or religious codes. It has the effect of turning every question of legality or authority into an existential question.

    The same goes for respect for duty. Your argument depends on the claim that if there is no respect for the requirement for patrilineal Jews to convert, there is no respect for halakah as a whole. (And vice versa – if there is respect for halakah as a whole, there is respect for the requirement to convert.) The only thing that underwrites that inference is, once again, strong holism.

    Perhaps I’m wrong that it’s odd to think of halakah as strongly holistic. After all, the Reform movement rejected the authority of Halakah wholesale. Perhaps *they* thought halakah was strongly holistic, too. It would explain what I’ve always thought to be an odd move, when it’s seemed a much more reasonable position to reject authority in a piecemeal fashion. After all, in every legal code not all laws are enforced. But codes in which no laws are enforced fail to be a legal codes at all. Analogously, halakah that is normative in a piecemeal fashion can still purport to be a substantive code. But one that gives up normativity entirely ceases to be one. I had always though that this was kinda sorta the Conservative movement’s niche. I guess I was wrong.

    Sometimes I think that strong holism is invoked because no one wants to bother justifying why certain norms are authoritative while others are not.

    “I think it is safe to say that a majority of the people who claim the Conservative Movement should accept patrilineal Jews are themselves or are not but also do not view halakhah as authoritative, obligatory and binding.”

    Gosh. Assuming you are correct, and considering my experience, you’ve got a major problem with respect for halakah within your movement. In light of that, it seems that the ‘demands’ of patrilineal Jews are the very least of the Conservative movement’s problems.


    Dan O. · May 2nd, 2012 at 5:20 pm
  37. Dan O. writes:
    After all, the Reform movement rejected the authority of Halakah wholesale.

    Wrong. The Reform movement’s approach to halachah has evolved over time, but at no stage in its history did the Reform movement reject the ethical mitzvot.


    BZ · May 2nd, 2012 at 7:33 pm
  38. Justin-
    I have great respect for the creative process of interpretation (especially the ways that the Gemara reads entirely new meanings into the Mishnah), but there’s no way that 1) is the peshat of the Mishnah. As for 2), I would ask לאתויי מאי? I.e., at the time of the Yerushalmi, which (if any) children of Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers would not be included in this category?


    BZ · May 2nd, 2012 at 7:47 pm
  39. Or maybe it’s not meant to exclude anyone – another reading of the Mishnah is that the first clause is about converts, and the second clause is about children of Jewish mothers (EVEN if they have non-Jewish fathers), and the second clause has nothing to do with converts. And I can see how later rabbis have no choice but to read it that way. But it’s an odd phrasing if that’s what it means.


    BZ · May 2nd, 2012 at 7:49 pm
  40. BZ
    I read it the way you secondly proposed when i first looked at it. But not only do I respect the process of interpretation, I also respect the Talmud and presume that those rabbis had an accepted tradition. They didn’t just make things up out of thin air. How could you possibly say what the pshat of the Mishnah is?


    Justin · May 3rd, 2012 at 3:45 pm
  41. Dan
    You consistently prove again and again why I have no patience for “philosophers” and why so many of the greats of our tradition felt philosophy led to apikorsim.

    I dont have the time or desire to refute you, but you are wrong about the “niche” of CJ, although I can see why it may appear the way you paint it. CJ has never ceded that a law is not authoritative. It evolves law, precisely because its view is that halakhah is authoritative and obligatory. There has never been a need to change this halakhah since it came into the system and I and most others who have a say in making those decisions also do not see a need to change the law.


    Justin · May 3rd, 2012 at 3:59 pm
  42. Justin,

    I’m pretty sure Dan’s point wasn’t that CJ as a movement doesn’t treat halacha as authoritative, but that most Jews who self-identify as Conservative don’t treat halacha as authoritative in their own lives. This is certainly true of my family members who are Conservative, and I believe you’ve written as much about your own congregation.


    em · May 3rd, 2012 at 5:06 pm
  43. Quick question: Does the Conservative movement recognize Reform conversions if they involve immersion in the mikveh?


    em · May 3rd, 2012 at 5:08 pm
  44. Em, depends on the rabbi, I believe


    Justin · May 3rd, 2012 at 6:31 pm
  45. Analogously, halakah that is normative in a piecemeal fashion can still purport to be a substantive code. But one that gives up normativity entirely ceases to be one. I had always though that this was kinda sorta the Conservative movement’s niche. I guess I was wrong.

    This is what I was responding to, btw


    Justin · May 3rd, 2012 at 6:46 pm
  46. Doesn’t that make it a moot point, then? If a Jewish man has kids with a non-Jewish woman and raises them to be Jews within the Reform movement, other Jews won’t see the kids as Jewish. If a non-Jewish woman converts within the Reform movement, other Jews still won’t see her kids as Jewish. The answer amounts to … “don’t be Reform.”

    And I knew what you were responding to. I just didn’t think your answer was particularly responsive.


    em · May 3rd, 2012 at 10:26 pm
  47. The answer amounts to … “don’t be Reform.” if you want to be recognized as halakhically Jewish by the Conservative Movement…

    The answer amounts to “don’t be anything other than Orthodox” if you want to be recognized as halakhically Jewish by the Orthodox world…

    This is why I feel all of this is about communal norm, and those who want to be a part of a community will adopt the norms of those communities. So, if someone wants to join a Reform community, this is all a non-issue. Someone wants to join a Conservative community, it is only an issue for those who do not accept the norms of the community, and same for Orthodox and so on.

    It’s not secret members of USCJ synagogues do not observe the halakhah of their rabbis, but they join those synagogues knowing it is a halakhic movement. Most people don’t join shuls based on theology, they join based on schools, friends and “flavor”.


    justin · May 4th, 2012 at 11:24 am
  48. “You consistently prove again and again why I have no patience for “philosophers” and why so many of the greats of our tradition felt philosophy led to apikorsim.”

    I was asking for clarification, not refutation. You answered my question. You adopt strong holism, but allow for changes in the content of law over time. Fair enough. It’s a bizarre position, because it turns such ‘evolution’ into a bunch of ideological death matches.

    I am actually kind of glad you obliquely referred to me as a Jewish goy. As I said, I wouldn’t want to be a member of a club that would have me as a member (but reject Mr. Wilensky).

    BZ – Sorry, and thanks for the correction.


    Dan O. · May 11th, 2012 at 2:29 pm
  49. an apikorus is not a jewish goy, nor did i call you an apikorus. beside the point.

    halakhah is a holistic system for those of us who view it as obligatory. we don’t get to pick and choose, but there is a process through which we can change interpretation of halakhah when it presents itself as necessary.

    halakhah does not “reject” people, it has statuses which some people fall into and some do not – and it provides a mechanism for any person desiring to enter the status of being “Jewish” according to halakhah.

    You do not have to accept halakhah, Dan. Thank God that the Jewish tradition has always exhibited a diversity of creative expression. If you do not like the standards, practices and customs of Conservative or Orthodox Judaism there are plenty of other organized and non-organized affiliations, identities or communal expressions which do not hold by the standards of Conservative or Orthodox Judaism.

    halakhah is holistic, it’s the way it is, we don’t get to pick and choose which mitzvot are obligatory and which are not. the law changes over time because communities change over time. it’s not bizarre. it’s the process. and when you’ve studied as much halakhah as you have Hegel, then we can really begin to have a full conversation about it. For at least 2k+ years Jews have used the halakhic process to determine the interpretation of Jewish law and custom. There have always been Jews who reject it, that’s fine. But it is what it is and some of us do accept it, find meaning in it and seek to keep it living and evolutionary.

    The process to change the standard of what defines a Jew by birth is not as simple as some may think. The quickest, “easiest” way to go about doing that would be to institute a takanah, a fix, which would have drastic implications on other points of law. that’s how legal systems work. laws do not exist in a vacuum, they are part of an integral system whereby changes to one law inevitably has an affect on other laws. this is the problem with changing this law and only one of the things which makes it so challenging.

    For those people who identify as Jews and do not have that status accorded by Conservative or Orthodox understandings have a good number of other communities to affiliate with if they so choose. Whenever someone comes to me and wants my help in becoming Jewish, I always make sure to inform them of the implications of converting under the auspices of the Conservative movement and make sure that they are aware of all which that means, and I encourage them to explore other avenues of Jewish expression across the spectrum so that they find the one that most speaks to them and fits with their worldview and values. But should any of those expressions of the Jewish tradition change and mold themselves to the demands of someone who is clearly not totally at home there? of course not. Just like I would never expect other avenues of Jewish expression to conform to the ideals of the Conservative movement, I do not see why the Conservative movement should change its ideals to conform to the ideals of other expressions of Judaism.


    justin · May 12th, 2012 at 8:59 pm
  50. “the law changes over time because communities change over time”

    People change the law. People change communities. You act as if these things just kind of happen. The Conservative movement will (likely) change because those communities are already changing, and the people in those communities will change the law. If the process for people changing halacha doesn’t work this way, please, elaborate. But this nonsense about things just happening is just that.

    “there is a process through which we can change interpretation of halakhah when it presents itself as necessary.”

    Great! Let’s get started.


    ML · May 14th, 2012 at 10:38 am

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