This is a guest post by Jewschool commenter Amit.
(Thanks to BZ and Jonathan1 for encouragement, and to CoA for the posts that prompted this one).
Two threads have become particularly prominent at Jewschool lately – exceeding, on average, 100 comments each (the earlier one has about 150, the later about 70) – and both focus on the same issue. This is a hot-button issue for conventional Jewish organizations, which focus on “Jewish continuity” as a central pillar of their ideology.
“Jewish continuity” has created an interesting unholy alliance between militant Zionist groups, as well as the government of the state of Israel, and organized Orthodox groups and government agencies, such as Aish, Chabad-Lubavitch, and the Israeli chief rabbinate. Both sides of the alliance agree on several fundamental tenets:
(1) Jews are an ethnic group, and the central purpose/short term goal of this group is to perpetuate itself.
(2) Matrilineal descent is a necessary requirement for Judaism.
(3) There are no other requirements to be considered Jewish.
(4) People who marry members of other ethnic groups are “Lost”.
Any one of these tenets may be disputed (also – any connection between the aforementioned tenets and the aforementioned groups can also be disputed, but I’ll leave that work to the comment thread), and I would like to dispute them all, while trying to articulate my own (self -contradictory and complicated) views on the matter.
But first, to illustrate, a story:
I was “number two” in a four-man Jeep patrol in the West Bank last November, with an American-born nonobservant sergeant, a frum buddy; a resident of Kiryat Arba, who was born in India and traces his lineage to the “Sons of Manassah”; and a Russian driver. The Jeep contained three products of Zionist advocacy around the world who came to Israel to make their home, and none had come to Israel with the same picture in mind. Now, this is not a saccharine story about how “we’re all different, but we’re actually the same”. I had asked the Indian how his tribe had decided they were Jewish, and he gave me the standard “lost tribe of Israel” story: they had customs and traditions which were lost and/or distorted over time, they knew they had some connection with Jews but they didn’t know there were any left, they were discovered by Rabbi Eliyahu Avihail, converted happily, and were promptly transferred to the West Bank. The Russian was furious: first, how could you be Jewish without knowing you were Jewish, and second, how could you convert to Judaism without being Jewish first? The Indian said, “but we acted like Jews”, and the Russian said: “being Jewish is not how you act, it’s who you are”.
Now, both were brought here by the Jewish Agency. Both were hailed by the various members of the unholy alliance as the solution to the demographic woes of the Jewish people (and the Jewish community in Israel/the West Bank), but each thought the other had no right to be in the Jeep (not a big zechus to begin with, but that’s a different story). Each thought the other was mooching off the tax shekels he was paying and should be in India/Russia, and out of his hair. But I don’t think it’s self-contradictions and complications in the very essence of Judaism, which is the world’s most complicated phenomenon – in this case, it’s doublespeak. Israel, like God, presents itself in different faces to different people, and it doesn’t care what you pick, so long as you pick Israel. It can be the Ancestral Jewish homeland. It can be the cure to intermarriage. It can be frummie heaven. It can be the place where you can be a goy without having the goyim label you as a Jew. It’s whatever you want – just live here and join the IDF. Just to prove that that’s the only important part, if you insist that any and all of the above goals can be achieved without coming to Israel, then you’re an antisemite and a self-hating Jew.
So the first moral of the story is to keep Israel out of it, because Israel has its own interests at heart. The second moral of the story is that the Judaism, such as it is, of the Russian driver is quite depressing. Being Jewish for the sake of being Jewish is, well, silly. In the case of said driver it is also morally bankrupt, since it gave him a sense of entitlement to kill/displace/deport/bitch-slap Arabs on both sides of the green line.
So of course this is a bad thing. We can all agree that a Judaism with no sense of obligation and only a sense of entitlement is not a phenomenon worth perpetuating. This, however, is the variety of Judaism the Israeli establishment (the government and the Jewish Agency) is trying to sell, Judaism built on a birthright. A sort of connection to a country and a piece of real estate which is a conflation of sentiment and fear. “You have nowhere to go,” they tell you. “This is your real home,” they tell you.
Of course this is nonsense. Israelis are a people apart from Jews. We have our own national culture and our own language. More importantly, when we emigrate abroad, like any other national group, the children of our immigrants lose both culture and language and retain nothing. Just like the Irish, Polish, Greeks, and Italians that came to the United States, children of Israeli immigrants to the developed world have nothing more than sentiment and increasingly-distant family ties connecting them to their home country.
This may be the way of the world, but is not the way of our holy Torah. Silly debates of descent aside (since technical “Jewishness” is a technical issue), religious Jews agree that Judaism is an intellectual and spiritual movement with covenantal content. God is present in this covenant and it is binding. This is what makes us Jews – nothing more, nothing less. And suddenly, the questions of entitlement and Jewish continuity become moot. Why perpetuate a people no different than any other people? Why lend religious significance to a country that is the world’s third-largest arms dealer? Why is it important to God that rather than fill our lives with his holy Torah and do good to others, we serve in the West Bank (in flagrant contradiction of many, many, many commandments)? And so, in a nutshell, this is my view on “peoplehood” and “continuity”, and other such silly words: that they are vessels that can be filled with good things, but they can never be an end unto themselves. So long as there are those who are willing to shoulder the burden of covenant, there will be a covenant.
This is not a question of Halakha, but of values. Halakha is ambiguous on the prohibition of cohabitation with non-Jews. You can’t marry gentiles anyway, and sex with gentiles is probably less problematic than sex while menstruating, definitely less problematic than male homosexual sex. But while the Jewish establishment actively promotes intra-Jewish sex in flagrant disregard of the last two prohibitions, the fear of the Goyishe partner still burns in its hearts.
So yes, Jews are a people with a culture. So are Israelis. But this is not what I’m in the game for. I’m in the game for content. For meaning. Anyone can have an army and an occupation, but our mission is to be a “Kingdom of Priests and a holy nation”. For this we need neither a territory or a state or silly debates on who gets to be Jewish – we need committed individuals and families and communities, learners of Torah and observers of Mitzvot, in any and all ways they choose to engage with them. The technical problems will learn how to solve themselves.