By Deanna Neil
When I visited Israel a few years ago, I met an American Christian woman who had converted and married a right-wing Jew. Together, they had a few kids. She became entrenched in the Jewish community, and obsessed with the idea that her children be recognized as legitimate Jews. She ended up converting multiple times, each time through an increasingly dogmatic Jewish authority. Orthodox comedian and convert Israel Campbell followed a similar path, and he later quipped, “three circumcisions is not a religious covenant, it’s a fetish.”
I wondered: what causes this compulsion to be “official” as a Jew? And how many walk around feeling like they’re not legitimate? And what makes someone Jewish, after all?
A lot of the debate surrounds movements in Judaism, which are Jewish sects that interpret law and obligation differently. It’s a particularly timely discussion in the wake of this past Sunday’s decision – decades in the making – to create a space where men and women can pray together at the Western Wall, a big no-no in Orthodoxy, where genders pray separately. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, said flat out that the acceptance was a statement about legitimacy. Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of the board of Women of the Wall, said this was an acknowledgement of Jewish diversity. The decision makes space for non-Orthodox Jews at one of Judaism’s holiest and most important historical sites, validating those traditions and their rituals alongside stricter brethren.
(Sidenote: If you’re curious what movement of Judaism might be most accepting of your views, try this quiz for fun.)
Jewish history is long and varied, full of questioners and converts, and changes in both belief and practice – as the “movements” imply – but if you’re unfamiliar with it, the faith can look like a monolith. As a woman who teaches many unaffiliated families, often of mixed religious background, making people feel legitimate is part of my job description. So often these groups are eager to connect with their Jewish identity, but feel hesitant about doing a ritual because “they’re not doing it right.”
I respond: “Is the ritual meaningful? Did you or your family experience something? Then you’re doing it right.” I also point to the long line of assimilated/cross-cultural and humanistic Jews in history and the malleability of Judaism; it’s been around for thousands of years and has picked up traditions from all over. No one has the answer to who is a legitimate Jew.
For example, while ancient Israelites and the priesthood functioned under patrilineal descent, this changed in late antiquity, perhaps as an adoption of Roman custom (ta da! Malleability!) or as a derivative from an obscure law about horse breeding (seriously). Given that matrilineal descent is the Halakhic (by the law) Jewish norm these days and this fact causes considerable craziness within the Jewish community and beyond (note covert from first paragraph), it’s fascinating that we don’t totally know the origin of the law or recognize the many years the Israelite religion functioned without it. The Reform Movement is the only major Jewish denomination that currently recognizes someone born to a Jewish father or mother as being born Jewish.
When Israel’s “right of return” laws were being written, the issue of “who is Jewish” became a matter of governmental policy. Israel was established, in part, to act as a welcoming homeland for all Jews, and in 1950, all Jews were embraced as citizens (the narrative of the Palestinian homeland is a whole other blog post). However, the law did not originally offer a clear definition of who qualified as Jewish.
The issue came to a head in 1969 with the Shalit case, a boy born to an Israeli father of Jewish descent and a Scottish mother of Christian descent, who both considered themselves atheists. In a confusing dispute, brilliantly outlined by Robert Alter in this 1970 article of epic proportions that dances around Israel and Jewish legitimacy, the Shalit boy was granted Jewish “nationality” on his citizenship card in Israel. The decision caused uproar among the Orthodox, due the matrilineal descent issue outlined above. As a political maneuver, such recognitions were from that point forth banned, but as a compromise to the progressives, the laws of return were extended to grandchildren of Jews and even non-Jewish spouses.
In 1988, the Orthodox began fighting the inclusiveness of the law. Had it passed, their challenge would have made Orthodox affiliation the sole criteria for entry to Israel, essentially de-legitimizing a number of converts or families that identify with non-Orthodox denominations. My mom protested this and ended up on the cover of the New York Times, enormous 80s blonde hair and all. And she had more than just moral reasons to protest -my dad was a convert.
Though the challenge to the laws of return did fail (go mom!), Orthodoxy remains the sole recognized denomination for performing conversions and weddings in the country. To clarify: this means that my dad, who converted to Judaism with a Conservative movement Rabbi nearly 30 years ago, would still be allowed to enter Israel as a citizen under the right of return laws, but he would not be allowed to be married or divorced there, as he is not considered a legitimate Jew by the Orthodox rabbinate. Does this all make your head want to explode?
Israeli politics aside, Judaism is more complicated than the other Abrahamic religions in the determination of legitimacy. Islam and Christianity have a belief-based acceptance into the religion, whereas Judaism carries the ethnic and nationhood component. Today, Jews are often defined in a variety of ways, most usually as an ancient nation or people, scattered throughout the world with some common practices. While there is genetic exploration used to identify lineage or uncover diseases, the idea of Jews as a “race” remains problematic. Some Jews relate as an ethnicity, but as Jews are found in communities all over the world, that ethnicity is usually shaped by the majority culture of its home country.
Which is all to say: if you don’t feel like a good or legitimate or real Jew, it’s not because you aren’t one. The tradition of questioning our place in the faith is almost as old as Judaism itself, and there is no single definition of what a Jew is or is not. The idea of feeling or being seen as illegitimate can create a significant amount of neurosis, especially when it’s tied up with community acceptance, immigration and legalities, and touches upon core issues of self-worth and identity. The good news of these many definitions of what it means to be Jews: you can always be legitimate in some circles. And if you really want to be accepted: you can always fight for your place at the table, er…the wall.
Stay tuned for the follow up blog: A legitimate Rabbi.