All Sarah’s Children

If you want to get married in Israel and you are a foreign-born Jew, you need some proof of your: Jewishness supplied by an Orthodox rabbi whose credentials are acceptable to his Israeli colleagues.

This is a bite of the bitter fruit of the aborted aliyah: The road we American Jews didn’t take because of habit and fear, desire for worldly goods., insecurity, complacency, comfort, exhaustion, assimilation and as many other personal reasons as stars in the sky. If only the millions of American Jews had packed up and settled in the land that had been promised them, the land they longed for through cen?turies of persecution, then this tiny band of Orthodox believers, dictators of racial and religious purity, would not be rummaging through our children’s papers deny?ing the Jewishness of :Conservative and Reform members, Of that secular Jews can be Jews even if their grandparents were sec?ular and no one remembers where grandma put her ketu?ba and no one knows if grandpa was actually bar?mitzvahed because there was a war on and he was in hiding on his 13th birthday. If all of us in America had gone to the Promised Land, then Israel would by popular democratic consent insist on civil marriage in a civil society. So, in a way, this whole problem serves us right.

The entire “Who is a Jew?” question has taken an ugly turn. It was once an easy matter. If you said you were Jewish, you were wel?come. Yes, self-interest was the reason so many American Jews gave money and love to the fledling state. The investment was an insur?ance policy. If it happens again, if it happens here, there will be a state that will embrace me or my great-grandchildren. Perhaps this wasn’t the most altruistic or spiritual of reasons to support Israel, but it was legitimate.

But what now? My grandfather was the son of an Orthodox Jew, but himself a non-religious business man, my father was an atheist with clenched teeth, my husband was a psychoanalyst who believed in the unconscious as the divine force in the universe. All of them Jews. What if my great-grandchildren can’t find any documents? What if marriages by Conservative or Reform rabbis don’t count? What if those bearing my DNA are standing on the docks waiting to board the boats that_will take them to safety and an Israeli soldier — with a rifle looks through their papers and turns them away?

There are two problems here. The first has to do with religion itself. One branch of the Israeli people has arrogated to itself the power to declare and determine the Jewishness of all the people. This is unacceptable to the rest of us. Here in America we have no vote over Israeli religious matters. We can’t throw these Orthodox rabbis out of power. We can only rant a little, tossing our displeasure to the political winds. I would never think to discredit the Orthodox way of being because it is not mine. I am pained that this respect is not reciprocated. Those, who say, “I am more Godly than you” are always endangering other people. Jews above all oth?ers should know this. This my – wa y – i s – the-onl y – way righteousness is not right?eousness as much as arro?gance. It is false pride that tells one rabbi his word is less valuable than anoth?er’s. It is rudeness and clan?nishness and tribalism car?ried to an ugly extreme that says that this Jewish person or that is not Jewish because he was not taught by my rabbi, educated in my shul.

The second problem has to do with race. We would not be checking on people’s grandfathers’ Jewish legitimacy, if we didn’t define Judaism and Jewishness as something believed with the mind, but rather as some?thing carried in the blood, tracing back to our ancestors, our forefa?thers and foremothers in the desert with Abraham and Sarah. The aspect of Jewish identity that is racial is real enough. Those who hoped to deny it in America by the claim that Judaism is a religion like all the others were fudging the matter. Of course we are a reli?gion, but we are also a race with a particular history and a mostly, but not entirely, cohesive genetic bond, allowing for conversions down the ages. We are an unusual people, with an unusual story, tra?versing oceans and continents, different Diasporas with different prayers and differing attitudes toward modernity. The enlightenment enlightened some more than others. If we are going to hold togeth?er until the messiah arrives, we will have to learn to bear with each other in all our many varieties.

All an American Jew can do is hope that the fanatics will soon be lifted to heaven in golden chariots and the rest of the populace will allow the moderate voices of religion to resolve what looks like a very ugly quarrel looming ahead for us, in Israel and in America.

(Tags: Jewish, Israel, Immigration)


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