Jewish Genes, Identity, and Citizenship
In juxtaposing “blood and genetics,” by which I presume he means those born of a Jewish mother, with those who “identify with the Jewish people and adopt a certain lifestyle,” by which I presume he means those who self-identify as Jews by their feelings or actions, Rabbi Stern misses one critical component of Jewish identity: citizenship.
In the United States, citizenship is not the same as residency. People can live in this country for years and feel part of our culture, yet not be able to vote or hold office unless they go through the steps of becoming citizens. The same is true in Judaism.
I am sure Rabbi Stern would agree that, under Jewish law and history, a person can become a member of the Jewish people through two means: being born of a Jewish mother or converting to Judaism. Conversion is accomplished by study, commitment to the mitzvot (commandments), immersion in a mikveh (ritual pool), and for a male, brit milah (ritual circumcision), or tipat dam (taking a drop of blood if the male was already medically circumcised).
It is unfortunate that years ago the Reform Movement dropped these requirements for Jewish citizenship through their decision on patrilineal descent and the choice various Reform rabbis make to skip mikveh and milah as part of the conversion process. However, Reform Movement recently began to encourage conversions, as we have discussed here before. Perhaps that will also stimulate a further commitment to mikveh and milah as well.
As Rabbi Stern intimates, it is true that there is a move afoot in the organized Jewish community to broaden the definition of who is a Jew to include self-identity. This was a major issue around the National Jewish Population Survey. Such lack of distinctions does us no real good in the long term.
Throughout history, there have been many who truly loved Judaism and the Jewish people and lived their lives around the Jewish calendar. The Talmud refers to sabbatoi, Sabbath observers who clearly identified with the Jewish people, lived their lives as Jews, but had not yet officially converted. I have such people in my congregation. Some go on to convert; others do not for many diverse reasons. They are wonderful people who add much to my congregation. But they are not yet officially Jewish, even though they self-identify with our community, because they have chosen of their free will not to make the faith commitment to become officially Jewish.
There is nothing wrong with finding ways to welcome those who are not yet ready to embrace such a faith commitment while retaining our expectations for conversion (citizenship) and the distinctions between those who are citizens and those who are not. While citizenship is not a guarantee of Jewish continuity, i.e., having Jewish grandchildren, commitment certainly is one of many prerequisites.
Unlike Rabbi Stern, what I find so shocking about the decision of the Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar to limit Jewish identity to those born of a Jewish mother is not the rejection of Reform and Conservative conversions (nothing new there) but also of Orthodox conversions. It is true that there are Sephardic precedents to reject converts, probably born of a long and painful history with Christian and Islamic powers who severely punished the individuals and communities accused of proselytizing. However, such fears certainly have no grounds in the Jewish State.
On one hand, Rabbi Amar is flattening the playing field between all three movements. On the other, his decision points to the dangerous narrowing of the definition of acceptable Jewish life and community under the right wing rabbinate in Israel as they continue to tighten their boundaries of who they consider is Jewish.
Certainly in Israel, such actions and attitudes by the rabbinate serve only to distance Jewish citizens, those born of Jewish mothers who live in Israel, from their Judaism, which they see as coercive and discriminatory. This, perhaps more than anything else, threatens Jewish continuity and commitment in the Jewish State.