Sunday, November 08, 2009

Who are Jew?

Interesting article about a case in Britain of a Jewish parochial school who denied admission to a Jewish kid, the son of a Jewish father and a converted mother, because the school did not accept the mother's conversion. This conversion was done in a progressive synagogue as opposed to an Orthodox one. Someone decided this was not kosher. This is wrong.
This woman went through a conversion in order to marry her Jewish husband. This conversion happened in a legitimate synagogue, albeit not an Orthodox one. The conversion should be accepted by the school. End of story.
The refusal to accept this woman's legitimate conversion has nothing to do with religion or faith and everything to do with politics and the power trip that the Orthodox wield around the world. They get away with it because nobody is willing to stop them. Secular Jews think, wrongly, that the Orthodox are needed to preserve Judaism. The only way to preserve Judaism is to be in touch with your roots and your culture, not to expect others to do it for you. There is no reason, religious, legal, moral, historical, or otherwise for the Orthodox to have the sole right to determine who is a Jew and who isn't. Theirs is an interpretation of law and custom among many others equally valid.
Now, this family took the school to civil court on the grounds of discrimination. WELL DONE. However, this has opened a very interesting can of worms with enormous ramifications for Jewish life in the diaspora. The court has ruled that the school discriminated the boy on the basis of ethnicity, which is illegal in Britain. The case affects other religions as well, but since Judaism is the only religion that claims matrilineal descent as proof of Judaism, the implications for Jews are enormous. The British court neglected to take into account, or willfully ignored, (which would be very troubling) this Jewish religious exceptionalism and ruled that defining religion on the base of ethnicity is discriminatory.
Well, this is what Judaism does, and it has always been a problem in our relationship with non-Jews. People ask me, so are Jews a religion or are we a race? If Jewish law says that a Jew is a person born of a Jewish woman, then we are a race. This is why Judaism is not a proselytizing religion. We are not actively looking for converts. We can only expand demographically by having children inside the faith. "Be fruitful and multiply", says God in the Bible (this is why the Orthodox practice no birth control and have oodles of children). However, if someone, for reasons of love or conviction wants to join the tribe, they may do so, after converting. Someone must have noticed early that it would be impossible to restrict our involvement with the rest of humanity so drastically and decided to allow for conversion.
Gentiles don't understand a religion that is also an ethnic group or race. They believe it is discriminatory and racist. It's problematic but it's what makes Jews, Jews; unless we all decide to change the law and agree that a Jew is simply someone who wants to profess our faith, regardless of their ethnic origin. This would change what we've been for over 5000 years and could technically render me (a fervent atheist) not a Jew, and every single hardcore evangelical Christian, a Jew (this by the way, is the spurious premise of Jews for Jesus).
Orthodox Jews, of course, sympathize with the school, saying that observance is no test of Jewishness, and that all that matters is whether one’s mother is Jewish. So little does observance matter, in fact, that “having a ham sandwich on the afternoon of Yom Kippur doesn’t make you less Jewish,” Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, chairman of the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue, said recently.

That's me, in a nutshell. I agree with that. This is why it is perfectly possible to be a Jew and an atheist at the same time. It's not about faith but about genealogy, history, and culture.
Jewish orthodoxy is not the only legitimate game in town anymore. There are different congregations which have adapted Jewish beliefs and traditions to modern life. They are no less legitimate than orthodoxy. Secular Jews, who are always way too tolerant of the tyrannical designs of the Orthodox, should reject their strongarming tactics.
I remember when the Ethiopian Jews arrived in Israel, and the Orthodox were demanding conversions of them. The gall. I know people who went to school with me and live fully committed Jewish lives, and have Jewish kids of their own, that would not be accepted as Jews by the Orthodox simply because their mothers converted in non-orthodox synagogues. This is unacceptable.

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