Learning Judaism from Giffords

With all our desire for a universally accepted definition, we can't ignore reality that many “non-Jews” are more Jewish than their “Jewish” fellows.

January 10, 2011 23:36
4 minute read.
Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords

Gabrielle Giffords. (photo credit: AP)


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As we join in praying for the speedy and complete recovery of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, we cannot help but note how splendidly the Democratic congresswoman from Arizona has served – and, we are hopeful, will continue to serve – as a Jewish role model.

It was her “sense of the Jewish value around how we treat the stranger” that informed Giffords on the highly divisive issue of rights for undocumented immigrants in her border state, according to Josh Protas, former director of the Tusconarea Jewish Community Relations Council. At the same time, she did not lose sight of her constituents’ security concerns over the unchecked influx of illegal aliens.

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Perhaps this was thanks to her acquaintance with Israel’s defense challenges. As representative for the 8th District in southern Arizona, Giffords had to straddle the disparate political opinions of liberal Tucson and its rural hinterlands. The eminently Jewish strategy she employed was a willingness to hear diverse opinions. In fact, it was during one of these exercises in intellectual openness – outside one of her signature “Congress at Your Corner” events at the entrance to a mall in Tucson – that Giffords’s strength as an attentive lawmaker was despicably exploited, becoming, at the pull of a trigger, her tragic vulnerability.

Giffords’s very Jewishness might have even been a motive in the shooting, according to a US Department of Homeland Security memorandum. Jared Loughner is believed to have had links to American Renaissance, an anti-government, anti-immigration, anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic organization. The memo notes that Giffords is the first Jewish woman elected to high office in Arizona and that Loughner’s alleged anti-Semitism is being considered as a possible motive.

SPEAKING HALACHICLY, of course, Giffords is not even considered a Jew. Her father is Jewish, but her mother is a Christian Scientist.

This genealogy did not prevent her from stating in 2006, “In my family, if you want to get something done, you take it to the Jewish women relatives. Jewish women, by and large, know how to get things done.”

According to JTA, her grandfather, Akiba Hornstein, changed his name to Giffords after moving from New York to Arizona, “in part because he did not want his Jewishness to be an issue in unfamiliar territory.” Perhaps, the grandfather’s visceral survival instinct was right on target. The shooting definitely raises concerns about renewed anti-Semitism (and about the highly polarized nature of political discourse in today’s America).


But the attack, which brought to the forefront Giffords’s noble and very Jewish personal traits, highlights the changing nature of Jewish identity in America. An increasingly more inclusive answer to the question of “Who is a Jew?” has developed in recent years. In part, this is a result of the Reform Movement’s 1983 decision to recognize patrilineal descent. This decision, which recognizes Giffords as a full-fledged Jew, made it easy for the congresswoman to integrate into her local Reform shul, Congregation Chaverim, when she began to actively embrace Judaism after a transformative 2001 trip to Israel.

But the broadening definition of Jewishness is not restricted to the Reform Movement. A similar trend is sweeping Conservative Judaism, as Dr. Adam Ferziger, senior fellow at Bar- Ilan University’s Rappaport Center for Assimilation Research, noted in a recent article in Oxford’s Journal of Jewish Studies. In “Between Catholic Israel and the ‘K’rov Yisrael’: Non-Jews in Conservative Synagogues (1982-2009),” Ferziger showed that halachicly non-Jewish offspring of intermarried Jews were no longer excluded from membership and active ritual life in American Conservative congregations. This change in policy is due, in part, to the unprecedented intermarriage rates during the last decades of the 20th century. Another possible reason might be that more and more people like Giffords have made a conscious choice to identify as Jews, yet have no intention of undergoing a conversion.

As it should, Israel’s Law of Return accommodates this complex Jewish reality by granting automatic citizenship to people like Giffords, her husband and her offspring. Critics of the Law of Return might complain that it has extended citizenship to more than 300,000 former Soviet Union immigrants who are not halachicly Jewish. But is it conceivable to exclude these “non-Jews” despite the fact that the vast majority integrate fully into Israeli society, serve in the IDF and become productive citizens? Is it conceivable to exclude Giffords, another “non-Jew,” who is so unequivocally Jewish?

With all our desire for a universally accepted definition of “Who is a Jew?” that would unify the Jewish people, we cannot ignore the complicated reality that many “non-Jews” are much more Jewish than their “Jewish” fellows. Congresswoman Giffords is one of them.

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