A plea for nuance

We need to rethink who we let in, and how we treat them once they are in.

August 20, 2007 20:39
4 minute read.
A plea for nuance

rainbow star of david 88. (photo credit: )


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Borders, abstract and real, make people feel safe. Take, for example, gender borders. They used to be clear and stable - men in the boardroom, women in the kitchen. Gender borders have existed for years, perhaps millennia. And they are breaking down slowly, and not without resistance. Eliminating, moving or adjusting borders challenges our sense of continuity and threatens our sense of identity. The borders surrounding "Who is a Jew," and who is not, like gender borders, are in flux. And like the gender issue, the matter of who is a Jew challenges our sense of stability and, moreover, our fragmented, ever-changing, complicated and contradictory sense of who we are. Recently, Harvard Law Prof. Noah Feldman, raised this issue (among others) on the pages of the Sunday New York Times, intimating that the complicated and contradictory life that he lives as an affiliated Jew who married out is as complicated and contradictory as the world of modern Orthodoxy, from whence he sprang. He, like the world he comes from, grapples with harmonizing tradition and modernity and with coming to terms with a past that is not necessarily coherent in the context of the present. NOW, MANY of us may not agree with the balance that Feldman has struck, nor with what seems to be his expectation that his choices be condoned by the Orthodox community he implicitly rejected. But that is not the point. The point is that things are not always so clear and easy, especially in dealing with traditions and rules that are thousands of years old. That sometimes, depending on who is doing the balancing and at what point we are doing it, we have to rethink our rules and our boundaries. We have to get complicated and nuanced. Here in Israel, this is not a theoretical dilemma, nor a matter of maintaining politically correct relations with those - Jew and non-Jew alike - who opt out of our borders. Here we need to rethink who we let in, and how we treat them once they are in. A recent rabbinic court decision brings this question to the foreground. SARAH BAT Avraham is a woman who converted 16 years ago in the state-authorized rabbinic court of Rabbi Haim Druckman. A few months ago Sarah petitioned the Ashdod Rabbinical Court for a divorce. She had reached an amicable divorce agreement with her husband and wanted the court to officiate over the delivery of a get, an obligatory religious ceremony that precedes the issuance of an Israeli civil divorce certificate. Instead of a divorce certificate, Judge Avraham Atia, who presided over the get ceremony, issued a nine-page judgment in which he declared that Sarah, as well as the couple's three children, were not Jews. He also raised doubts as to the Jewishness of Sarah's husband, a man whose background would suggest a purer line to Moses than Atia's. Atia literally blacklisted all of them because Sarah admitted, having answered his seemingly irrelevant questions during the course of the ceremony, that she had turned on lights on the Sabbath and did not observe the laws of family purity. Atia's decision is on appeal. Meanwhile, he has issued another 40 pages supplementing his original decision, in which he cavalierly dismisses all the conversions issued by Druckman's court. ATIA HAS a clear sense of right and wrong, and who is in and who is out. He is not concerned about the fear and guilt that converts, and the converts' children and their children's children, will have to live with if his policy of revoking conversions - a policy authorized under Israeli law - is allowed to hold. Atia is unconcerned with the intermarriages that will result if the 325,000 Israeli citizens who cannot prove conclusively that they are Jewish, or whose mothers are not Jewish, do not convert to Judaism. He is oblivious to the impossibility of the rabbinical court's demand that secular couples send their adopted children to religious schools. What's more, Atia, like Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, thinks that the policies and standards of the Israeli rabbinic courts (not Druckman's and not the IDF's) should apply to conversions of Jews around the world. It makes complete sense to him, because he is a zealous upholder of the faith and defender of the purity of the Jewish line. He has a clear, coherent, unnuanced and ahistorical view of Jewish law. He is dealing with fundamental issues and believes that he answers only to God. Modernity, and its values or demands, are of no concern to Atia. His values are neither complicated nor contradictory, not context-bound. He is safe and sure. His borders are set in stone. His Jewish identity is authentic, pristine, unfragmented. Not like Noah Feldman's, or like mine, or like Druckman's. Or like rabbinic courts all over the world. Or like the millions of Jews who live in the democratic and Jewish State of Israel and elsewhere. The writer is the founding director of the Center for Women's Justice.

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