Who is a Jew? A reply

Shall we change the question from “Are you Jewish” to “Are you a potential Israeli”?

December 6, 2016 20:57
4 minute read.
Western Wall

Western Wall. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Shmuel Rosner’s thoughtful study (The Jerusalem Post, November 30, 2916) concerning “Who is a Jew” has several obvious flaws. First, it appears to be based solely on anecdotal and interview evidence. Even assuming that the choice of subjects for the interviews and discussions was statistically valid, we all now know the value of such information, as similar studies over the past few months failed miserably in predicting the identity of the next president of the United States. Second, the study apparently does not even touch upon the question of what will happen to the Jewish people if the basis for Jewish identification changes as suggested by the author?

Despite these shortcomings, I believe the Rosner study may in fact help in resolving the crucial “Who is a Jew” controversy that has plagued Israel virtually since day one. Rosner argues that the question “Who is a Jew” should be replaced with “Who is a Jew for what.” In other words, it suggests answering the question with two other questions: “Who’s asking” and “Why do you want to know?” The suggestion to answer one with another is a typically Jewish one.

Now, let us turn to the State of Israel. The state asks “Who is a Jew,” which translates in specific situations to: “Are you a Jew?” If the answer is positive, the target of the question may live in Israel under the Law of Return. If the answer is negative, the doors of the state are closed. Of course, this is far from being entirely true. If the applicant is the spouse, child or grandchild of a Jew, then he or she may return to Israel even without being a Jew, and that of course is where the problems begin. Such a person then carries with him or her the stigma of not being Jewish and may not marry a Jew in Israel, but will be required to serve in the IDF and bear all the obligations of Israeli residence and citizenship.

Carrying Rosner’s idea one step further, the question asked should not be “Are you a Jew” but rather “Are you a potential Israeli?” The result is the same, but the stigma is gone, because being or not being Jewish is no longer on the playing field.

Now let’s go one step further. If the state is not asking “Are you a Jew,” then the state should be indifferent to the answer. The state qua state, which is at best devoid of religion and arguably anti-religion, should not have records as to the religion of a citizen. Since, as shown, this is irrelevant to the question of whether someone is a potential Israeli, the state should have no involvement in personal religious choice or identity. An Israeli, whether or not Jewish, must serve in the IDF, pay taxes, etc. An Israeli, whether or not Jewish, should be able to marry anyone he or she chooses, in any type of ceremony or non-ceremony they desire. The state should only be interested in the civil side of marriage – i.e. interspousal obligations and rights. It should not be interested in the religious aspect of marriage. In simple terms, the state’s involvement in marriage should begin and end in the submission of the necessary forms to a government clerk.

While this might seem radical, in fact, as Rosner has opened the gates, it simply follows the change of question from “Are you Jewish” to “Are you a potential Israeli.”

I recognize that there are a myriad of questions and objections which will be posed to the above. I frankly believe that these questions and objections come from a very subjective place – whether religious convictions or more mundane interest in maintaining the rabbinical establishment – but do not wish to touch on them at this time. Rather, I would like to conclude with a vignette from one of the halachic responsa of Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Halevy Herzog, the former chief rabbi of Israel (and grandfather of the current opposition leader, who carries his name).

According to traditional Halacha, a convert who has not studied the breadth of everyday Jewish life, or has not explicitly stated that he will abide by all of Jewish practices, is still deemed to have lawfully converted based on the assumption that by joining the Jewish community he will in fact toe the line. Rabbi Herzog opined that this assumption is not correct in modern Israeli life where the president, prime minister and many other senior government officials themselves do not observe Shabbat, kashrut or other basic halachic requirements. It may be, suggested Rabbi Herzog, that historically if a convert left his family and surroundings, with all the attendant problems created thereby, and joined a community which was fully halachic, then it could be assumed that the convert was in fact fully committed to Judaism. In Israel, however, the convert could easily and understandably say that he will be “as Jewish” as the prime minister, president and so forth.

This argument is a perfect example of why the question must be changed from “Are you Jewish” (“well, I am as Jewish as the government official who travels on Shabbat”) to “Are you a potential Israeli.” We will then all, Jews and non-Jews with Jewish ancestry, be in exactly the same position without stigmas and without internal contradictory elements of personal status as currently in place.

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