Thursday, May 23, 2013

Not "Who is a Jew?" but "What is a Judaism?"

The Forward recently published an article describing the Reform movement's decision to reconsider a previous decision to bar individuals who are either married or partnered with non-Jews from the rabbinical seminaries. According to the piece,
A growing chorus of voices — including newly-ordained and long-time Reform rabbis — says that changing it is the only way to be a truly inclusive movement.
While I used to write often about these developments, I've refrained from doing so in the recent past, as I see no point in criticizing liberal Judaism for the sake of self-gratification. The growing chasm between traditional Judaism and its liberal practicioners is self-evident, tragic and painful. One need only read the comments to this and other articles to see that today the Jewish world has already split into two broad categories, and because we no longer share a common religious vocabulary, instead of speaking to each other we fire comments at each other.
Yet, I will comment on this development as it seems to reflect a larger ideological chasm between the different wings of Judaism. Whereas we once fought over "Who is a Jew?", in the very near future the fight will instead be the result of the answer to that very question: "What exactly is Judaism?"
Some of the more snide comments wonder why a Reform Rabbinical student need be Jewish at all. For example,
The next step will be to allow non-Jews as rabbinical students. I mean...barring a Gentile from being a rabbi is discriminatory, right?
While the comment is intentionally snide and sarcastic, I wonder whether the Reform movement itself isn't wondering the same thing. In her letter imploring the HUC to reconsider its decision, Rabbi Ellen Lippman writes,
Interfaith families tell me that having a rabbi who mirrors their relationships makes an enormous difference to being able to commit to Jewish life.
There's the rub. Reform Judaism simply does not view having a non-Jewish parent as a barrier to Jewish life. What then is Jewish life? It's a life of ritual, spirituality and meaning; it's a life devoted to seeking God through the prism of Jewish culture and ritual. But it is not, by Reform definition, genetic affiliation to a particular tribe. Well, it has been until now. But should it be? Can a blood requirement really be considered inclusive?
Reform Judaism, following a growing trend among non-religious Jews, has long moved towards the rejection of tribalism and in the direction of of specific liberal values, emphasizing the "universal values like justice and human dignity."
Why would you need to be married to a Jew in order to communicate such a system of values? Moreover, why would you need to have a parent who was genetically Jewish to be able to teach and preach universal values? Rabbi Lippman sees no conflict between being married a supportive non-Jew, who clearly participates in her Jewish, congregational life. And, if as she says, having an intermarried rabbi makes an enormous difference to her intermarried members, should she not have a non-Jewish rabbi for all of her non-Jewish members too?
I know that I'm sounding sarcastic, but I'm really not. If you reject the tribalism in the face of inclusiveness, that rejection can have only one logical conclusion: Judaism isn't a nation per se, but a series of common practices and beliefs.
And you don't have to be a Jew to be Jewish.