From the J-Vault: Produce the Long-Form Bar Mitzvah Certificate!

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Last week, to much fanfare, (and before the killing of Osama bin Laden blew this news item completely out of the water,) President Obama released his long-form birth certificate, proving that he was born in the state of Hawaii. But if only the President had been born Jewish in Marlyand in the second decade of the 20th century, maybe birthers would have been convinced sooner. Assuming, that is, that in this hypothetical scenario the President had diligently practiced his haftarah.

This week, from the J-Vault: Bar-Mitzvah Certificate As Evidence (1914)

"The Maryland Child-Labor Law," explained author Aimee Guggenheimer in the Bulletin of the National Conference of Jewish Charities, "provides that no employment certificate or newsboy's badge shall be issued before the Bureau has proof that the child has attained the required age." Although this article was written during the decades of peak Jewish immigration to the United States (1880s- 1920s), even for Jewish children born in the United States, meeting documentation standards could be tricky. Home births were common, and the midwives who kept records were not always considered trustworthy by the state. (Perhaps Shifrah and Puah set the precedent for rocky relations between midwife and state.)

One potential solution? Convince the state to accept Bar Mitzvah certificates just as it accepted baptismal certificates for Christians.


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Publications on Difference at Passover

Four Cups

Across Barriers


Publications on the mixed, modern Seder


The First Cup: Mixed Marriages

Passover, a Lesson in Inclusiveness

Adam Bronfman, Kerry M. Olitzky, 2009


The Second Cup: Jews and Christians

Is Every Seder Kosher for Passover?

A. James Rudin, 1999


The Third Cup: Jews and Palestinians

Sharing Pesach with a Palestinian

Lawrence Baron, 1988


The Fourth Cup: Jews and Jews

Keeping Peace at the Seder Table

Sally Shafton, 1984


Explore many more publications about Passover at

Interview: Rabbi Yitz Greenberg

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, President of the Jewish Life Network / Steinhardt Foundation, sat down with BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen and discussed his vision of an American Jewish community in which it is expected that Jewish young adults will give one or two years of service, either to the Jewish community or to a population in need.

Watch on YouTube, or below:

Jewish Camping: Cohen's Comments

In the latest installment of Cohen's Comments, BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen says two new studies prove the benefits of Jewish camping, both for overnight camps and for day camps. Watch below, or on YouTube.

Proliferating Hebrew Language Charter Schools

The Jewish Week has two separate stories on Hebrew language charter schools today, covering one in Bergen County and one (proposed) in Harlem.

It is easy enough to find reasons for being concerned about this trend; how can Jewish religion be kept from creeping into the curriculum, tearing down the wall between church and state? If, on the other hand, that wall is somehow well-maintained, then will not Jewish children whose parents choose the schools as free alternatives to Jewish day school find that their children’s education is far less complete than that offered at a day school, bereft (as it must be) of Jewish values, ideas, messages and meanings?

In an exchange in the Forward in February 2010, Richard D. Kahlenberg raises precisely the former objection: “Using public funds for schools that cater to specific groups dangerously undercuts the unifying purpose of public education,” he writes. In the same exchange, Rabbi Irving Greenberg raises the latter objection: "The problem with charter schools,” he writes, “is that to qualify for government funding, the community must strip out the Jewish content, religion, values and advocacy from the educational program. I fear that such schools will fail to transmit Jewish identity.” Rabbi Greenberg does concede that these schools might “succeed when supplemented with Hebrew school education or Jewish camping. Therefore, I favor this experiment.” Still, he concludes, “the most likely outcome is that charter schools will teach language but lose the identity battle.”

Peter Deutsch, founder of the Ben Gamla Charter School, writes (in the same exchange) that

A Hebrew-English charter school education is not a day school education. However, a student completing a K-12 Hebrew-English charter school would have a strong, deep and intellectually based Hebrew language, history and culture education. That student would also have had the opportunity to easily enhance his or her religious education outside the public school setting.

I think these schools are tremendously exciting. Jewish education has many components, but if one component had to be chosen as the keystone and crown jewel, surely Hebrew language skills must be it; Hebrew opens the door to the vast majority of all other Jewish learning. Rabbi Greenberg is right that a Hebrew education would be an incomplete Jewish education, but think what texts could be presented in a supplementary school (or camp) if the students came in with solid, practiced Hebrew reading skills. That there is a significant trade-off cannot be denied, but life is full of such choices. Different families and sectors of the community will face them differently, which is one more reason to include this new choice on the menu of options.

Consider also the benefits to the Jewish community of having a significant number of non-Jewish students learn Hebrew and Jewish history and culture. Non-Jewish parents, meanwhile, will have the opportunity to see their children learn a legendary language with a fascinating literature, the classical form of which is of massive importance to Western history – a language which was once (in earlier, stuffier eras) de rigueur for the complete education, alongside Latin and Greek. The idea that such schools, as Kahlenberg puts it, “cater to specific groups” is certainly true in the sense that Jews are primarily advancing such schools, and Jews might primarily take advantage of them. But non-Jewish students would have their academic and intellectual lives enriched just as surely by such schools as would Jewish students.

Another aspect of the potential benefits of these charter schools is indicated by the work of BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen and Judith Veinstein of Tel Aviv University in a chapter in the new volume 5 of the International Handbook of Jewish Education. The chapter, entitled Jewish Identity: Who You Knew Affects How You Jew, argues

that Jewish education, like all forms of education that take place in a social context, exerts its impact in part by creating, sustaining, and reinforcing Jewish friendships. And we need to recognize that Jewish friendships, apart from Jewish education, exert an independent effect upon adult Jewish identity outcomes... The impact of Jewish education can be augmented by the creation and sustenance of strong Jewish social networks. If so, then mere Jewish association... can play a valuable role in building Jewish social networks, Jewish community, and lifelong Jewish engagement... These circumstances, then, argue for a broadening of the very concept of “Jewish education” to embrace the formation and bestowal of Jewish social networks.

If Cohen and Veinstein are correct, then the mere fact that Hebrew language charter schools will attract substantial numbers of Jewish students will have positive effects not only upon Hebrew skills, but upon Jewish identity as well -- even if Jewish identity is studiously never "preached." Furthermore, Jewish parents who want their children to have a genuinely diverse group of friends would be able to choose a school that included substantial numbers of Jews, and substantial numbers of non-Jews, serving the students' Jewish and American/democratic identities simultaneously.

What do you think? Can Hebrew language charter schools satisfy the demands of living in a diverse democracy? For Jewish families, will these schools supplement Jewish religious education, or destroy it by being treated as a replacement?


Suddenly there was a voice from the corner of the room. An Israeli, part of the contingent of soldiers who joined the group for five days, spoke in halting English: "Don't you understand? If there were a war in America against the Jews, I'd fight for you. The people of Sderot-- they are our people. We are one people."

That's the vision of Jewish peoplehood - and of Zionism - that I was raised with. As a youngish North-American-raised Jew, sentiments like these seem to put me firmly in the minority.

At least, that's the impression one gets from the discussions in the BJPA and the UJA-Federation of New York Commission on the Jewish People's four part seminar on "Interrogating Jewish Peoplehood," held over the course of 2010. In the context of an urgent anxiety about the future of Judaism in general and the American Jewish community in particular, a group of committed, and mostly older, Jewish leaders discussed their understandings of the notion of Jewish peoplehood and how that notion can or should or will be played out in the next and coming generations.

At the conclusion of the seminar, Clare Hedwat, Planning Manager of the Commission, produced a report that summarizes and reflects on some of the content, questions, and conclusions that arose over the course of these conversations. The quote above frames the report.

It is fitting that the report would open on that note since the issue of the Jewish state, its meaning for young Jews and the meaning and consequences of the rift between generations on the proper role of Israel in Jewish identity and activity runs throughout the report:

We fail as a community if we unwittingly ask the younger generation to make a choice between universalism and particularist Jewish concerns. If we ask young people to decide between the two, intentionally or otherwise, we are not guaranteed they will stay within our pews. 

Our greatest communal challenge lies with those who don’t care enough, don’t know enough or are too turned off to voice any opinion at all. JStreet does not constitute a problem of Jewish peoplehood. J Streeters voice criticism of Israel: put simply, they take Israel seriously enough to critique and aspire to change. The real problem for Jewish Peoplehood in our time is presented by those who totally reject the notion that the Jewish People or the state of Israel has any claim whatsoever on them. In our conversation, Prof. Steven M. Cohen referred to such Israel-rejectionists with the rabbinic term, Rasha, referring to the wicked son in the haggadah who claims to see no value in Judaism’s precepts and commandments.

The issue of Jewish responsibility to the Jewish state, Israel, flows into a discussion of responsibility to the Jewish "nation,"... beginning with a Biblical passage about the Gadites and the Reubenites and how they came to participate in the conquest of the land of Israel without coming to permanently settle there. And so even the scriptural-based discussion of what it means to be on the inside of the Jewish/not-Jewish boundary and Jewish responsibility to Jews is, at least, framed by the relationship of the People to the Land.

In the scheme of history, the decades since the founding of Israel constitute the shortest blip. But whatever combination it is of the prevalance of concern with Israel (whether positively or negatively) in the American Jewish community and the thousands of years of religious tradition connecting the People to the Land scripturally and liturgically, it seems nearly impossible to talk about the notion of Jewish peoplehood apart from the Jewish land, even when the mission statement of the seminar barely referred to that whole can of worms at all.

The other theme that arose was kinship and family - the idea that our connection to each other as Jews can best be understood,and presumably emotionally experienced, the way we experience and accept the notion of family.

We may question aspects of Israeli society without doubting the inherent link between Israel and world Jewry and the responsibility we have to Israel as a Jewish people. On the other hand, we intuitively understand that Messianic Jews (who believe in Jesus), or Jews who do not recognize the state of Israel, are effectively ‘outside’ of the family and the Jewish peoplehood conversation. Halachically speaking, one cannot “de- Jew” oneself. In terms of Jewish peoplehood, we are able to identify those who have removed themselves from normative discourse on issues pertaining to the Jewish nation. As David Mallach noted, we recognize what peoplehood is not. As Rabbi Gordon Tucker elaborated, we understand the implications of kinship.

It does seem true that we viscerally understand the implications of kinship. But modernity is also challenging the notion that 'you can't choose your family.' Our understandings of family, both cultural and legal, don't necessarily seem static enough to rely on even as a metaphor. And too, how much work can a posited shared emotional 'understanding' do in making connections among Jews, if not defining them?

The report concludes, as many good Jewish efforts do, with the promise of more questions and more talk:

Perhaps the greatest challenge as posed by the series is how to provide venues in which the conversation can continue, and how we may channel them in ways that provide new directions in which we may work, increasing the opportunities of engagement with Jewish peoplehood in relevant and creative ways.

I do get the sense that in the mean time, at least, we do seem stuck being the People Israel, and the people of Israel - but of course that may well be due to my bias because of the emotional standpoint where my particular Jewish family experience  has stood me.

The full report is available on BJPA, as are more resources on Jewish peoplehood, Israel-Diaspora relations, and Jewish attachment to Israel.



The Jewish Community is NOT Sufficiently Welcoming to Intermarried Families: A Response

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen's thesis that the obstacle to the participation of intermarried families in Jewish organizational life is not a lack of welcome but rather a lack of perceived competence.

Now, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, and Edmund Case, CEO of, have responded to Professor Cohen's claim, in an editorial on EJewishPhilanthropy: There is Still Work to Be Done on Welcoming Intermarried Families.

They assert that the question (and responses) on which Professor Cohen based his conclusion do not support his conclusion, and also take issue of his characterization of how the 'outreach community' has defined and understood the concept of welcoming.

Paul Golin, who commented here on this blog, has also written more extensively on this issue at Jewcy: Continued Confusion about Intermarriage. There, he gets into the question of what Jewish identity means and can mean, if we can sufficiently decouple it from birth status - the beginning of a deep conversation about Jewish tradition and values.

On a certain level, these questions demand us to think about some of the questions raised by my co-blogger here, Seth Chalmer, in his series on pluralism as well as his critique of Adam Bronfman: What does it mean to be Jewish - what is fundamental, what is periphery, and where are the boundaries.

Responses to this question, whether draped in the clothing of halacha or academia, can stem from a deep emotional place - and that, I think, is good. We *should* be emotional about these issues and if we can be openly emotional, maybe we can have a conversation that brings us closer together instead of farther apart.

Jewish identity, something different from national identity, different from religious identity (at least as understood by the culturally dominant Western religions), different from ethnic or racial identity, doesn't easily let itself be pinned down. It reminds of me of the question of what constitutes family. Thinking about the current manifestations of that question - political and cultural controversy over gay marriage, civil unions, open adoption, closed adoption, second-parent adoption, paternity rights, inheritance rights, divorce, and so on, I am actually somewhat comforted that maybe after all we're not doing that badly.

Adventures in Pluralism, Part 1: The Other Israeli Conversion Crisis

With the recent Israeli conversion bill generating controversy related to pluralism in Jewish denominational context, and with the Cordoba House / “Ground Zero Mosque” plan generating controversy related to pluralism in interreligious context, pluralism is very much in public debate right now, whether or not the word is used explicitly in discussing these issues.

But what is pluralism? Let us consult the Oxford English Dictionary:

1. a condition or system in which two or more states, groups, principles, etc. coexist; a political theory or system of power-sharing among a number of political parties.
2. a theory or system that recognizes more than one ultimate principle.

Within these two definitions I count three basic ideas: coexistence (1), power-sharing (2), and recognition of multiple principles as legitimate(3).

Of course, these three concepts only scratch the surface of potential meanings. Wikipedia’s disambiguation page for pluralism, for its part, lists fifteen definitions or applications of the concept. Clearly, then, pluralism isn’t one thing; it is itself (appropriately enough) plural.

How, then, can we discuss it? Perhaps we ought to begin by examining pluralism in the wild, as it were – in application, or attempted application, to real situations. The BJPA features many documents on the topic of pluralism, some related to intra-Jewish matters, and some to interreligious or intercultural relations. Over the course of a few posts I intend to examine a handful of these documents in an attempt to answer these questions: what do pluralistic solutions entail; and when do they, or don't they, work?

Let us begin with a timely look back to the 1990s. In “Orthodox and Non-Orthodox: How to Square the Circle”, the prolific Daniel J. Elazar notes that the divide between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews constitutes not merely a situation of different approaches, but “two contrary understandings of Judaism”:

The Chief Rabbinate and the Israeli religious establishment, and, for that matter, probably an overwhelming majority of Israelis as well, regardless of their own religious practices, understand Judaism to be an overarching structure, an edifice erected over thousands of years, …a complex but standing structure that technically never changes but is only reinterpreted in a limited way to function within changing realities. For those who believe and observe, this edifice gives them their daily, even hourly, marching orders. For those who observe less or do not observe at all except perhaps at the very margins of the edifice, the edifice still stands and they expect Jewish individuals, when they do act in religious ways, to do so within it. To steal an example from another religion, Judaism is like a great cathedral. It stands there and delivers its religious message whether worshippers enter or not, and while there can be discussions about what are the contents of that message, the character of the edifice is unmistakable.

American non-Orthodox Jews, who are the vast majority in the United States… see Judaism from an American religious perspective that has been shaped by the Protestant experience, as a matter of personal spirituality and belief first and foremost; which means that Jews must begin by personally accepting the fundamental beliefs and traditions of Judaism in some way but then are free to apply them operationally in ways that they find meaningful and satisfying. True, Conservative Judaism accepts the existence of the edifice of Torah and halakhah, but understands Torah more as a constitution than as a detailed code, a constitution which can and must be reinterpreted in every age according to its spirit and not merely according to the plain meaning of the text or something close to it.

Reform Judaism formally does not even accept that. For it, halakhah is not binding but is merely one of the sources of Jewish religious tradition to which attention should be paid…

Addressing an earlier “conversion crisis” (which mirrors the present crisis on certain ways), Elazar endorses the solution of the Neeman Committee, which proposed in 1997 that the Israeli government

create "conversion institutes," to prepare potential converts for conversion. The institutes would be sponsored by the Jewish Agency, and operated jointly by the three denominations. Aspiring converts would attend classes at the institutes but the actual conversion would be performed under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, according to Orthodox guidelines. With the establishment of these institutes, the Reform and Conservative movements would agree not to perform conversions [in Israel] outside the framework of the institutes.

To Elazar, this solution

is so ingenious and important, precisely because it does appear to square the circle to everyone's advantage in some ways and to everyone's disadvantage in others. The Israeli rabbinical establishment will have to give up its exclusiveness by accepting Reform and Conservative involvement in common operational matters such as training for conversion, performance of marriages, and handling the provision of religious services to the Israeli Jewish population. At the same time, by having a majority in every body making decisions in those areas, they will keep control and be able to honestly claim that the decisions are halakhic from their standpoint and based on their standards. The Reform and Conservative movements and their rabbis will win a measure of recognition as partners in the Jewish religious enterprise, something that has been totally denied to them as movements in Israel in the past, but they will in turn have to accept the ultimate Orthodox power in determining what is halakhah in these matters. Orthodox Jews should be very pleased with this because it will bring Reform Judaism back to the recognition of the binding character of halakhah, at least in Israel, an achievement of no small proportions if their interest is honestly religious and not merely a question of who has political power…

In fact, I would argue that the compromise should not only be agreed to for Israel but for the rest of the world as well, thereby creating a basic and halachic uniformity for issues such as conversion and marriage. That would be a great achievement, especially if in doing so we also recognize that we do live in a world of plural expression.

Personally, I share Elazar’s enthusiasm for the Neeman Committee’s solution, and the wish that such a system could be established for the entire Jewish world. I also believe, however, that the chances of such a system being established, inside or outside Israel, are virtually nil.

First, the non-Orthodox movements do not, by and large, see their decisions about lenient requirements for conversion to Judaism as purely practical measures; they believe they are acting in accordance with important principles related to the deepest meanings of Judaism, and they point to nothing younger than the Book of Ruth as precedent and proof-text for their interpretations. While some non-Orthodox Jews might accept a compromise for the sake of unity, others will stand ready to do battle over these principles. To acquiesce to Orthodox standards of conversion would represent, for many Jews, not merely an inconvenience, but a cowardly surrender to an extremist, unwelcoming and immoral approach to conversion.

As for the Orthodox world, while certain Modern Orthodox Jews might embrace the Neeman model, many Orthodox Jews would reject it as an explicit recognition of the legitimacy of the non-Orthodox rabbinate. For these Jews, rabbinic authority is not merely a tool of logistical power; it is a sacred trust deriving from an unbroken chain of leadership which began with Moses, a mantle which has always been fiercely guarded against heterodoxy in order to ensure that the great Tradition which began at Sinai will be neither diluted nor abandoned. To cooperate with non-Orthodox rabbis in any way, for these Jews, would be an unconscionable breach in a wall at which no lesser authority than God explicitly commanded the Jewish people to stand guard.

The Neeman Committee model of cooperation, then, asks two significant positions on the Jewish denominational spectrum – one of which dominates the Israeli religious establishment, and the other of which dominates the American religious estalblishment – simply to abandon their core principles. This solution may be desirable to those of us “in the middle,” but is it really pluralism?

Returning to my three-pronged interpretation of the OED’s definition of pluralism above – coexistence (1), power-sharing (2), and recognition of multiple principles as legitimate (3) – it seems so; the Neeman Committee solution fits all three of these concepts. The proposal envisions an Israel in which Jews of all denominations continue to practice (#1); in which rabbis of three of these denominations share power in the conversion process (#2); and in which, since the Israeli government grants all three denominations an official role, all three denominations are given government recognition as being legitimate to some degree (#3).

The reasons that this solution is unlikely to work can also be expressed in terms of the three-pronged definition: both #1 and #3 are unacceptable to the extreme left and the extreme right of the Jewish denominational spectrum, both of which consider one another to be immoral and illegitimate, and each of which wishes that the other would disappear. #2 might be acceptable to the extreme left out of a reluctant pragmatism, but is unacceptable to the extreme right, which sees sharing power with non-Orthodox rabbis as being inherently against God's explicit command. All three elements, then, face considerable opposition.

Can a framework so problematic for so much of the relevant population ever be workable? Is pluralism itself inherently impossible in this context? If not, then (to borrow Elazar's phrase) how can the circle be squared?

Contra Adam Bronfman: No, We Are Not All Jews

Seagram heir and Jewish pluralism advocate Adam Bronfman took to the blogosphere today via the JTA, declaring that "We Are All Jews," and denouncing the recently-tabled Israeli conversion bill, which critics charge would solidify Haredi control over Israeli government recognition of conversions, to the exclusion of non-Orthodox (and non-Haredi Orthodox) conversions. Bronfman writes:

[M]y interaction with the Jewish community and my engagement with Jewish foundations and organizations revealed the problematic use of the term “Jewish peoplehood,” or “klal yisrael.” I often despair and wonder if those words have lost their meaning. Is “Jewish peoplehood” a mere fantasy rather than a reality? The Rotem conversion legislation, that recently caused such an uproar, revealed an ongoing and ugly battle. We have narrowly averted a schism.

As a Jew, I was outraged by the proposed legislation. The State of Israel has no business in affiliating with or endorsing one religious group or dogma over another. When it does so it becomes complicit in the internecine strife that plagues our Jewish discourse and abdicates the responsibility it assumed at the time of its creation. That creation was meant to guarantee existential survival for all Jews, regardless of affiliation, style of worship, or geographic location. Regarding Jewish status, it is the government’s sole responsibility to secure and guard that guarantee...

It is high time for the government to get out of the business of legislating religious preference. Mr. Netanyahu must lead us to a decisive conclusion: ALL Jews enjoy equal status in the eyes of the Israeli government. Anything less is failure.

Bronfman's concern for Jewish unity, and his criticism of schismatic interdenominational battles, are noble and correct. I also share the concern of many critics that the Haredi monopoly on Israeli government definitions of Jewish identity (not to mention marriage) has been harmful, and should be revised. And while I am reticent to take a hard position on a bill I do not fully understand, I trust the judgment of many critics who say that the bill in its most recent form would have exacerbated these problems.

But on the most fundamental level of the issue of Jewish peoplehood, Adam Bronfman is unfortunately, simply, deeply wrong: we are not all Jews.

I am not arguing in favor of the current system, much less of the Rotem conversion bill itself. Nor do I disrespect the impulses behind this position. Bronfman and like-minded commentators take a stance which is wrong, but which is also deserving of real consideration. They speak up on behalf of the values of personal choice, pluralism, mutual respect, and acceptance. These are important values, to be sure, and the status quo in Israel is undeniably detrimental to all of them. But these values are not, cannot be, the only values for which we stand. Sometimes values conflict, and difficult choices must be made.

I share Bronfman's "despair," wondering along with him if the words klal Yisrael "have lost their meaning." That value, the meaning of being Jewish, is the very value which, in this case, conflicts with personal choice and complete pluralism. Either being Jewish has a specific meaning or it doesn't. There can be no neutrality on this matter; not to take a position is to take a position. Something that can be defined as anything is nothing.

If being Jewish is nothing more than a nominal affiliation, which can be chosen by anyone under no particular set of standards, devoid of commitments and obligations -- or, if being Jewish entails powerful commitments to morality and justice, but these commitments are all universal, and identical to general values of societal and personal responsibility --  then participation in Jewish life is trivial, and the creation of a Jewish state in the first place, with all the very real problems that nationalism entails, is irrational and dangerous.

Indeed, there is a serious case to be made for the scrapping of all tribal and national identities. Why persist in defining ourselves in groups at all? Why not document all the beautiful contributions of Judaism in our libraries, museums and universities, alongside the contributions of other extinct tribal identities, and let all individuals simply unite as citizens of the world? Many people, and indeed, many secular Jews, do make this argument.

But I suspect that Bronfman is not among them, since he is passionately and deeply involved in the Jewish communal world. I cannot help but assume, therefore, that Bronfman shares my belief that Judaism brings something vital and specific to the world, not only in the past but in the future, and that therefore there is important and unique value in living a Jewish life. And if living a Jewish life has specific value, must it not also have a specific range of content? Is playing frisbee a Jewish activity, if Jews do it? What about reading the telephone book? What about practicing Islam, or Christianity?

One might argue that I miss the point here -- that while Jewish denominations themselves should indeed create definitions of what it means to be Jewish, the Israeli government ought to take a neutral position between those definitions, allowing anyone to define themselves as Jewish, so that the Jewish state can be a home for all those who identify as Jews.

This policy sounds fine in theory. But here I must ask the obvious questions -- the questions which are dragged into this argument often enough to be tiresome, but which I dare not avoid because they remain powerful: are Jews for Jesus to be counted as Jews by the Israeli government? What about Christians completely unaffiliated with Messianic Judaism, but who claim that, in accordance with their theology, the Christian Church is God's new Israel, and that therefore they ought to be counted as Jews by Israel's government? If the answer is to make a policy defining anyone as Jewish who identifies as Jewish, except for those who believe in other religions, then who gets to decide what counts as another religion? The problem is not solved; the can is merely kicked  down the road. Either someone in the Israeli government makes some kind of definition of what it means to be Jewish -- which means giving up on the ideal of complete pluralism -- or no one in the government makes such a definition, and literally anyone in the world can qualify for the Law of Return.

This question is not purely abstract. With Israel currently confronting a number of issues related to immigration, it is not at all out of the realm of possibility that people who have no Jewish ancestry and no genuine interest in becoming Jewish will claim Judaism purely in order to qualify for the Law of Return, for the sake of escaping poverty. (One could hardly fault such a person in desperate circumstances for taking this course of action.)

Perhaps Bronfman doesn't really mean what he says about the Israeli government getting "out of the business of legislating" religion. Perhaps he recognizes that there is a point at which religious definition must be legislated, but he simply wishes that Haredi rabbis did not have a monopoly on this power. If that was his intended point, then I agree.

But the way we frame our arguments matters a great deal. Critics of the current system should be careful not to mount a high horse from which they decry Orthodox insistence on deciding for other people what being Jewish means, unless they are willing to follow their arguments to their logical conclusions and throw open the doors of Jewish identity to all manner of antisemites who claim to be "the real Jews". If these critics are willing to exclude even a single claimant to Jewish identity, for any reason, then that constitutes an endorsement of "one religious group or dogma over another," and the difference between the position of such critics and the position of the Haredim themselves is a difference of degree, not of essence.

If this is the case, it is only honest and proper to admit as much, and to acknowledge that if the torch our people have carried for these thousands of years is worth carrying further, it will require some concessions from the values of complete autonomy and individualism, some willingness to draw lines. That doesn't mean surrender to the Haredi position; the Jewish world can, and should, have real discussions and seek real compromises about where to draw those lines as a community. But in our denominations, in our synagogues, in our organizations -- and yes, in the Israeli government -- draw lines we must, or we are no community at all.

For more perspectives on the question of who is a Jew, click here to see related BJPA-archived articles. As always, this opinion is mine and not the BJPA's. And as always, I welcome all feedback, either of support or of dissent, in the comments section below.

Being Chosen, Being Distinct

Jewish distinction has been in the news this past week. In a NY Times Op-Ed column, Jewish novelist Michal Chabon (of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen's Union) reacts to the Gaza flotilla affair with a lament that Jews appear to be no smarter than any other people, chosenness notwithstanding. This reaction opens an exploration of the concept of Jewish distinction:

This is, of course, the foundational ambiguity of Judaism and Jewish identity: the idea of chosenness, of exceptionalism, of the treasure that is a curse, the blessing that is a burden, of the setting apart that may presage redemption or extermination. To be chosen has been, all too often in our history, to be culled... Now, with the memory of the Mavi Marmara fresh in our minds, is the time for Jews to confront, at long last, the eternal truth of our stupidity as a people, which I will stack, blunder for blunder, against that of any other nation now or at any time living on this planet of folly, in this world of Chelm.
Leaving aside questions of Jewish superiority, a Newsweek article from June 3rd reports that
the Jews of the Diaspora share a set of telltale genetic markers, supporting the traditional belief that Jews scattered around the world have a common ancestry. But various Diaspora populations have their own distinct genetic signatures, shedding light on their origins and history. In addition to the age-old question of whether Jews are simply people who share a religion or are a distinct population, the scientific verdict is settling on the latter.
The question of Chosenness has long been a sore point for antisemites, a point of affection for philosemites, and, naturally, a point of discomfort for many Jews.

Perhaps most famously, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, rejected the notion of chosenness. As George B. Driesen noted in The Reconstructionist in 1995, Kaplan "believed that the notion of a chosen people conflicts with a non-supernatural conception of divinity." Driesen quotes Kaplan directly as writing that "it is deemed inadvisable, to say the least, to keep alive ideas of racial or national superiority, inasmuch as they are known to exercise a divisive influence, generating suspicion and hatred." Driesen goes on to trace the development of liturgical innovations in the non-Orthodox movements which sought to erase ideas of Jewish chosenness. (For more on the theme of Jewish chosenness as manifested in liturgy, read Gordon M. Freeman's analysis of the prayer Aleinu as a political statement.)

Arnold M. Eisen, now Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, argued in 1990 that the idea of chosenness has been critical to the formation of American Jewish identity, allowing 20th Century American Jews "to make their way, yet remain distinct." This idea, he writes, has "provoked... an outpouring of interpretation, while others (exile, messiah, revelation) were virtually ignored".

What do you think? Is the idea of the Jewish people as the Chosen people an eternal truth, or an outdated concept? Does it imply superiority? Does it imply inferiority? Is it compatible with the notion of human equality? Let's hear some opinions in the comments section.

My own personal view (as always, not reflecting any official position of the BJPA) is that Jewish chosenness need not be seen as implying superiority of any kind. One can just as easily conceive of it as a special responsibility given to the Jews, a responsibility to foster ethical monotheism in the world, but with the knowledge that other peoples, cultures and individuals may also be chosen for other different and important tasks. Indeed, one might say that each person on earth is chosen for a unique and vital purpose. But enough homiletics; what say you?

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