Monday, November 8, 2010

A Jew Is A Jew

Netanyahu’s gambit to advance the oath of loyalty has pundits divided into two groups: those that question the democratic veracity of such an oath and those that dredge up the question and meaning of Mi Who Yehudi (who is a Jew). This latter, thorny question should have been taken up and resolved in 1948 when the Jewish Agency leadership under Ben Gurion declared the formation and independence of the Jewish State, the Medinah Yehudit. Then, many other issues were tabled for more pressing issues, such as survival and the in gathering of refugees from the “camps”, and the aliyot from Arab countries. The question has been festering since the Brother Daniel case in the late 1950’s coming to a head in 1962, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the State. The Supreme Courts decision however didn’t resolve the issue of “who is a Jew”. More recently the issue has percolated to the Israeli and Diaspora Jewish consciousness when the issue of conversion of Russian and Ethiopians became a hot button issue. Naturally, American reform and conservative Judaism have an interest that conversions made by the respective denominations ought to be recognized. Most Israelis would prefer a loosening up of the requirements for conversion as well.

The issue of conversion in Israel unfortunately is held hostage by the medievalists; rabbis who are committed to a halachic system, which for all practical purposes ceased developing in the medieval period. Interestingly, Maimonides who saw beyond the limited scope of the medievalists believed that a declaration of faith in the presence of a Beit Din, coupled with a general understanding their responsibility as Jews was enough for conversion. For Maimonides, the conversion of Ruth was certainly the test case and precedent for the declaration of faith being a sufficient qualifier fro conversion. The medievalists running and ruining Judaism in Israel have sought to bury conversion within a cocoon of halachic and meaningless mumbo jumbo that literally ties and confines any candidates into a knots so cumbersome that it is virtually impossible to convert.

Over the years Israel has witnessed tragic and heartbreaking stories of soldiers who have given their lives for the state only to be buried outside the confines of the Jewish cemeteries. For whom did they give their lives if not for the medina yehudit? Was not their supreme and ultimate sacrifice not as committed as Ruth’s? And what of all those converts who genuinely live Jewish lives but are informed by the rabbinate that their children cannot marry other Jews because their conversions were never true conversions, since they were performed by rabbis not on the select list of rabbis. So when the Netanyahu government wishes to assert the loyalty oath does not the state first have to define who is a Jew before applying this litmus test? Otherwise, what value has an oath where the very words have little or no meaning?

The fiasco of defining who we are hit home recently with a ruling by the interior ministry that denied Monique Martinek, a Swiss citizen, the status of an olah. Two years ago, Monique found out that her paternal grandmother, a Jew was killed by the Nazis. Prior to receiving this information she had no idea of her Jewish origins. Monique was able to document that her grandmother as well as her great grandmother were Jewish. However the courts ruled that halachically she didn’t qualify, because there was reference to the fact that the grandmother practiced Catholicism. Many Jews in order to survive the war assumed a Christian identity, that didn’t make them converts. Certainly, the Nazis understood that; they killed her because she was Jewish. She was Jewish enough to be murdered but not quite Jewish enough to pass on her legacy to her progeny! The medievalists, by ossifying Judaism by the layering of stringent halacha over the our peoplehood have practically eradicated the beauty and message that our ancestors intended too pass down to us. I would encourage Bibi that before he creates a tempest by insisting on this oath, they first define what and who is a Jew.