In 1984 Rueven Bulka, a well respected orthodox rabbi wrote “The Coming Cataclysm” in response to the game changer of the Reform Movement recognizing as Jews those offspring from patrilineal descent. Bulka predicted a growing chasm between those who followed matrilineal descent (as halacha dictates) and those that accepted patrilineal descent. The Jewish community would be forever fractured with a fissure so deep and so wide that it would be all but impossible to bridge. That cataclysm of which Bulka spoke never came to fruition: we are still one people (participating in the same organizational institutions that navigate Jewish communal life and advocating for Israel) with periodic adjustments made for accommodation. Most cities with a federation have a board of rabbis whereby the Orthodox rabbis participate alongside the Reform Conservative and Reconstructionist for the common good and welfare of the Jewish community, patrilineal Jews not excluded (some of these rabbis may not even be halacically Jewish). From their point of view the Reform Movement’s decision was smart and justifiable. Concerned with increasing intermarriage and dwindling synagogue membership and participation they sought ways of inclusion. The patrilineal option seemed the way to go. That, together with proactive programs and an agenda of inclusion and out reach to the intermarried might staunch the bleed.
Apparently the hemorrhaging in the liberal community hasn’t been cauterized, even with the seemingly extreme maneuver of instituting patrilineal descent; on the contrary, it’s intensified. While not accepting patrilineal descent the Conservative Movement has hit on a somewhat unique and creative response to dwindling membership: the creation of a hybrid Jew known as a K’rov Yisrael. The K’rov Yisrael is somewhat of an avatar: a shadow figure. He has the perks of being married to a Jew without any of the responsibilities incumbent on a Jew. He’s got the best of both worlds: a shadow like figure he can phase in and out depending on the circumstances. Like a chameleon there are times when he will pass as Jewish and other times morphs back into the gentile. The K’rov is a gentile married to a Jew, having opted not to convert yet desiring to take advantage of and participate n the full life of the Jewish community. He has no halachic status: he is a gentile with no claims of Jewish descent either from the mother or father. He isn’t a crypto Jew, claiming Jewish-Spanish descent. He is a gentile married to a Jew, who when desires, can attend services and receive the honors associated, such as aliya latorah and other honorifics.
My initial reaction was to negate this initiative, considering it a worse “fix” than Reform’s patrilineal descent approach. Patrilineal descent initially seemed a greater threat to the integrity of the Jewish community because it tended to shade the legitimate halachic identity of Jews. Belonging to a reform Jewish community and intensely living the Jewish life with a Jewish father but gentile mother would blur the identity: he could “pass.” The K’rov, on the other hand makes no claim of being Jewish. However, his association, presence and participation gives the distinct impression that the person is Jewish. Apart from that, creating the category of K’rov sends a clear message that one doesn’t have to convert. Why go through the effort (and difficulties, including emotional distress) of conversion if one could opt for the status of K’rov? On the other hand, intermarriage with or without conversion is an accepted fact of Jewish life and no initiative will staunch the hemorrhaging of the community, and no matter what initiative the liberal community takes the issue will not go away nor will it be solved.
How we as a people welcome the intermarried will ultimately be a testimonial as to what kind of people we are. Pondering these issues, seeking some guidance I am reminded of three famous test cases that distills the essence of the issue: religion versus peoplehood. Brother Daniel, Benjamin Shalit and Shoshan Miller. While these three case refer to the Israeli Judicial system they nevertheless hone in on the issue that confronts what being a Jew means today: religion or peoplehood. In the 1960’s Benjamin Shalit, an Israeli married a non-Jewish Scottish woman. The children were recognized as Israeli, however Shalit wanted their identity cards to say “Jewish” for nationality but left blank for religion. The Ministry of Interior denied the request, however the Supreme Court ruled in Shalit’s favor: the children of a gentile mother and Jewish father were rendered Jewish. The court made a distinction between peoplehood and religion (the Law of Return unfortunately was subsequently amended to avoid this situation in the future).
If we separate our personal passions from the issue it might seem reasonable to allow this new hybrid Jew an opportunity to thrive. While the avatar doesn’t seek conversion the K’rov nevertheless demonstrates full association and identification with the Jewish community as Ruth the Moabite did. It won’t staunch the bleed but it might facilitate the integration of well-intentioned people into the Jewish community.
Signing on, as most of us have to a reasonably enlightened political/social philosophy and liberal life style has within it, unfortunately, the seeds of destruction. American Jews tend to be liberal in their weltanschauung. To be liberal is to be accepting. To be liberal is to be educated and open to new and fresh ideas. To be liberal is to allow others to learn more about who we are and what we are. Ultimately this leads to full integration, assimilation and intermarriage, not only of the liberal community but also the orthodox community. It is an unavoidable by product of being an educated Jewish American.