Years ago I listened to a sermon in which a Rav described a recent meeting of the Satmar elite. One of their interesting statements was that, contrary to any census date out there, the total Jewish population in the world was really only one million souls. It wasn't hard to guess who they were including and excluding.
At the time talk like this was dismissed as a bunch of fanatics looking to isolate themselves from the world but certainly not mainstream opinion in the Chareidi community. Unfortunately this no longer seems to be the case. As this now infamous New York Times Magazine article notes, the Chareidi community in Israel is talking steps to ensure not only that they have control of over Jewish life cycle activities in Israel but that they also now control the answer to the question: "Who is a Jew?"
In short, it has been traditional to believe a person who introduces himself as Jewish. Indeed, there is apparently a psak from the Chazon Ish himself endorsing this view. If this is the case, then what has happened here?
One day last fall, a young Israeli woman named Sharon went with her fiancé to the Tel Aviv Rabbinate to register to marry. They are not religious, but there is no civil marriage in Israel. The rabbinate, a government bureaucracy, has a monopoly on tying the knot between Jews. The last thing Sharon expected to be told that morning was that she would have to prove — before a rabbinic court, no less — that she was Jewish. It made as much sense as someone doubting she was Sharon, telling her that the name written in her blue government-issue ID card was irrelevant, asking her to prove that she was she.
Understand who is being challenged here. This is not some stranger from Russia or elsewher with no obvious connection to our people:
She grew up on a kibbutz when kids were still raised in communal children’s houses. She has two brothers who served in Israeli combat units. She loved the green and quiet of the kibbutz but was bored, and after her own military service she moved to the big city, which is the standard kibbutz story.
Now, this article has elicited the usual outrage. I was also angered by what I read. But the more I thought about it, the more my attitude changed. I would like to approach this from a different angle, one noted in the article itself:
Trust — or lack of it — is the crux. Zvi Zohar of Bar-Ilan University explained to me that historically, if someone said he was a Jew, “if he lived among us, was a partner in our society and said he was one of us, we assumed he was right.” Trust was the default position. One reason was that Jews were a persecuted people; no one would claim to belong unless she really did. The leading ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Israel in the years before and after the state was established, Avraham Yeshayahu Karlitz (known as the Hazon Ish, the name of his magnum opus on religious law), held the classical position. If someone arrived from another country claiming to be Jewish, he should be allowed to marry another Jew, “even if nothing is known of his family,” Karlitz wrote.
Several trends have combined to change that. In an era of intermarriage, denominational disputes and secularization, Jews have ceased agreeing on who belongs to the family, or on what the word “Jew” means. Ultra-Orthodox Jews increasingly question the Jewishness of those outside their own intensely religious communities. The flood of immigrants from the former Soviet Union to Israel deepened their doubts. In the Soviet Union, when someone with parents of two nationalities received identity papers at age 16, he could pick which nationality to list. A child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother could put down “Jew.” The religious principle of matrilineal descent was irrelevant.
In the United States, the Reform movement responded to rising intermarriage by deciding in 1983 to accept children of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother as Jews if they were raised within the faith. The denominations also diverge on how to accept a convert into Judaism. Orthodox Jews generally do not regard conversions by non-Orthodox rabbis as valid — either because the rabbis do not strictly follow religious law or because they do not require the converts to do so. The number of people in America “recognized by some movements as Jewish but not by others” is “certainly in six figures,” according to Jonathan D. Sarna, a Brandeis University professor and the author of “American Judaism: A History.”
Of the greatest concern is that the split is not between Orthodox and non-Orthodox:
Strikingly, the rabbinate’s doubts extend even to Orthodox rabbis in America. “They’re not familiar with them,” Friedman told me. “They say: ‘The rabbis in the United States, in England, aren’t the kind we know. Someone can define himself as an Orthodox rabbi, but really he’s Reform.’ ” A marriage registrar given a letter from an Orthodox rabbi abroad certifying that a person is Jewish is now expected to check with the office of Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, which maintains a list of diaspora clergy whose letters are to be trusted. The list is not publicly available. If the rabbi who wrote the letter is not on the list, the applicant is asked for other proof or referred to the rabbinic courts.
Converts, even the children of converts, potentially face greater difficulties, because the rabbinate has also become more skeptical about Orthodox conversions performed abroad. What’s more, under pressure from Chief Rabbi Amar, the main association of Orthodox clergy in the United States, the Rabbinical Council of America, is establishing its own regional rabbinic courts for conversion. A recent council position paper warns that the group makes no commitment to stand behind conversions performed by other rabbis. The paper also stresses that converts are expected to accept Orthodox religious law, or Halakhah.
Consider the historial record. Until about 150 years ago, the only ways to become Jewish were to be born to a Jewish mother or convert al pi halachah. And given the general position of Jews in society, who would take the decision to convert lightly?
With the rise of Reform and Conservatism, however, this changed. For the first time since the Karaite movement acutally mattered, people were now calling themselves rabbis in the absence of proper training. Worse, they were marrying and divorcing Jews and converting non-Jews without fulfilling all the halachic requirements associated with those events. Then, only a few decades ago, Reform went further and added the concept of partilineal descent, labelling non-Jews as members of the tribe without any sanction at all from halachah. This is a step even the Conservatives have not taken (yet).
In the last few years, the left wing of Modern Orthodoxy has moved further to the left than anyone might ever have imagined they might. Concepts like women prayer leaders, interfaith dialogues and philosophies that differ little more than marginally with Conservatism's right side have all come to the fore and gained importance with this group.
Over the last fifteen years Israel has been flooded with Russian immigrants. Most of the first wave were genuine Jews but when the number of olim began to slow down, the Jewish Agency made it very clear that they were prepared to bring non-Jews to Israel as well. As long as a Russian had a connection of some kind to Judaism (possibly he had once shopped in a Jewish-owned store and enjoyed the experience) he was eligible to come to Israel. And come they did, by the tens of thousands. And it's not like they made any pretense about being Jewish either. There are now more functioning churches in Israel than at any time in history. Christian rights are starting to surface as a issue in some places.
Finally, there is the recent state attitude towards conversion. In a bid to defuse criticism of the policy that flooded Israel with non-Jewish Russians who don't really care about being there, the state has tried to loosen the conversion requirements and create mass groups of converts to increase the number of Jews in the state, a concern given the rapid rise in the Arab population. This conversions are not legitimate in the eyes of many authorities, not just the Chareidi ones and risk creating a population of faux-Jews whose children will reap the difficulties their parents have sown.
Now imagine you're a Chareidi rabbi. You were born in a Chareidi neighbourhood and went to a Chareidi yeshivah. You've never watched television or read a secular newspaper. You have no non-Chareidi friends. And throughout your entire life, you've been told over and over again that the only proper way to be Jewish is to be Chareidi. Anything else is a lesser form of observance. So if a person walks into your office and is not dressed Chareidi, what would you think of him? What if he's a Reform convert? What if he's a gentile from Russia who thinks he's Jewish because he has Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return?
With that kind of background, is it any wonder this is happening? Years ago I recall sitting with a non-Orthodox chazzan and talking about the problems associated with non-religious conversions and patrilineal descent. He said he was worried that the Jewish people would split in two over this. I agreed with him. "We already won't eat in your homes, won't marry your children without checking at least two or three generations back just to make sure no one's mother was a non-religious convert. We won't pray in your synagogues or view your rabbis as 'the real thing'. The split is a lot closer than we think."
Yet who is really to blame? The article's emphasis and the reaction from many people across the blogsphere has been to blame the Chareidi world for their intransigence and intolerance. One can expect a more vociferous rebuttal from the Modern Orthodox world than the non-Orthodox groups. After all, the Reformers and Conservatives have long been used to being shut out by the Chareidim. But many in the Modern Orthodox world have deluded themselves into thinking that despite their differences, the Chareidim still viewed them and their rabbonim as "legitimate".
To the contrary, I would suggest the fault in this case lies with the aggrieved groups. As noted above, until relatively recently in Jewish history, entry to the tribe was a controlled matter which made "quality control" realtively easy. In a world where the non-religious requirements for calling someone a Jew are becoming more and more lax, is it any wonder the Chareidi world has reacted by becoming more stringent, in an effort to slow the tide? With the growing number of people out there who are not Jewish but have been incorrectly told by a trusted religious figure that they are, is it strange that the Chareidim have shouted out No Further?
The more the non-religious and left wing of Modern Orthodox pull away from tradition and towards innovation for the sake of... well, innovation, the more the Chareidi group will pull towards tradition and reject innovation. The solution to prevent the coming split is not to scream at the Chareidi and demand they dilute their standards but for the non-religious to finally accept that through their desire for convenience, they have ruptured the one underlying quality of the Jewish nation, the idea that if someone says they're Jewish that they really are. Perhaps once they take responsibility for the damages they have caused, some healing and movement back towards the centre can begin.