Are ‘non-Jewish Jewish communities’ meritorious?
EVERY FEW YEARS a new “conversion crisis” rocks Israel and the Diaspora – as Yogi Berra remarked, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” And yet, this time perhaps there’s a new twist?
Alan KrinskyI cannot confess to understanding the law proposed recently in Israel. On the one hand, it appears to turn over greater control to the Chief Rabbinate – and one would expect this to result in making the conversion process more strict – while on the other hand, the proposal seems aimed at easing the conversion of many Russian immigrants, a task that will clearly not be accomplished by making conversion ever more difficult.
That Efrat’s Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a leader of Modern Orthodoxy, has expressed support for some version of the law, as helping the integration of Russian immigrants, suggests we at least ought to consider the motivations. The questionable religious status of such a large group of Israeli citizens has been recognized as a problem for years now.
So, while I do not know enough to endorse the now tabled proposal, I have to agree that at least some of the sentiments motivating it are praiseworthy, though I do not quite see how increasing the control of the Chief Rabbinate in this matter will achieve the stated goal. And before we reject it entirely, it may be that a version of the proposal will protect the status quo of Israeli citizenship and the status quo for conversions performed outside of Israel.
To understand the necessity for some solution to the crisis, we need only look at the difficult cases of individuals risking and even losing their lives defending the state of Israel and the Jewish people, individuals who are not Jewish according to halakhah, Jewish law. What can we say to such people, who have thrown their lot in with the Jewish nation? How can we say they are not Jewish? And, after sacrificing their lives, they cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery? And yet, we cannot simply change Jewish law because of the pain and difficulty of a situation.
I wish to share with you a radical proposal, one I am not even sure I support, but one worth discussing for its innovation and for the compassion motivating it.
At least three years ago now, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, dean of the Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem, and an eloquent speaker and writer, made the audacious suggestion that we encourage the creation, within Israel, of what he called “non-Jewish Jewish Communities.”
By non-Jewish Jews, Rabbi Lopes Cardozo is referring to individuals of Jewish descent who are not Jewish, according to Jewish law, and who are not prepared to commit to living according to Jewish law, yet feel connected and are connected to Judaism, Jewish tradition, the Jewish people and Israel.
These individuals and communities would be free, as Rabbi Lopes Cardozo sees it, to “develop their own brand of Judaism,” adopting and adapting what practices they wish and having their own synagogues, yeshivot and cemeteries. In his view, these people would be part of the broader Jewish community; though not Jewish according to Jewish law, they would not be non-Jews either. Jews and non-Jewish Jews would share something of a sense of Jewishness; as he writes, “They are part of the family, though slightly removed.”
Again, such a proposal is not necessarily ready for implementation, and some may find it offensive. It remains a compassionate attempt to resolve a problem facing the state of Israel, and without coercing anyone.
Now, I do recognize that, although I began with the present conversion crisis, it is not at all clear that Rabbi Lopes Cardozo’s idea would address the inter-denominational conflicts over conversion and the often-painful questions over Jewish status and Jewish law. What is clear to me is that conversion without a commitment to Jewish law is problematic. And what is also clear to me, but often misunderstood, is that controversy over conversion is not a question about Jewishness altogether; that is, questioning the status of a movement’s conversions is not to question the Jewishness of all its adherents. Much of the rest remains unclear to me, and may require waiting for the Mashiach to clear it all up.