Friday, January 28, 2011

Is Giffords a Jew, or is She Just Jew-ish?

By Susan Esther Barnes

In all the greater storm about the shooting of Representative Giffords, may she and all those wounded on that day have a full and speedy recovery, on the side there is a tempest in a teapot about whether the Jewish press should refer to her as Jewish. She is an active member of a Reform synagogue, but her Jewish roots are on her father’s side, not her mother’s.

In the world of Reform Judaism, one is considered Jewish if one is raised Jewish and either parent is Jewish. In Orthodox Judaism, one is considered Jewish only if one’s mother is Jewish, or if one converts to Judaism in an Orthodox conversion process. So as far as Giffords and her synagogue are concerned, she’s a Jew, but as far as an Orthodox person is concerned, she is not.

Although there are some who refer to others as “half Jewish,” I don’t believe there is such a thing. Either you are Jewish, or you are not. The question is, where do you draw the line? And who gets to say where that line should be drawn?

It is troubling to me that an ordained rabbi can work with someone as they go through their conversion process, and declare that person Jewish, only to have other people deny the Jewishness of that person.

In Israel, there are thousands of soldiers who moved to Israel from Russia and converted while serving in the Israeli Defense Forces, but who the Chief Rabbinate has declared as still not halachically Jewish.

Is this what God wants? I don’t think so.

These claims about who is, or is not, halachically Jewish are made as if there is no disagreement as to the interpretation of halacha. In fact, halacha has been debated and changed over the years, as our understanding of God, humans, and the world around us has evolved.

We are taught that all Jewish souls, both those on earth at the time and all those as yet unborn, were present when God made the covenant that created the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai. Many of those souls are here on earth now, seeking to join their people through the process we call conversion.

To deny them their rightful place among us, to push them out by saying their rabbincally supervised conversion is not halachically acceptable, strikes me as an unconscionable disregard of God’s will, an enormous chillul hashem - desecration of God’s name.

It is well past time for us to recognize that matters of halacha have never been settled. Different people interpret the law differently. Each person must follow his or her own beliefs about the right interpretation, according to the teachings of their rabbinic authority. At the same time, we need to recognize that differences do exist, and concede that the only one who truly knows God’s will is God.

So let’s honor the good will, knowledge and authority of the rabbis – all of them – and accept anyone declared by a rabbi to be Jewish as Jewish, and let God be the final arbiter.

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