I was on a panel recently with a representatives of Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism. In front of us sat 300 teenagers and their parents. We were to answer several fundamental questions. 1) What happened on Mt. Sinai? and 2) Who is a Jew? You can guess what everyone said about Sinai. “If the Jews were ever in the desert – not certain that is true – then they had some kind of mass transcendent experience which they must have thought was revelation. However revelation did not occur.” (I mused, maybe they had all drank psychedelic tea, but could not say that in front of the teens’ parents.) Next who is a Jew? I said, “Adam Sandler…Jewish. Madonna…not Jewish!” I sat down. Then I said in a more serious tone that “a Jew is anyone that has a Jewish neshama (soul).”
Some angry parents came up to me afterwards. “I thought you said you were an Orthodox Rabbi! How can you say this?”
I explained that his was the most fundamental answer to the question. It was not “How to become a Jew?” but “WHO” is a Jew right now.
One of the things I learned on this panel shocked me. The other participants naturally answered the question of âWho is a Jew?â? by telling how they convert people, and that Reform _accept_ patrilineal descent. A person in the audience asked, âI know someone who was born Jewish, but was not raised Jewishly, but rather as a Christian. They grew up going to church, and even studied to be a priest. Are they Jewish and how can they become Jewish?â? The Conservative Rabbi answered that they would have to undergo a conversion to Judaism, to see hat they had accepted Jewish beliefs. The Reform said that they would need to go to classes and have a conversion too. I answered that if this man were to show up in my synagogue I would give him an aliyah on the spot. He doesnât need to do anything to BECOME Jewish, he is a Jew.
Pardon my naivite, but this was a major moment in my understanding where Reform and Conservative have gone wrong. If a Jew, born to Jewish parents, but raised as a gentile, needs conversion, then they have made Judaism into a something closer to another religion.
In Poland where I worked in the Jewish community for much of the 1990âs we had people in their 60âs who discovered when their parents were dying that they were not really their parents. On the deathbed the parents confessed that he/she was the child of Jewish neighbors. âWe took you when you were only a few months old in order to save you until your Jewish parents could return. But they never came backâ¦â? The child grew up, married, had kids, all the while thinking they were a Catholic. Some of these kids, called Dzieci Holocaustu, Children of the Holocaust, became priests. They came to us wanting to learn about being Jewish. We helped them pick Jewish names, have bar/bat mitzvahs, learn Hebrew, etc. Some of them decided never to tell their spouses, out of fear. Some brave ones told decided to start observing Jewish tradition, stopped going to churchâ¦.
Can you imagine, that a Reform Rabbi would tell them you are not Jewish? This person is as Jewish as I am. Their parents were burnt in Auschwitz. They didnât even make a decision to leave the Jewish people. They are a âtinok she nishbarâ? an abducted child. They have no guilt because they made no choice. And I will take this discussion about Jewishness to another level. Even if they HAD a choice as a young child or adult, and decided to hide their Jewishness, and stay undercover. THEY ARE STILL JEWISH. You cannot erase this. Because being Jewish is soul thing. It has to do with you and your connection to God and the entire Jewish people. You can go to your ashram, to your mosque, to the church, or a cult. And you are still a Jew.
For Reform and Conservative, being Jewish is a conscious decision that a person makes. It is a commitment. If you leave us, or never made the commitment, then you are not Jewish. This is part of the reason so many Jews decide to marry non-Jews, and live lives isolated from Jewish practice and tradition. âBecause if being Jewish is just a commitment, and I never really made the commitment, I feel that I am not really a good Jew. I am somehow lacking in my Jewishness.â
That is why Reform have Commitment ceremonies. Who invented this? Why? Because reform as it originated in Germany wanted to make Judaism look like Christianity. Christians have confirmation, so Jews made one up. There are no historic models for this, it was copied. But this is a new definition of being Jewish. This is not the definition that has gotten us through 2000 years of exile, and 3800 years since Abraham.
Rabbis do not make Jews. Rabbis do not really convert people. Rabbis on a beit din are trying to establish, has this person taken on the yoke of Torah, the mitzvahs, does she see her fate and life inseparable from the Jewish world. She/he goes into the Waters of Life, the mikvah, and comes out with a Jewish soul. It is metaphysical friends. It is transcendent, and it is awesome, as in awe inspiring. It is not a commitment ceremony, it is a birthday.