Not All Who Wish to Become Jews May Do So - Part 1

[Be-Ahavah U-Be-Emunah – Lech Lecha 5773 – translated by R. Blumberg]


Some wish by a pen stroke to heal the wounds of our people, registering non-Jews as “Jewish” on conversion documents out of synch with Jewish law. They think that via this procedural step they can solve a profound problem of identity. Yet in reality they err and cause others to err, adding still more suffering to our Nation. Instead of toiling to bring near those far removed, they place an official stamp of recognition on the division of our people, creating two types of Jews: Jews according to Jewish law and Jews according to Israeli secular law. Heaven help us if tomorrow a boy proposes marriage to a girl he loves, but she answers, “I cannot. I am Jewish by Jewish law and you are Jewish by secular law. Leave me. I am forbidden to you.”

True, there are circles of people, both religious and irreligious, seeking to separate religion and state. They do not understand that you cannot solve problems and conflicts by division of forces, but only by increasing love. They do not understand that they are leading us to a deep crisis. And who knows where it will lead?

We mustn’t agree to there being two types of Jews in our midst, any more than we should agree to the establishment of two separate countries for the Jewish People.

Generations ago we were a dispersed people, scattered among various countries, but now we are a country ourselves, and the Torah too must manifest itself as a national institution.

You cannot have every group holding its own loudspeaker, thinking it represents Jewish law. The Chief Rabbinate must be the body that decides matters. When there is no national conception of the Torah, fissures form that threatens to shatter the nation. Therefore we must increase unity and we must strengthen the Torah as an all-encompassing institution of the Jewish People, centered around the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. This will solve the problem of conversion both here and abroad, and put an end to all of the yelling, agitation and divisiveness.

As for the very question of “Who is a Jew”, I can recall what Yosef Schechter, a learned educator, philosopher and researcher, said to David Ben-Gurion: “Here is what a researcher does when he sets out to deal with a problem. First he examines all the material that has been published until now. Then he examines all the conclusions that have been amassed, and he builds on them, unless he discovers contradictions.  The present question was deliberated upon by generations of our Sages. They pondered it in enormous depth and examined every detail with remarkable precision. Not only that, but we see with our own eyes the extraordinary result of their long, exhausting approach – the survival of a poor, persecuted nation throughout such a dangerous exile. True, in our own generation, novel and scientific research methods have been developed, but as far as spiritual problems, it is not only experimentation that should be the determining factor, but thought as well. And in this realm, we are forced to admit that civilization’s advance has only tainted the depths of our thinking. Who will dare, in our dark generation, in which the worst crimes against humanity were committed, to try to tailor the Torah of Moses to modern thought?”

A Supreme Court justice, the late Dr. Moshe Zilberg, wrote in his day that what we have here is not a minor, concrete question of registration, but a penetrating clarification of the essence of the concept of a Jew: “The one in the court docket is not the registrar of the State of Israel, or the Interior Minister, but the Jewish People down through the generations. Shall a ‘subjective test’ be what determines Jewishness? Is silent identification coupled with some ceremony that people have made up out of their heads based on their own understanding of the spirit of Judaism sufficient? Where is the boundary? Shall even the Christian who harbors deep affinity for the Jewish People be considered a Jew?

One soldier said that the radio broadcaster who announced on June 7, 1967 that the Western Wall had been liberated was worthy of everyone’s thanks, ‘because he succeeded in making clear for us, all at once, how foolish is the pilpulistic argument over who is a Jew’ (Siach Lochamim p. 236). Yet the Jewish People were not born yesterday. Shall we desecrate the word ‘Jew’, cross out its hallowed, historic meaning, and deny all the values of the spirit to which we became accustomed daily during our long exile? Whether we are called “religious” or “secular”, we cannot cut ourselves off from our historic past, nor can we deny it. We are carrying on. Not everyone who wishes to claim the title of Jew for himself may do so.”

Now someone called “secular” may rise up and say, “What relevance do Jewish legal definitions have for us? After all, we don’t keep Jewish law, and those who do keep it sometimes insult us by calling us non-Jews. It turns out that we aren’t Jewish either according to Jewish law.”

Yet that is not true. The essence of a Jew is not measured by behavioral criteria, nor does it depend on Mitzvah fulfillment. A Jew, even if he be secular, is still a Jew. One’s very Jewishness is independent of one’s deeds. It should be borne out by one’s deeds, but it does not depend on them. It is an inner quality and a spiritual character.

We are plagued by a very deep crisis of loss of, and search for, identity, and this is bitterly painful for us. In these times, we cannot avoid this issue. We must remember what we are, what our lives are, what it means for us to be a special nation, distinct from all others. We constitute a unique component of mankind, a people with a unique national psyche. We belong to a people that was not born recently, but in ancient times: the people of eternity, Eternal Israel.