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Who Is a Jew?

Copyright © 1997 by David E. Ross

"It's hard to be a Jew."
Now, even Jews don't want us to be Jews.

A small group of Orthodox rabbis have decreed that the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism are not Jewish. Originally, their declaration was interpreted to mean that Reform Jews and Conservative Jews are not Jews. They "clarified" this point by restricting their condemnation to the organizational structures of Reform and Conservative Judaism.

Effectively, they have declared my marriage — performed by a Reform rabbi — null and void under Jewish law. Thus, my children — whose parents' marriage is not recognized — are not fit to marry other Jews.

What is the big deal? After all, the Greek Orthodox patriarchs declared the Roman Catholic Church heretical centuries ago. The Pope retaliated by declaring the Greek Orthodox Church schismatic. Life on both sides of the argument continued, and both sides remained Christian.

However, this small band of rabbis is merely echoing a political movement in Israel, where the Knesset has taken the first step towards delegitimizing Reform and Conservative Judaism. Surviving its first reading, a bill in the Knesset would prohibit recognition of any actions by Reform and Conservative rabbis.

The underlying issue is not religion; it is politics. You see, the Orthodox rabbis in Israel have their own political parties. Members of the Knesset are elected at-large by proportional representation rather than by districts. Thus, with the support of a minority of the voters, the Orthodox rabbis control about 20% of the seats in this Israeli parliament. With conservative and liberal parties almost equally divided, that 20% is necessary for whichever party wants to govern.

The Orthodox parties (yes, they cannot even agree among themselves to form only one party) extract a high price for their votes in the Knesset. They demand and get seats in the cabinet, often controlling the offices for education and other domestic agencies. So far, they have secured for Orthodox Judaism monopolies over cemeteries and weddings. (Israel does not have civil marriages.) They funnel large amounts of tax revenues into Orthodox institutions. And they see this bounty threatened by the Reform and Conservative rabbis.

A number of new immigrants to Israel identify with the Reform and Conservative movements. Some are "Jews by choice", converted to Judaism by Reform and Conservative rabbis. Reform and Conservative congregations are proliferating in Israel. All of this will dilute the voting strength of the Orthodox parties. To make matters worse for the Orthodox rabbis, restrictions against Reform and Conservative practices are repeatedly disallowed by the courts. If the Orthodox rabbis want to continue feathering their nests with Israeli taxes, they must delegitimize the alternatives.

I say: "Go ahead." I will remain a supporter of the land and people of Israel. However, the Israeli government better look elsewhere for support. If the Knesset completes action on this bill, the government will have turned its back on an overwhelming majority of the Jews in the world. Then, when I am asked to write letters in support of foreign aid to Israel and send those letters to my Congressman and both my Senators — all of whom are Jewish — I will say: "Ask the Orthodox rabbis to write. I don't support a government that declares my children illegitimate." And when I am asked to donate money on behalf of Israel, my money will go to the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). In the pending election of delegates to the World Zionist Congress (held only once in 10 years), I will vote only for the ARZA candidates.

4 April 1997

Perhaps, after the Orthodox rabbis succeed in their power grab against the Reform and Conservative rabbis, they will next try to delegitimize the Sephardic rabbis. Then, only Ashkenazic Orthodox rabbis will be allowed to officiate at weddings, funerals, and conversions.

Added 20 April 1997

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