Who Isn’t a Jew?

In the aftermath of the terrible attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, there has been a lot of discussion in the Jewish press about the “who is a Jew” issue. Two and a half weeks ago I blogged that it was a shame that it took a tragedy to get leading Jewish commentators like the editors of the Jerusalem Post to write that a non-halachic but self-identifying Jew like Giffords should not be excluded and that “many ‘non-Jews’ are much more Jewish than their ‘Jewish’ fellows.”

Now the editors of the Forward have offered Who Isn’t a Jew? but they don’t give a satisfactory answer. They write that there is a disconnect between religious standards and the people’s behavior: Giffords, who has a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, is no more Jewish according to traditional Jewish law than Chelsea Clinton, but is being widely treated as a Jew across the country. The editors say this is cause for cheer, because tolerance and inclusion are good, but also cause for dismay — and that’s where they go wrong. They lament that intermarriage leads to fewer Jewish families, when the Boston 2005 demographic study concluded that at least in that community, intermarriage was leading to more Jewish families, not less. And they lament the divide on this issue between the Orthodox and everyone else.

There is a solution to the halachic divide. It behooves everyone in the Jewish community, Orthodox included, to regard Gabrielle Giffords as a Jew for all purposes except where halachic status matters. Many would say that the entire community benefits from having a staunch supporter of Israel in the US Congress, for example. When halachic status is important, it can be dealt with. A Jew to whom halachic status is important in a marriage partner, for example, can choose not to marry someone who does not measure up to his or her halachic standards, or the non-halachic Jew can convert according to those same standards. It would be a major advance if the idea took hold that the Jewish community consists of Jews who are halachic and who are not halachic and that issues of halachic status could be dealt with when they arise.

Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic. I thought, after last year’s GA, that attitudes were perhaps turning more positive towards intermarriage, but the Forward editorial is a setback. Lamenting that intermarriage leads to fewer Jewish families and that inclusion may cause the communal tent to collapse is self-fulfilling: young interfaith couples are not going to want to associate with a community that regards them as undermining and destructive. And it certainly won’t encourage those on the traditional end of the spectrum to be more tolerant and inclusive of non-halachic Jews.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.