What Does The Dismantling Of A Jewish Olympic Myth Have To Do With The Israeli Chief Rabbinate And The Future Of Israel?


avi-shafranByRabbi Avi Shafran

My interest in the recently concluded Winter Olympics in Sochi was roughly equivalent to my interest in the recently concluded International Kennel Club dog show in Chicago. Which is to say, nil.

But a “Jewish” issue that trailed in the snow behind the Sochi shenanigans was amusing. At least, initially. Pondered a bit, it was a reminder of something disturbing.

An ice dancer named Charlie White, who, with his partner, won a gold medal at the competition, was roundly celebrated by the media for his accomplishment, and by the Jewish media for his accomplishment… and Jewishness.

Despite the latter assertion, though, the skater’s mother apparently notified the Detroit Jewish News, the original reporter of Mr. White’s Jewish credentials, that neither she nor her son is a member of the tribe.

After some research, the paper discovered that the gold medal winner’s only Jewish connection was a Jewish stepfather; it apologized for its original reportage.

The Reform movement wouldn’t at present consider Charlie’s connection to the Jewish people sufficient to automatically qualify him as Jewish in its eyes. But it has long accepted a “patrilineal” definition of “Jewishness” – that is to say that, contrary to halacha, it is sufficient to have a Jewish father to be considered a Jew.

(Interestingly, that movement also requires that a person with only one Jewish parent – even if it’s one’s mother – “identify” in some way in his or her life as Jewish. So the “non-identifying” halachically Jewish child of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father is considered a non-Jew in Reform eyes. Let it not be said that the movement lacks its stringencies.)

So, at least for now, Charlie is not Jewish by Reform definition, as his Jewish pater was only a step-pater. But nothing stands in the way of the Reform movement one day deciding that step-parentage, too, can be a determinant of “Jewishness.” “Updating” things is part and parcel of Reform (and Conservative) theology.

There already is, in fact, a Jewish movement that skates an even wider circle here: The “Humanistic Judaism” movement defines a Jew as anyone “who identifies with the history, culture and fate of the Jewish people,” regardless of parentage. Thus, a person with no Jewish parents, grandparents – or stepparents – need not, the group’s explains, “give up who they are,” in order “to add Jewish identity to their self-definition.”

Does any of this really matter? Unfortunately, yes. Because there is currently a vocal movement to export the American smorgasbord of “Jewish” definitions to Israel.

Like many a major disaster, this potential one is approaching on tiptoes, the toes here those of the nominally Orthodox American activist rabbi, Avi Weiss.

Despite the rabbi’s Orthodox background, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate dared to call into question his assurance about the Jewish and marital status of a congregant. That action was met by outrage on the part of Rabbi Weiss and his supporters, who identify with the “Open Orthodox” group he founded. Pressure was subsequently put on the Chief Rabbinate and a compromise was agreed upon that essentially placed responsibility for vetting the testimonies of Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) members, including Rabbi Weiss, on the RCA.

Rabbi Weiss declared victory and is opposing the entire institution of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, railing against its “far-reaching and exclusive control in Israel over personal matters” like marriage, divorce and conversion. “It is time,” he declared in the New York Times, “to decentralize the Chief Rabbinate’s power.

“In a democratic Jewish state,” he asserted, “options must be available.”

From the perspective of Jews who value halacha, the option of “Open Orthodoxy” standards is bad enough. Both Rabbi Weiss and his followers have flouted Jewish law (with “innovations” like ordaining women and proposing wholesale “annulments” of problematic marriages). Once “options” are made available, however, what will result will be personal status anarchy. Nothing will stand in the way of Israel’s accepting the standards, or lack of them, of yet other contemporary movements that are even more blatantly rejective of halacha.

Rabbi Weiss has in fact endorsed just that, writing in The Times of Israel that, “Israel as a state should give equal opportunities to the Conservative and Reform movements. Their rabbis should be able to conduct weddings and conversions.”

Weighing in with a hearty amen were, among others, Conservative Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of her movement’s rabbinical group. While praising the Chief Rabbinate’s reversal regarding Rabbi Weiss, she pointed out that “Of course, my conversions are not recognized in Israel. Nor are those of my 1,700 Conservative colleagues, my 2,000 Reform colleagues and my 300 Reconstructionist colleagues.”

“Notify your board members and donors,” she exhorted members of non-Orthodox congregations, “that the rabbis who married them, bar mitzvahed their children, buried their parents, and converted their sons and daughters-in-law do not deserve to be called rabbis in the eyes of the Israeli rabbinate. Tell them that none of their life-cycle events count and that the State of Israel does not really think they are Jews for religious purposes.”

In contemporary America, having “Jewish credentials” is no longer an assurance that their bearer is in fact Jewish by halachic definition. Thankfully, that is not the case in Israel.

For now.

Until “options,” chalilah, are made available.

© 2014 Rabbi Avi Shafran

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