We all know how to play the game. You go to a party and the woman next to you mentions that she just moved from Detroit and for the next few minutes, the conversation goes something like this.
“Really? I have a cousin in Detroit, or maybe it’s West Bloomfield,” you say with an immediate sense of connection. “Do you know David Greenberg? He used to be the president of Congregation Beth Israel.”
She smiles and responds that her best friend from high school is a member of Beth Israel and that she goes to a gynecologist named Greenberg, so he’s probably the same guy.
The banter goes back and forth as you establish that there is only one degree of separation between you and someone’s closest friend, physician or high school sweetheart. And there’s something comforting about feeling connected to other Jews – even those you’ve never met – simply because we are members of the same tribe.
At the heart of this seemingly innocuous game however, lies a question whose answer has become quite contentious and often hurtful to Jews and non-Jews alike. The question of who is a “member of the tribe” has serious and diverse religious, legal and political ramifications that did not exist in Biblical times when simply being a member of one of the 12 tribes determined the answer.
The original name for Jews was Hebrews (Ivri in Hebrew) and was first mentioned in Genesis to describe Abraham. Tradition teaches that the word means “from the other side,” referring to both the fact that Abraham came from across the Euphrates and that he was different from his contemporaries both morally and spiritually because he understood that there was only one true God.
Later, the Hebrews are called the Children of Israel or Israelites, referring to the fact that Jews are descendants of Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel when he wrestled with God and received His blessing. The word “Jew” itself (in Hebrew, Yehudi) comes from the name Judah, the only one of Jacob’s sons who offered his own life up to protect his younger brother Benjamin.
When the Children of Israel came together at the foot of Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah, there was no distinction as to who was a Jew. Everyone who stood before God that day – from the heads of tribes to the wood choppers, from the elderly to the women and small children – came together as one people, the Jewish people, to receive the Torah.
The question of who is a Jew has taken on new meaning since the founding of the state of Israel in1948. Israel is a Jewish democracy, but unlike American democracy, there is no separation between the domain of religion and the state. Jews in Israel are subject to state-run religious institutions which are regulated by the Orthodox Rabbinate. Unlike American Jewry, which prides itself on pluralism and diversity, Orthodox Jewish law is the only recognized Jewish law in Israel and permeates many aspects of Israeli life – from the prohibition of public transportation on the Sabbath to who may marry whom to where a person can be buried.
According to Halacha (Orthodox Jewish law), a Jew is anyone born to a Jewish mother or who has been converted according to Halacha. But for many Israeli citizens who fully consider themselves Jewish but do not follow Halacha, this definition is problematic and controversial.
When Israel was founded in the aftermath of the Holocaust, one of its first acts as a government was to abolish all restrictions on Jewish immigration. In 1950, The Knesset passed the Law of Return, which gave every Jew the right to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen. The initial law deliberately avoided using any religious definition of Jewish identity but conflicts arose between the state and the rabbinate, with many issues ending up in the courts.
The Law of Return was amended in 1970 which both expanded and limited the definition of “who is a Jew.” For purposes of immigration and Israeli citizenship, anyone with one Jewish grandparent is considered Jewish. But for purposes of national and civil law (including marriage, adoption, conversion and divorce) only a person with a Jewish mother or who has legitimately converted is considered Jewish. To add to the confusion, legitimate conversion is not specified in the Law of Return, giving rise to new questions such as “who is a rabbi?” and “who is a convert?”
As American Jews we are privileged because our disagreements remain within our synagogues and religious institutions and will not be determined by the state. We must understand, however, that Israel faces problems which are unique and perhaps even necessary to the only country in the world that calls itself a Jewish democracy.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman has written more than 300 columns and essays that have been published nationwide. amyhirshberglederman.com