March 3, 2008

Christianity rubs off on Judaism

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel probably doesn't think I'm Jewish. My mom converted (from nothing in particular) when I was 4 - she had me converted by an Orthodox rabbi at the same time - and we're not all that observant. Ahem. As in my parents make pork for a living. The Rabbinate, controlled by ultra-Orthodox Jews, has come to question the Jewishness of non-observant Jews. They've started demanding proof, and not accepting testimony from most American rabbis. Even Orthodox rabbis are suspect, since the ultra-Orthodox feel that if you're not observant, you're not a legitimate convert - conversion, in their eyes, entailing a commitment to following Jewish law. They're not really concerned that they'll exclude some 'legitimate' non-observant Jews who just can't prove their Jewishness, because in their minds those people have given up their Jewishness.

What's interesting about these restrictions - aside from the way that the lack of civil marriage leaves mixed or Jewish couples in an unmarriageable limbo disturbingly reminiscent of Nazi Germany's anti-miscegenation laws - is that they don't seem very Jewish to me. Judaism isn't really an ethnicity or a religion, though it straddles both. It's a tribe. You can be adopted in, but you can't ever really leave, not matter how much you want to. Your piety, while relevant to your relationships with God and your grandmother, isn't a factor in deciding whether you're Jewish. Historically, once you're Jewish you're Jewish. Become a Catholic priest and eat pork for every meal? Still Jewish.

You can, however, leave Christianity and Islam, both newer religions that use faith, not family, as their primary marker for belonging.

Not only that, but Jews have a several-thousand-year history of arguing about exactly what Jewish law says and should be, and how important it is to follow them. That's how we stopped with the stoning for adultery and a bunch of other stuff, and that's why the ultra-Orthodox may be slightly (but only slightly) less hypocritical than the Christian biblical literalists who aren't practicing Levirate marriage and selling all they own to follow Jesus. The ultra-Orthodox at least have several thousand years of Talmudic debate to rely on for any departures from the behavior prescribed in the Torah. But the existence of that debate, in and of itself, tells us the ultra-Orthodox don't have a monopoly on how to be Jewish.

I think we should start telling the ultra-Orthodox they're philosophically assimilated.

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