Friday, 5 December 2008

What, exactly, is a Jew?

Here's another article dealing with conversion in Israel It seems that the federations in North America do not like the present method as, in their eyes, it excludes people who, effectively, should be seen as Jews. What gets me is that we have been discussing the question of "Who is a Jew?" for years, we never truly investigate or even ask the question of "What is a Jew?". Simply, to the federations, the term Jew really has not religious significance. It is an ethnic, social, nationalistic term -- and, simply, identifying with the group is what, essentially, identifies you with the group. In applying the terms of the Rav, it is shared fate. Under the canopy of Halacha, though, the Jew has a different dimension and, while incorporating the concept of shared fate (and the concept of nationalism), has a further aspect to it that differentiates the term for all other nationaistic terms. It has a religious dimension. In the view of the Rav, this could be described as shared destiny which, at its root, means a shared consciousness, purpose and understood significance. Within this understanding of what the term Jew means, becoming Jewish is more than identifying with the group but necessitates joining in the goals of the group -- more correctly, what the goals of the group should be. According to Halacha, this demands that one must accept Halacha, practice Halacha, and be commited to Torah goals. This is what conversion is about.

The problem is Israel is, thus, that we are dealing with two different understandings of what the term 'Jew" means. Maybe the problem is that Torah conversion should not be the criteria for Israel's use of this term. There will be, though, other problems with not having gerut k'Halacha as this criteria. Maybe the answer is, as many have done over the years, to apply more lenient understandings of the halachot of gerut because of the nature of this problem. Maybe the need is for a discussion on this level. This demands a discussion not of what really is the law of gerut --which seems to be the case now -- but a discussion of the underlying issue and thus the question of what should be the practical halachic conclusion -- for as we all know, there almost always are differing opinions. This is not the case today for people are still using that problematic term that 'this is the halacha' without presenting that there are differing opinions and there is an issue of what opinion to apply and whether this is a situation to apply minority opinions. This can only come about, though, if we recognize that the issue is the colloquial understanding of Jewishness itself. We have to stop hiding behind a belief that everyone understands the nature of the halachic view of gerut. The reason the world doesn't get it is simply because they don't understand what being Jewish has to do with God anyways. That's the greatest irony -- for what really is Jewishness without God?

(As a final note, I believe, this was so ironic to Rav Kuk that he had to believe that all the chilonim who built up the land would eventually return to Torah.)

Rabbi Ben Hecht

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