The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, September 1988, Vol. XXVI, Number 2

At the end of September, during the festival of Sukkot, a special conference will be held in Brussels-which, in a very important way, is part of the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of the Birmingham Temple. 

The second biennial meeting of the new International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews is the special event.  It was founded in Detroit two years ago.  And, to a large extent, it grew out of the pioneer efforts of our own Temple to develop a humanistic alternative in Jewish life.  Today seven national organizations from America, Canada, France, Belgium, Uruguay, Argentina and Israel are joined together in a common effort to promote a secular approach to Jewish identity.  Hopefully, this international connection will provide a worldwide voice for our philosophy and for our decisions on important issues. 

One of these issues is the question of who is a Jew.  Although, on the surface, it appears to be a perfunctory issue, the answer to the question has aroused intense controversy in the Jewish world.  The persistent attempts of orthodox Jews in Israel to force the Israeli government to exclude from Jewish identity and Jewish privileges all citizens who do not conform to the orthodox vision of what a Jew is has dramatized the question. 

The orthodox criteria for Jewish identity are an odd mixture of racial and religious requirements.  All people born of Jewish mothers, regardless of their religious beliefs, loyalties or cultural attachments, are Jews.  But men and women who want to join the Jewish people must be converted by orthodox rabbis and pledge their commitment to orhodox practice.  This apparent inconsistency is defended with great passion by traditional Jews. 

The consequences of this traditional position, if it is applied uniformly throughout Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora, is the exclusion of large numbers of people who want to be Jews.  In an age of inreasing intermarriage there are thousand of Jewish children who have Jewish fathers but no Jewish mothers.  In a time of religious diversity there are thousands of potential “converts” who like Judaism but who cannot stomach orthodoxy.  In a world where millions of Jews are secular and find their Jewish identity in cultural loyalties, an identification of Jewish legitimacy with orthodox law and orthodox practice makes a majority of the Jewish people feel like second-class citizens. 

Neither conservative nor reform authorities have responded adequately to this controversy.  Conservative Jews follow the orthodox timidly, only demanding that conservative rabbis have the same privileges as the orthodox.  Reform Jews have been bolder acknowledging that Jewish fathers confer Jewish identity just as well as Jewish mothers.  But they still insist on some form of theistic conversion process for newcomers. 

What is needed is a bold repudiation of the orthodox position.  We need a definition of Jewish identity which will embrace all the people who think they are Jews, are acknowledged as Jews and who want to be Jews. 

We need a definition that will give the same rights to Jewish fathers as the orthodox give to Jewish mothers. 

We need a definition that will proclaim Judaism to be more than a religion, and Jewish identity to be far more than religious identity.  Cultural Jews are as much Jews as religious Jews. 

We need a definition that offers admission to secular people.  Secular newcomers who want to identify with Jewish history and Jewish destiny should be as welcome as the smaller minority who seek to be sincere orthodox Jews. 

We need a definition that tells the truth about the Jewish people and enables Jews to be honest about who they are and what they are. 

And once we have arrived at this definition through public discussion on an international level we need to speak loud and clear with one voice to the Jewish world.  It may be the case  that our proclamation will be welcomed by thousands of Jews who have been uncomfortable with the traditional monopoly of official definitions. 

What follows is the resolution approved by the International Executive of the Federation to be presented for discussion, amendment, and approval by the Brussels conference. 

Who is a Jew?  After more than thirty centuries Jews continue to debate this question. 

This debate is no academic exercise.  At stake is the integrity of millions of Jews who do not find their Jewish identity in religious belief or religious practice, but who discover their Jewishness in the national experience of the Jewish people.  At stake, also, is the Jewish identity of thousands of men and women, in Israel and in the Diaspora, who want to be Jewish, but who are rejected by the narrow legalism of traditional authorities. 

We, the members of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews, believe that the survival of the Jewish people depends on a more generous view of Jewish identity than traditional religion allows.  We welcome into the Jewish people all men and women who sincerely desire to share the Jewish fate, regardless of their maternal ancestry and regardless of their religious beliefs.  We challenge the assumption that the Jews are primarily a religious community and that certain religious convictions and behavior are essential to full membership in the Jewish people. 

On the contrary, the Jewish people began as a nation, a nation with many diverse and opposing beliefs and personal convictions  It evolved into an international people, with a culture and civilization all its own.  Judaism, as the national culture of the Jews, is more than theological commitment.  It is language, a vast body of literature, historical memories and ethical values.  It is a treasure house of many options. 

We Jews have a moral responsibility to embrace all people who seek to identify with our culture and destiny. Will the children and spouses of intermarriage, who desire to be part of the Jewish people be cast aisde because they do not have Jewish mothers and do not wish to under conversion? 

Therefore-in response to the cruel and self-destructive definition of the Jews now proclaimed by the orthodox authorities-and in the name of the historic experience of the Jewish people-we affirm that a Jew is a person of Jewish descent, or any person who declares himself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, civilization, community and fate of the Jewish people.