Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I'm not a Jew? (David)

Today I had meant to write about punk Shabbat. Sasha saw it used in a couple of posts, and wanted me to explain it. Fair enough. I'll do that.

But I was railroaded today by a bit of news. I might not be Jewish. Really? My mother is Jewish, born in Israel (actually before Israel), and immigrated to the U.S. as an adult. Naturally, she's a secular renegade from the established Orthodox Judaism of Israel. My father is of mixed Anglo-Celtic heritage. He grew up Catholic, but was lapsed by the time he married my mother. I was raised going to the occasional Unitarian Universalist service, and, of course, the now-extinct UUHF Renaissance Faire.

The only time I went to a Synagogue was during a friend's or family member's Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah. These were generally at Conservative Synagogues on Long Island - not traditionally accepting places of people from interfaith families. My mother did not feel comfortable at these Synagogues, and (therefore) neither did I. Some of that also had to do with my mother's politics, which is dovish Israeli.

Anyhow, I'd always been told that I was Jewish, because my mother is Jewish according to halacha, or Jewish Law.  My friends told me that.  My parents, even my father, told me that. At first, this puzzled me. How was Jewish law binding on me? Don't I have some say about that?  

I became an atheist, but not for that reason. The halachic claim had only this bearing upon me: as part of others' (not only Jews!) claims that by doing-or-not-doing-x I was a bad or self-hating Jew - a traitor to my people. That hurts, whether one accepts halacha or not. Usually it involved political disagreements (e.g. the Middle East), but not always.  Sometimes it was in the context of disapproving of intermarriage.  I've been told that as a Jew I should disapprove of my family.  Think of how my mother felt!  She protected me from that (and that, in a way, does make me, through her, Jewish).  

I don't want to intimate any sort of identity crisis. I'm no longer an adolescent. I've learned that when someone uses an identity-based ad hominem attack to make a point against one's politics, or especially one's family, self-reflection is not the proper response.  Invite the offender to walk the remark back. If that doesn't work, walk away. Flip the bird, whatever. No problem. Life is too short.

Still, I thought that according to Jews I was Jewish even if I was not Jewish according to me.  I understood it to be true that with a Jewish mother, I could come back any time, welcomed with open arms. Of course, I'd have to deal with all the bad-Jew stuff, but whatever.

It turns out that this may be true for Orthodox and Conservative Rabbis and their congregations. But what they say is no final world.  My closest spiritual, philosophical, and political brethren are Jews of some or other progressive movement.  And here's where it gets interesting.  According to Reform, Reconstructionist, and other Progressive Rabbis and their congregations I may not be a Jew.  From the Reform Movement's Resolution on Patrilineal Descent:
The Central Conference of American Rabbis declares that the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption of the Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people. The performance of these mitzvot serves to commit those who participate in them, both parent and child, to Jewish life.

Depending on circumstances,1 mitzvot leading toward a positive and exclusive Jewish identity will include entry into the covenant, acquisition of a Hebrew name, Torah study, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and Kabbalat Torah (Confirmation).2 For those beyond childhood claiming Jewish identity, other public acts or declarations may be added or substituted after consultation with their rabbi.
How about that?  If our family decides to do more than dabble, I'll have to do something or make some declaration as directed by a Rabbi. It might involve study or ceremony.  It might not.  Who knows?

I feel good about that.   It turns out that adolescent-me was right.  I was not a Jew.  Officially, I am not a Jew, but I'm more Jewish now than I was then.  It makes sense from another perspective, too.  Were I to assert a birthright over people who studied hard to become Jews, that would be arrogant and unfair.  When I go to shul, I have no idea what is going on half the time.  I read stuff, and I study, sure, but I still can't navigate the Siddur much less more challenging things.  I carry some tunes, but fill them in, when I'm lost, with a semi-harmonic (Celtic) drone. So, it's only right.

What does this mean for me in the near future?  Very, very little.  We're still shul-shopping and Shabbat dabbling.  I'm studying, and I want to learn through books, organically with my family, and with a congregation.  If and when we decide to join a shul, my non-Jewish status will become relevant.  It will be up to the Rabbi what I need to do in order to "activate" that status. But not until then, and we don't know for sure where or when that will happen.    

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