Who’s a Jew? Maybe you!

I’m still working on another post that I think says things that need saying about a fundamental tension in modern liberal Judaisms. But I’m taking a moment here to put down a marker on a different issue–Jewish identity.

A post by Elad Nehorai at Hevria, entitled “On Loving Jews Who Aren’t Jews,” is making the rounds and provoking considerable anger. (Elad Nehorai also blogs as Pop Chassid.) Hevria’s “About” page includes the following:

We are a group devoted to spreading the idea of positive creation in a spiritual context. We want to make this world beautiful. And we want you to join us.

This statement has proven itself to be a little ironic in the last few days as Nehorai’s “On Loving Jews Who Aren’t Jews” has made its rounds.

Why?

His post discusses who can contribute to Hevria, and the decision was only Jews, or people undergoing Orthodox conversion. He explains of Hevria, “We don’t see inclusivity as valuable in and of itself: it has to be infused with moral and spiritual truth, otherwise it becomes its own idol.” But wrestling with the consequences of dealing with individuals who are fully committed to living a Jewish life, who advance the interests of Jews where they live, and who fully identify as Jewish–all this left Nehorai conflicted. Responding to his own conflict, Nehorai recognizes a kind of “non-Jewish Jew” category. He says:

And so I can’t call these people non-Jews anymore.  I also can’t call them Jewish.  But I also have to do both.  I must.  Not to would be a lie.  Rabbis, come at me.  All-inclusive equality warriors, come at me.

I simply have no choice.  I love God.  I love truth.  And in both halacha (orthodox-style) and people, I see infinite truth and God.

Sorry.

To use his “Fiddler on the Roof”-based conceit: on the one hand, he says, I accept the truth that I have to accept these people. On the other hand, I can’t. On the other hand…there is no other hand.

To put it differently, Nehorai is unwilling to take the step of recognizing that Jewishness and the legal dictates of halakhah are not one and the same. For what it’s worth, even most liberal forms of Judaism don’t actually recognize this distinction all that well. (That issue is part of the longer post I am still working on.) That’s why there are still halakhically-styled conversions, with a three-person panel and immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath), even in the Reform world.

But here’s the thing. They simply are different. All these individuals whom Nehorai wants to call Non-Jewish Jews? They’re Jews. Whether they’ve undergone some non-Orthodox form of conversion, or have a non-Jewish mother and Jewish father, or have simply become part of the Jewish community in deed, alliance, affiliation, belief, intent, or identity–they are Jews. Full stop.

Why do I say so?

Because I’m a Secular Humanistic Jew. And this is our position:

In response to the destructive definition of a Jew now proclaimed by some Orthodox authorities, and in the name of the historic experience of the Jewish people, we, therefore, affirm that a Jew is a person of Jewish descent or any person who declares himself or herself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, ethical values, culture, civilization, community, and fate of the Jewish people.

That statement, issued in a resolution on the question of “Who is a Jew?” by the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews in 1988, is the Society for Humanistic Judaism’s position.

And so, Elad Nehorai? You are a Jew. Full stop, no qualifier. And so are those whom you’ve named Non-Jewish Jews. Thus, so is Shocher Adam, blogging at “Wrestling with God.” And so are many, many others, because, as a friend of mine who is a rabbinical student and would be a Non-Jewish Jew succinctly put it, “My Jewish soul SHOULD make him uncomfortable … my Judaism is enough, and … he does not have a monopoly on the definition of Jew.

You want historical precedent? I could give it; volumes have been printed exploring the origins, continuity, and legal issues surrounding Jewish identity. (I’d start, but not finish, with Shaye J.D. Cohen’s The Beginnings of Jewishness.) But I don’t care to, because Judaism and Jewishness are ours to redefine; the past has a voice, not a vote.

It’s not about being an “equality warrior,” as Nehorai puts it (in pretty close to “social justice warrior” flame baiting language). It’s about who we are as a people. We benefit from breadth, from depth, and from love.

And none of us are truly able to be arbiters of what identity another might claim for one’s self.

Want to join because you identify with our history, values, culture, civilization, community, and fate? Then welcome to “the Tribe.”

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3 thoughts on “Who’s a Jew? Maybe you!

  1. Thanks for the shout-out! I had a frustrating conversation with Elad on Hevria’s Facebook page, too, but he doesn’t seem to get that his insistence on the Orthodox definition is going to drive people away. Or maybe he does, and he’s just not willing to admit it. In any case, I’m done following him, because my blood pressure can’t handle it.

    • I came late to reading his blog and e-zine. For whatever reason, I’ve just never taken a deep liking for his work, I think in part because it feels to me like he’s still trying to persuade himself that he believes what he says.

      I get that he thinks he’s being broader and more open. But thinking isn’t the same as reality, and I don’t think he’s quite persuaded himself of whatever position it is he thinks he’s taken–which isn’t all that clear to begin with.

      • I could accept that he’s trying to be more open, but not if he keeps coming back to the same narrow-minded definition of Judaism. There was a commenter on his blog today, “bookishgal44,” who asked something very, very pointed (link here: https://disqus.com/by/bookishgal44/):

        “I do wonder however at the obvious pride and arrogance you hold yourself in. Yes, I read of your internal struggles. But what is this struggle other than a struggle against your better, moral and innate nature? Why are you so sure of your purity? My husband’s family was fully accepted by that community (for what it’s worth) despite his mother never converting.

        “It seems that your personal need to hold yourself above, apart, in what you perceive as a legitimate purity, is at the heart of this wrestling of consciousness over arrogance. Whatever the reason the initial boundary line that was created has now lost it’s meaning and descended into a self elevating doctrine of arrogance which smacks of meanness, malice and decidedly lacking hesed.

        “When you commemorate the six million do you stop and make a mental cull between those ‘pure’ Jews and those ‘mishlings’, or between the Reform minded and the ‘true’ believing Orthodox?”

        A commenter on the Hevria Facebook page said (in essence): “So I’m good enough to go to the ovens with you, but not good enough for you to consider me a Jew?”

        I do wonder if he’ll even bother responding. If he does, I expect to see the same flailing and handwaving that his responses have contained so far. And that’s sad.

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