Tag Archives: Reform Judaism

Mikveh Can Solve Conversion Problem

Mikveh Can Solve Conversion Problem

Leading Conservative rabbi suggests novel idea in bid to broaden the definition of who is a Jew.

By Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, April 13, 2017

http://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/mikveh-can-solve-conversion-problem/

Mikveh

Mayyim Hayyim, a beautiful new mikveh in Newton, MA.

Much has changed since our greatest generation was liberated from Egypt, but the challenges and opportunities that come with being an emancipated mixed multitude remain ours to address.

Ours is an age where the nature of Jewish identity and boundaries of communal definition are becoming more, not less, complicated. The numbers speak for themselves — some 70-plus percent of non-Orthodox marrying Jews being married to non-Jews. The age-old definition of defining Jewish identity by way of the mother was upended decades ago by the decision of the Reform movement to accept patrilineal descent. Whatever the conventions of Jewish definition may once have been, any study of Jewish demography makes clear that Jewish identity is shifting from an objective top-down religious or inherited definition to a subjective bottom-up matter of cultural, ethnic or other identification.

And in this new world of shifting terrain the one constant that remains is love. Love is a powerful thing, and time and again, young people find themselves, as the song from “Fiddler on the Roof” goes, wanting to build a home with a person not from the home they love. As a rabbi, this conversation is not a matter of theory, but of deep pastoral consequence. More than the statistics and sociology are the real-life stories that walk into my office all the time. What to do when a child of my congregation wants to marry a non-Jew or a patrilineal Jew? Am I to tell a woman descended from a former Soviet Union family that her Jewish journey is less authentic than another’s? When a child born to a non-Jewish mother seeks to enter my congregational school, wishing to celebrate her bat mitzvah, would I dare derail her emerging Jewish identity by suggesting that she isn’t really Jewish?

As a rabbi I have a commitment to uphold Jewish law and, as such, not officiate at interfaith weddings. As a rabbi, I also have an obligation to meet people where they are, and serve the Jewish future by helping build Jewish identity. So what exactly is a rabbi to do?

It is a question that I have been wrestling with for some years and that has becoming increasingly pressing in the Conservative movement and world Jewry as a whole. Given that not doing “anything” strikes me as lacking in a certain courage, I offer a proposal for consideration, for synagogue communities like my own, for the Conservative movement and perhaps other arms of Jewish life to consider.

By my read of the sources, from the Talmudic period onward, there is an established position permitting conversion to Judaism by way of mikveh immersion for a woman, and for a man, circumcision and immersion in a mikveh, coupled with a course of study.

Mikveh immersion is the Jewish act ritualizing a sacred transformation from one state of being to another. For the conversion of newborns or minors the course of study is waived, the act of being called up as a bar or bat mitzvah signaling a willed acceptance of an adolescent’s Jewish identity. The duration and content of the course of study is not specified in rabbinic sources, merely to teach the would-be Jew some of the strict and lenient commandments along with the obligations and misfortunes that can accompany being a Jew. Furthermore, on the question of the degree to which that would-be convert must be observant of the totality of Jewish law, there exist multiple opinions amongst respected authorities ranging from comprehensive observance to a sincere assent to the ideal of living an observant Jewish life.

It is because I am eyes wide open to the demography of American Jewry, it is because my read of the tradition is what it is and, most of all, because everything I do as a rabbi is done on behalf of the Jewish future, that I believe that the same body of Jewish law that mandates that I only officiate at weddings of one Jew to another may also be leveraged towards a maximally embracing approach as to who is or isn’t a Jew according to Jewish law.

The needs of the hour call on us to invoke the rabbinic principle of Kocha Deheteriah Adif — “The power of rendering a lenient ruling is preferable.” In our world where there are no guarantees regarding who our children will fall in love with, it is incumbent upon us to lower, not raise, the barriers to entry to being a Jew. If a non-Jew desires to build a Jewish home with a Jewish partner, a rabbi’s job is to nurture that desire, draw both partners close and make the onramp to Jewish life as inviting and doable as possible.

The length of the process should be up to the discretion of the sponsoring rabbi, not based on some magic number of classes.

As for the argument that only by being fully observant may one convert, we would do well to acknowledge that this is a self-validating criterion imposed by those who would limit the definition of what it means to be a Jew only to those who are fully observant — a definition that devalues the Jewish authenticity of the entire non-Orthodox world.

Jewish identity can be measured by observance, but it can also be measured by way of culture, ancestry, nationality, communal affiliation, philanthropy and otherwise. Like-minded communities must invest in outreach, education and programming towards creating as many pathways to Jewish life and living as possible, all with the aim to bring the maximum number of people into the definition of a Jew as defined by Jewish law. The Conservative movement should be the movement of conversion; that should be our mission. There is a need to be met and a market share to be had were we to have the courage and wherewithal to do so.

As to the question of the weddings of patrilineal Jews, Jews of uncertain descent and Jews of any other shades of Jewish identity, I would suggest the possibility that mikveh immersion become a requirement for rabbinic officiation. As it stands now, I require brides and grooms to get genetic testing, see a couples’ counselor and be a member or child of a member of my synagogue. Under this proposal, another requirement would be added: Regardless of whether one can trace their lineage back to Moses, every bride and groom immerses in the mikveh prior to the chuppah.

I did so before I got married. It was an incredibly transformative ritual that enabled me to reflect on my past and prepare for the exciting chapter to come. Such a requirement or stringency (which is really a leniency) would serve the purpose of leveling the playing field of Jewish identity — much in the same way, incidentally, that Israel should have done when hundreds of thousands of Jews of uncertain Jewish descent emigrated from the former Soviet Union. No vetting, no making someone feel “less than”— rather, the same rule applied to all. An affirmation to create a Jewish home and raise Jewish children, mikveh immersion — everyone equal in the eyes of Jewish law.

And so too, with our children. Due to the legal status of a minor in Jewish law, it is easier to address matters of Jewish identity prior to a child reaching maturity than after. What if we were to explore the possibility that every child who wants to celebrate their bar or bat mitzvah, matrilineal or patrilineal — my kid, or anyone else’s — takes a dip in the mikveh?

For those children whose identity is not in question — mikveh immersion will serve to announce that theirs is a Jewish identity derived not merely by way of an accident of birth, but as a willed choice to be a stakeholder in the Jewish destiny. For those whose Jewish past calls on them to affirm their commitment to the Jewish future — mikveh immersion further serves to dot the “I’s” and cross the “T’s” of their identity for the remainder of their lives.

It is a policy, which, if adopted by world Jewry would, over time, obviate the question of who is and who isn’t a Jew by the time these b’nai mitzvah kids are ready to get married.

There is much more to say, thousands of details to work out and more questions than answers, but we have to begin somewhere. In broad brushstrokes, what I am suggesting is: A conversion process whose length is left to the discretion of the sponsoring rabbi; mikveh immersion becoming part of the pre-wedding preparation for all couples; and mikveh immersion becoming part of the b’nai mitzvah process.

Such a policy would not meet the needs of every interfaith relationship. But it would indicate we are doing everything we can — in spirit and in deed — to meet people where they are while remaining within the bounds of Jewish law.

I believe that if a large enough swath of the Jewish world, in the diaspora and in Israel, embraced such an inclusive approach to Jewish identity, it may in the long term bear the potential to shift the politics on the age-old question of “Who is a Jew?” and redound to the benefit of the Jewish people as a whole.

At the seder table, we just declared, “All who are hungry come find a seat and be satisfied.” This year, let our focus turn to include those possessed with a spiritual hunger to sit at the table of our people. Passover reminds us that every child has a seat reserved for them. Let us fulfill our obligation to bring as many as we can into the narrative and covenant of our people, and in so doing serve the Jewish past by building a very bright and inclusive Jewish future.

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove is senior rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.

A sermon for Shabbat Atzmaut. Time to apologise?

A sermon for Shabbat Atzmaut. Time to apologise?

Rabbi Andrea Zanardo, Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue, East Sussek, England, UK

Sat May 7, 2016

I have to apologise. On behalf of Reform, Liberal… in short: on behalf of Rabbis and educators. We failed. We have spent time in interfaith work, we have met with members of the Muslim community, we have dipped the bread of friendship into the same plate of hummus, we were proud to build bridges. And maybe, just maybe, we were also eager to see ourselves on the first page of next day’s newspaper, hand in hand with some Muslim leader, both of us smiling.

How many wonderful things we could build together. Just don’t mention Israel.

That sounded reasonable: after all, why should we allow international politics to interfere in this wonderful community building we are engaged in together?

And so we have conceded to their narrative, which is the same narrative peddled by the Guardian, by the BBC, by the mainstream media. A narrative according to which Israel is the root cause of all the problems between Muslims and Jews: had it not be for Zionism, for our emotional and irrational attachment to that piece of Middle Eastern land, what a wonderful place the world may be. How beautiful and easy it would have been to coexist here, in multicultural England, Jews and Muslims together.

The mainstream British media blame Israel for, well, everything; and at the same time relevant Jewish personalities, educators, Rabbis, lay leaders revelled in the Jewish media, hand in hand with members of communities, where the most horrendous antisemitic legends are believed. It is common sense in certain Muslim circles to assume that the State of Israel has been conceived in sin; that Zionism is a racist, supremacist movement; that Israel is an apartheid State; and so on, and so on. And we have allowed such a narrative to be told.

Some went to the point of waving the Israeli flag together with the Palestinian flag. As if the flag of a democratic State was morally equivalent to the flag of a political entity, whose constitution mentions Sharia as the main source of legislation. Yes, this is the allegedly secular “Palestinian Authority”, that of Abu Mazen: they have a constitution based on Sharia. Not so different from the explicitly antisemitic chapter of Hamas. But we have enjoyed the company of supporters of Hamas, and we have called it “interfaith dialogue” “social justice” “community building”.

And now, thanks to the interactions of politics and communication, now the extent of antisemitism is there for anyone to see. A whole generation of activists has found a political home in the Labour Party. There, some relics of the Cold War are willing to enforce with Marxist jargon peaceful messages such as:

“The Jewish race is doing in Gaza the same thing that Hitler did in WW2”;
“The Jewish race made a lot of money thanks to the slave trade and used their money to acquire power”;

“The Land of Israel has been given to the Jews illegally, because of the money of the Rothschilds”;

“Israeli Jews should be deported to the USA and the Middle East will find peace at last”

and of course “Hitler was a friend and a cooperator of the Zionist”.

This last one may not come from a member of the Muslim community; but it certainly comes from one who is friendlier to them than to the historical truth. And it is a lie widely believed in the Muslim world.

These are not odd statements that for some reason have ended up in the timeline of the social media of some naive local councillor. These are not legitimate truths expressed in ill-chosen language. This is, unfortunately, common sense for some part of the public opinion in this Country, among the most religious as well among the secularised. Survey after survey, research after research… we have been informed at length about anti-Semitism in the Muslim community. How can we claim to be surprised when we read that a councillor or an MP believes that “the Jews rule the world” (which always makes me laugh: I don’t even rule my home, as my wife can testify!).

Instead of teaching the pride of being Jewish, instead of educating the young Jewish generations to be proud to be part of the Zionist project, if not doing alya, at least supporting Israel in the Diaspora, we have been sharing the scene with enemies of Israel and antisemites of that sort. In name of “inclusion” we have granted credibility to leaders whose goal is to turn Israel into “a State for all citizens”, which will exclude the Jews, us.

In the Progressive world “Israeli education” has become a codeword for teaching about the alleged failures of Israel; instead of educating our youth to tell the truth aloud when Zionism, and Judaism, are defamed and slandered. We should have been teaching the right of the Jewish people to self-determination: instead we teach to focus on the Israel’s alleged shortcomings in including the Arab population.

Even now, when the link between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism is clear and exposed, even now, there are those whose main fear is not the accuracy of the inquiry on the antisemitism in the Labour party. And we should be careful about that, since apparently some member of such a commission has already decided that there is no antisemitism in the Labour party at all. No, those delicate souls are rather concerned that their right to criticise Israel may be threatened. You know, it is so difficult to criticise the Israeli government, nowadays. No one really does it, do they? And if we focus too much on the antisemitism in the Labour Party we may lose our right to criticise the “Anti-Palestinian” policies of the Israeli government. What a tragedy it would be.

As I said, we failed. We have to apologise. I may not personally be guilty of that sin, but I have not been able to stop the trend. I, together with the many committed Zionists in the Reform world, and believe me there are plenty of them, have not been able to make our voices heard. Criticism to the Israeli policy has led to criticism of the Israeli government, and because Israel is a democracy we have been blaming the Israeli voters, rather than sharing admiration for the miraculous existence of a democracy in the Middle East. A democracy that manages to remain a democracy, despite being in state of continuous war since its foundation. Where else in the world you have that?

We have disassociated ourselves from the Israelis. Not so long ago a proposal circulated: to force all the English Jewish institutions to draw maps of Israel only according to the Palestinian narrative, transforming the Green Line (which is still subject to negotiation) into an international border. And then what? Forbid any participant on an organised trip to Israel, such as the Shnat, the gap year in Israel, to cross that line? And forbid them also to meet and socialise with the “settlers”, those Jews who are “not kosher” because they live in Judea and Samaria and East Jerusalem? The proposal was voted down.

But you see, this is how this thing works. First we want to build connections with the Muslim community. Then we concede to the Palestinian narrative. And then we allow anti-Zionism to creep in our midst. And we disassociate from Israel: we care more about the Palestinian rights than the Israeli lives.

Now look at the Labour Party. That is anti-Zionism. That is where “criticism of Israeli policies” ultimately leads. “The creation of the State of Israel was fundamentally wrong, because there had been a Palestinian community there for 2,000 years”: this is Ken Livingstone, two days ago. “The post-World War II Jewish refugees should have been absorbed in Britain and America”: this is Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad. But it’s also Ken Livingstone, two days ago (same interview at Al Jazeera).

Now the question is: can this trend be reversed? Can we learn to teach a positive message about Zionism? Can we regain pride of being associated with Israel? Can we eventually learn that, in every dialogue, and even in interfaith work, there are red lines that must not be crossed? And Israel, the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish State, must not be questioned anymore?

I believe the answer must be: yes! Together with the fabulous team of teachers in our Cheder, we have been teaching exactly this to our students.

Our young adults met yesterday night for the music service, under these Israeli flags. Some enlightened mind in the peace camp would like that flag to change: it excludes the Arabs, you know. When will we learn to reply that we, British Jews, don’t feel excluded because in the Union Jack there are not one, but two crosses?

We will conclude the service today with HaTikvah. The same enlightened minds would like to change these words also. Because they don’t include the Arab population. Indeed: how terrible must be for an Arab citizen of Israel to live in a Country whose national anthem mentions the nefesh yehudi, the Jewish soul! When will we learn to reply that an atheist community flourishes in the UK, despite that its anthem mentions God?

For a strange reason, the noble souls among us do not want to change the Union Jack, neither the words of the English national anthem…. They care only about Israel. And among the many Israeli minorities there (Haredi, Russians, Mizrahim, Druze…) they care only about the Arabs’s sensitivities. When will we learn that this hypocrisy has nothing to do with the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam and it is, rather, conscious undermining of the Zionist project?

Let me state it clearly. In this synagogue we wave the Israeli flag, we are proud to be part of the Zionist project. And we celebrate Israel on Shabbat Atzmaut, today, and on Yom haAtzmaut, too. And later in the year, on Yom Yerushalaiim, we will celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people.

It’s not a secret that I have been shamed for what happens here. I was told publicly that I am a “divisive Rabbi” and a “Fascist”: me, grandson of Italian partisans. Why? Because all this Zionism – I have been told- would alienate the Muslim community. They will find difficult to accept that we are Zionists and therefore they will reject any dialogue with us.

To which my answer is: this must be their problem. Not ours.

We do not need any “dialogue” with anti-Semites or anti-Zionists, who are unpopular even in their own Party – thanks God. Whoever wants a dialogue with the Jewish community must accept Israel, must learn to respect Zionism, and must not try to divide us from our brothers and sisters who are blessed of living in the Land of Israel. It’s time for the Progressive Jewry to say it clearly and to say it aloud.

Am Israel Chai.

Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue, Shabbat Atzmaut 5775