Was Cardinal O’Connor Jewish?  His sister Mary recently discovered that their mother had converted from Judaism to Christianity, so the Hallachic answer might very well be yes.  Under the principle Yisrael af al pi sh’khotei Yisrael hu  (“A Jew is still a Jew even if he sins”) Judaism doesn’t recognize conversions to other faiths.  His mother was Jewish, so why not him? The late Cardinal’s sister certainly thinks so, telling the New York Times (or, better, kvelling) that she’s Jewish, and “very proud.” Then there’s the oddly intimate warmth O’Connor always displayed towards Jews and Judaism, his leadership during the struggle for Soviet Jews, his unconditional support of Israel, his sensitivity towards the Holocaust, his friendship with many rabbis (including my father).  He didn’t know about his mother’s conversion, but maybe there was a Jewish soul lingering beneath the Catholic robes, an incipient identity he could sense but not express or understand.

Maybe, but really the notion is absurd.  He was a Cardinal, a member of the Catholic hierarchy, a deeply religious, committed Christian.  How could he be Jewish? There’s a similar absurdity in the claim of another Cardinal, Jean Marie Lustiger, the late Archbishop of Paris.  Lustiger was born Jewish, but converted in 1940, shortly before the German occupation.  During the war, his parents sent him to live with a Catholic family, which only deepened his devotion to Roman Catholicism.  His mother died at Auschwitz, and shortly afterwards he entered a Catholic seminary, and later became a priest.  Yet he identified himself as Jewish his whole life.  Sometimes he used the term “fulfilled Jew,” borrowing from Messianic Judaism, but more often he would state categorically “I’m Jewish.”  And like Cardinal O’Connor, he was sympathetic with Jewish causes, supporting Israel, befriending rabbis.  If O’Connor was hallachically Jewish then so was Lustiger, who not only was aware of his Jewish background, he embraced it.

Of course this leads us to the question – really a puzzle, a metaphysical riddle – what is a Jew?  It’s a question that’s haunted the State of Israel, roiled its politics and often defined the relationship, for better or for worse, between Israel and the Diaspora.  Israel’s first challenge was defining “Jew” for the Law of Return.  But that was Hitler’s definition, broad enough to include anyone who might have been caught in his genocidal grip.  My own reading of the case law (and I’m no expert) is that Cardinals O’Connor and Lustiger would not have qualified because they clearly embraced another religion, but Mary O’Connor might have. In any case, nowadays, and for the past generation, it’s that very law which has become the locus of the tensions between Israel and American Jews.  Changing the law to define Jew “according to Hallachah” disenfranchises most American rabbis and, by definition, most American Jews.  Defining the word “Jew” with any specificity has become the quickest way to divide the Jewish people, and alienate other Jews. The Jews can’t agree on what Jew means.

During the recent negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli government demanded that the Palestinians recognizes Israel as a Jewish state.  I personally support the demand, but what is a Jewish state? If Cardinal O’Connor and Cardinal Lustiger were the only citizens of such a state, would it be a Jewish state?  Can you have a Jewish state if there’s no consensus on what constitutes a Jew?  Not long ago, Israel’s new president characterized Reform Judaism as “idol worship and not Judaism.” Now, I’m sure the president would embrace Reform Jews as Jews (“A Jew who sins is still a Jew”), but there’s not a long slide along the slippery slope between calling someone’s religious practice “idolatry” and calling the person an idolater.  Is Israel a Jewish state for Reform Jews (or Conservative or Reconstructionist) if even the president of the state doesn’t see these non-Orthodox streams as Judaism?

The riddle of who is a Jew has followed my rabbinate, as it has virtually every rabbi working in North America.  Many American Jews are aware that my fellow Conservative rabbis risk expulsion from the Rabbinical Assembly if we officiate at interfaith marriages.  It’s less well-known that the identical sanction exists if we accept patrilineal descent.  In other words we’re not allowed to embrace the definition of “Jew” of our closest ideological colleagues.  If we agree with them on who is a Jew, we stop being rabbis.

I’ve become convinced that the quest to define “Jew” is fruitless, and ultimately harmful.  We won’t agree.  A few weeks ago I met with a man wanting to convert.  He’d come to me from an Orthodox rabbi, who – in the convert’s words – “made him jump through too many hoops.”  “I don’t understand you guys,” he complained, exasperated.  “It’s not like there are so many of you.  It’s not like you couldn’t use a few more.”  Can a Cardinal be a Jew?  Who is a Jew?  Maybe we should take a break from asking, and simply open our hearts.  After all, it’s not like there are so many of us.