I belong to that sector of Israelis that are deeply committed to Halacha (Jewish law). I am also from those that believe that Halacha has an important role to play in a Jewish state — even one committed to being modern and democratic. But thinking of Halacha as something that provides an understanding for everything that concerns us is not just bad policy. It is a misreading of the Halacha itself.
A great example of the limits of Halacha is the story of Ruth (that many of us will be reading on Shavuot). It is hence perhaps ironic that the Talmud (Yevamot 47b) actually uses Ruth as an example of a model convert according to Halacha. It is certainly true that membership in the Jewish people at that time implied observance of the Torah’s commandments. Yet it is far from clear that this is what Ruth was expressing with her words to Naomi aligning herself with the Jewish people and the Jewish God.
Indeed, I cannot help but wonder what the effect of her dramatic statement might be if it actually did not entail — or come along with — any commitment to Jewish observance. In other words, what should the status be of gentiles who align themselves with Jewish theology and peoplehood, but not with its commandments?
If our worldview is only informed by Halacha, the answer may seem quite simple: being partly Jewish is like being partially pregnant. Either you are Jewish or not; and a gentile who does not commit to observance (at least on a minimal level) is not a Jew. But a more sensitive reading of Ruth obviates such a simplistic view of things. Yes, she may have converted; but the value in her statement — which specifically avoids halachic terminology — is much more in its pathos and depth. Her words speak out the emotions of those special individuals not born Jewish, who nonetheless feel a soul connection with this vulnerable and oft-persecuted nation.
I have met non-Jews like the non-talmudic Ruth. And I must admit feeling somewhat uncomfortable around them. For I know that the Jewish people does not do them justice in making conversion a sine qua non for its otherwise unrequited love. After all, such people might be more knowledgeable about Judaism — and are usually more willing to defend the Jewish people — than most Jews. From such a cultural — if you want to call it that — perspective, it is clear as day that these gentiles are more Jewish than most Jews. (Here one is reminded of Lenny Bruce’s famous quip that if you are from New York, you are Jewish even if you are Italian). Not only should that be acknowledged, it should also be appreciated.
Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs is currently looking to recognize a similar — and often overlapping — group. A ministry committee recently made recommendations about creating special ties with communities that are not Jewish according to Halacha. This includes groups such as the Ethiopian Falasha Mura and the various communities of Bnei Anusim around the world. The committee is not suggesting that Israel give them the same rights as halachic Jews. But it does seek to give them benefits otherwise not available. This, in acknowledgement of their very real ties to the Jewish people. I see this as a positive first step. But it needs to be followed by other ones. First and foremost among them would be a parallel initiative based on attitudinal connections, rather than historical ones. After all, Ruth the Moabite had no historical claim whatsoever.
Granted, suggestions like this may get bogged down in the questions of who would be included in this category of quasi-Jews, and how we would be able to ascertain their identity. But that is ultimately secondary. More primary is that too many Jews not even committed to Halacha — and all the more so those who are committed to it — cede the totality of identity issues to a system never meant to completely encompass them.
Halacha cannot possibly encompass all identity issues because it is ultimately a legal system. And like any legal system, it must work with large categories. While these will definitionally be its only official categories, a proper understanding of Halacha recognizes that not every item in any given category is to be understood the same way.
The nuanced view of Halacha just illustrated has far-ranging implications more generally. I am not suggesting that it would eliminate all of the disagreements about applying Halacha to Israeli government policy. But it would no doubt go a long way in eliminating much of their rancor.