Halacha and the Law of Return

Would Janusz Korczak, orphanage director in the Warsaw ghetto who chose death in Auschwitsz with his wards rather than escape be accepted for refuge under the Law of Return?


GM: “David, you admit that a virtual K. would not be  admitted to Israel. That’s of course a scandal. He  should be the leading, most venerated Israeli.”

DT: I never agreed with that statement, Georges. If your future “virtual K.” were a non-Jew and did what Korczak did then I expect Zionist Israel would welcome him for refuge and venerate him. But that would not make him a “Jew.” Welcome, venerate; but not “Jewish.” Our John (a Mormon participant in the blog) and his family would find refuge under the Law of Return (John’s mother converted) but unless all underwent “conversion” as is presently the law of the land (but things are in flux, and change may be in process even today) they would not be listed “Jewish” on their Teudat Zehut (identity card). Our Suddy, for another example, accepting her love and identification with the Jewish people and Israel would, as a Christian from a family presumable generations back, not be accepted as an olah. The exception being were she married to a Jew. Which she is not.

The definition of “Jew” varies according whomever chooses to define it. Recently Israel’s Rabbinate suggested that the RCA, the Rabbinic Council of America, umbrella for Orthodoxy in the US, might not meet Israeli Orthodoxy’s rigid “halachic*” criteria and so converts by rabbis associated with the RCA might be obligated to undergo a second conversion according to Israeli “halachic” standards!

I accept your argument that the concept “Jew” is inconsistent and confusing. How many mothers back is adequate proof of me being a Jew. And even if that made sense, in light of the chaos of lineage created by the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust, where even begin? From my mother’s description of her mother I assume my grandmother also “bona fide” Jewish. But how prove? And how prove her mother’s status? But as a practical matter it seems that Israel’s guardians of Jewish identity are only going back one generation, so your reductio ad absurdum appears not to apply except, perhaps, as a philosophical possibility.

I am not engaging this discussion on the terms you present, Georges: the differences between your “intensional” and “extensional.” That only serves to confuse nearly everybody who are unlikely interested in such nuances of “identity;” or offends those you describe, “where lunatic anti-Jews persecute lunatic “Jews,”” which would be offensive to all who identify as “Jewish” (or any “religious” or “national” so identify). My purpose is your referred Universale as “consensus: the generally understood and agreed upon definition of such “reificatory” groups. In other words, Common Language.

The Russian psychologist Vygotsky distinguished between “private” and “consensual” language. I have always respected this distinction, guides my own work as psychotherapist. We ALL persons approach the world via individual life experience determined by each unique personality from Day One. In other words, no two people share precisely identical meanings for even the most common and mundane words since each of us is unique, has a unique history, different experiences associated with the acquiescence and development of personal language. Yet we all “agree” on a “common” language which provides the possibility of, for example, you and I conversing.

Our exchange regarding “religion” and “national identification” in our discussion regarding Jews as “Jewish” generally falls within Common Language. As you approach such identifications, and I do understand and more or less accept your application of the terms, it represents a departure from Common language, at least as understood by most people. As such, whether or not your approach is useful as an absolute and precise definition of the concepts you describe, in terms of general communication it is more or less worthless for my purposes, address a wider audience. Were we to survive the 21st century, which I see no reason to accept, and your concepts (shared, I assume, with others engaged in promoting precision in language likely inspired by such as Ludwig Wittgenstein) then it might, but not likely in my view, promote a more rational humankind.

But in the Real World confronting we Jews of post-Shoah history, appreciating that history inheritor of 20 centuries of systemic Western anti-Jewish/antisemitic persecution: pardon me if I have trouble taking that seriously.

About the Author
David made aliya in 1960 and has been active in Jewish issues since. He was a regional director for JNF in New York, created JUDAC, Jews United to Defend the Auschwitz Cemetery during that controversy; at the request of Jonathan Pollard created and led Justice for the Pollards in 1989.