For some time, I have grappled back and forth with this article. Jewish identity is, rightfully, an extremely sensitive topic. As someone who has personally dealt with the pain (and the beauty of course) of a not so perfectly boxed identity, I am making this a call of sorts to find our humanity and understanding when it comes to the identity of being Jewish.
My own experiences have created an ache to be more welcoming myself and to see a more welcoming community for people who feel that they have “fallen in the cracks”.
I have seen many people of paternally Jewish backgrounds denied the opportunity to do simple Mitzvot that could have led to intense growth in that individual’s life- whether tefillin or candles on a Friday afternoon before Shabbat.
Every time I see these things, my heart breaks a little more, and I wonder- what is the cost? What are we losing allowing a person who longs for connection the opportunity to do a Mitzvah?
An experience (maybe even a first encounter) that has the chance to be a pivotal part of that individual’s life?
In Halacha, we have a concept of Zera Israel, which simply means “seed of Israel”.
It is a legal category for an individual who, for whatever reason, is not considered Jewish according to rabbinic law, but is the descendant of Jews.
Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer coined the term, “Zera Israel”, but
Rabbi Uziel was particularly vocal and concerned about these individuals.
He says that this term is so legitimate that even if a child was born to a non Jewish mother and a father who is a Kohen, then once converted, this child would have all of the prohibitions and privileges of a Kohen.
He quotes “It is obligatory to convert the mother of a Zera Israel and keep the children within the threshold of Judaism.
If we push them [the children] away completely by not accepting the mother for conversion, we shall be brought to judgement and they shall say to us: ‘You did not bring back those who were driven away, and those who were lost you did not seek.’ (Yehezkel 34:4).
Are we obligated to reach out to the Zera Israel?
There are different Halachot that debate whether or not each Rabbi is responsible to bring back these descendants. There is one opinion that states it is the father’s responsibility to bring the son back into the fold of Judaism. Most sources say at the least, the child should be welcomed by the community and not pushed away. He/She should be welcomed with a smile and open arms, especially if he is ready to undergo a conversion.
I think that it’s very worth it to ask ourselves what our part is in this.
Are we going to be the ones to push someone away who is searching for the meaning that Judaism brings to so many?