The typical discourse in the Orthodox community suggests that the world consists of a binary between “Jews” and “Non-Jews.” Most of the time this makes sense, but at other times it inevitably leads toward unnecessary exclusion. Instead, I’d like to propose that there are three categories: 1) Non-Jews; 2) Halakhic Jews; and 3) Members of the Jewish people.
The Kedushat Levi, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, taught (Balak 300) that the Jewish People who left Egypt (“Am Yisrael”) consisted of Jacob’s descendants (“Bnei Yisrael”) and the other people who joined as part of the “Am” (“erev rav”). Even though this was a pre-Sinaitic reality, this teaches that non-Jews who join Jews in their identity and mission are also part of the Jewish people; the Kiddush is another reminder that Shabbat is also for non-Jews, because, at times, they are part of the nation.
In the United States, undocumented residents are not considered legal, official residents of our country. But at the same time, they are American in a deep way: They live, learn, serve, work, and socialize in America, becoming an integral part of the fabric of America. That they do not have full legal status does not deny their identity as Americans. No person is “illegal,” as our own historical experience teaches us.
The Kabbalah already teaches a category called “Zera Yisrael,” Jews of patrilineal descent who are not legal Jews but have the sparks of Jewishness in them. Another idea holds that all proselytes were destined to convert, since they were Jews trapped in non-Jewish bodies.
Rav Azriel Hildesheimer gave an interesting ruling about whether or not boys with non-Jewish mothers and Jewish fathers should be circumcised.
And I would also like to point out that these children who have Jewish fathers, even though they are not Jewish according to halakha, we still see that they are called “sacred children.” For Ezra rebuked Jewish men who intermarried because they were spreading “sacred children” amongst the nations… And in our case, [circumcising this son] would not only open up the door for him to become Jewish, it would also make it easier for the father to do teshuva…And even if the father doesn’t do teshuva, nevertheless he is right in trying to strengthen his children’s Jewish identity and when they grow up it will be easier for them to convert because they will know that it is in accordance with their father’s wishes. And some of these children might end up being Jewish leaders for the rose blossoms out of the thorns” (#229).
While, according to Jewish law, Jews by patrilineal descent are not “halakhic Jews” they are still, on a mystical level, deeply connected to the Jewish people and they should be brought closer. Further, in the Orthodox community, it is common not to count a Jew who has undergone a non-Orthodox conversion in a minyan, in line with established halakhic principles, but exclusions that are not mandated by halakhah must be reconsidered.
In Israel today, the struggle of exclusion versus inclusion rages. For example, while founded primarily by secular Jewish leaders, Israel does not allow the performance of civil marriages, only Orthodox marriages. Those who cannot prove they have Jewish conversion or parentage by Orthodox standards cannot be married in Israel. Thus, many Israelis go to Cyprus to marry, after which this foreign “civil” marriage is recognized in Israel. This is further complicated by the Law of Return, which states that anyone with a Jewish grandparent is entitled to immigrate to Israel and be granted citizenship. This has saved many from persecution, particularly the approximately million Jews who emigrated from the former Soviet Union. Ironically, however, about a third of these Jews are not considered to be Jews under current Israeli standards and cannot be married, in spite of serving in the Israel Defense Forces and being (politically active) Israeli citizens.
Even if one is not a Jew (according to the standards of halakhah) they may still be a Jew in their social identity and that should be accepted and respected. As the Kedushat Levi taught, “Am Yisrael” (the broader nation) is greater than just “Bnei Yisrael” (those who are Jewish according to halakhah). Non-halakhic Jews are also part of the holy nation (a “social Jew” rather than a “legal Jew”).
American Jews, more than two-thirds of whom are Reform or Conservative, live in a country where there is no established religion. Many also have had female rabbis for decades, and often feel friction from this Orthodox control of religious practices in Israel. For 25 years, the Women of the Wall sought to pray alongside men at the Kotel in Jerusalem. This enduring symbol of Judaism, which many associate with the iconic photograph of Israeli soldiers standing in awe before the Kotel after its liberation in 1967, has more recently seemed to be a symbol of religious strife. The women, whose carrying of the Torah, singing, and wearing of kippot and tallitot deeply offended the ultra-Orthodox men (and some women) who prayed there, were spat upon, beaten, had bags of excrement thrown at them, and arrested. In a 2010 incident, for example, a group of Haredi men yelled “Nazi!” and “You caused the Holocaust!” at the women. Fortunately, after increased world attention (including petition campaigns by American Jewish groups), it appears that a solution achieved through negotiations with the government has been found, and the latest instance of women praying at the Kotel this month did not result in arrests or beatings, although some spat on the women.
One of their WOW petitions to the government says: “Sadly, however, in Jerusalem, a woman can be verbally assaulted, physically assaulted, arrested and treated as a criminal for wearing a tallit or holding a Torah Scroll or reading from a Torah Scroll at the Kotel and its surrounding areas.”
We must be careful not to alienate those who believe themselves to be part of the Jewish people by claiming that they are not Jewish (and not Jewish like us). Even if they do not fit into our legal standards and are not included in certain ritual acts for technical reasons, they can still be viewed as Jews and as a holy and essential part of the Jewish people to be loved, cherished, and brought closer. It’s true that embracing this reality may make it more difficult for halakhic Jews in some ways but it is no longer an option to impose a pre-modern form of government on a modern nation-state. Today the only option is to create an open, tolerant, and pluralistic society. We must not fear losing our religious values and culture. Truth can and must prevail within an open marketplace of ideas and others’ self identities must be valued as we strive to see the dignity in all people.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”