Are you too sick and tired of the extremist positions? (Shame on the non-Orthodox! Shame on the intolerant Orthodox!) But how to bridge them? How not to join one of the ideas excluding dignity to the opposing camp? The answer is, learn. What’s lacking is much knowledge of the subject.
What do We Really Know?
We don’t really know who’s a Jew. When the Redeemer comes, he will tell us for each. Meanwhile, we need some principles for deciding who needs to keep the rules for Jews and who needs to stick to the rules for Gentiles.
This is important for following Jewish Law. A Gentile is strictly forbidden to keep Shabbat. A Jew must keep Shabbat. Yet, there are ways around it.
After a Gentile converted to Judaism or became a slave to a Jew, s/he must keep Shabbat. A Gentile can also learn the intricate Laws of Shabbat and go to a Rabbinic Court and request to be obligated to keep Shabbat for life. Such an unrevocable contract then does not entail becoming a Jew.
And a Jew can mostly take the obligation to keep Shabbat as a friendly recommendation as long as s/he keeps it voluntarily. You don’t have to keep (and celebrate) Shabbat as long as you’re doing that already.
So, we need to know who must follow which Laws. These criteria tell us whom to treat as a Jew and whom not. But absolute knowledge is not yet with us, unless you know you’re the Messiah. (Be careful with proclaiming that, because if you’re a false prophet, you must be killed. Though chances are you’ll be just ignored or locked up as crazy, as a bargain.)
Who Wants to Label?
It makes a difference who wants to label someone Jewish. If a class wants to put on a play featuring Jews and some group of their enemies, does it quite matter who will play the Jews and who will play the others? No. Especially if the actors of the Jewish roles don’t just fortify stereotypes about what (Ashkenazic) Jews look like (hairy, dark hair, big nose, etc.)
If Zionists have different criteria, why not? You need to have at least one Jewish grandparent. If the definition is good enough for the Nazis, it should be good enough for the State that wants to be a haven to the Jews.
If non-Orthodox congregations want to accept a convert, and the State wants to acknowledge that, why not? Only, don’t make the mistake to assume the person will not be Jewish for Orthodox Law, for the State, or for the Redeemer. The person could have had a Jewish mother, or a kosher conversion, and more knowledge than most, and keep all of Jewish Law.
There are Orthodox very knowledgeable and caring Rabbis who feel it their duty to trash non-Orthodox Rabbis and congregations as houses of falsehood and ignorance, and maybe they are right — who decides?
However, they must make sure they don’t trash the congregants as they might simply have a different standard in Jewish Law as being misled, not being instigators. And their outburst may actually backfire and make the ones they talk against more popular or look more sympathetic. And if it gives a desecration of G^d’s Name, the speakers sinned. And G^d sides with the pursued, even if the pursuer is a tzaddik and the pursued wicked.
It’s a Lie That This is a Matter of Black and White
Polemics and the media almost always portray it as if someone’s Jewish status is black-or-white. You’re either a Jew or you are not. That lie is often based on ignorance, sometimes on anger (people exaggerate when they are upset), and sometimes on oversimplifying. Truly, there is a lot of gray.
When a random Gentile comes to the Rabbis and says “I want to convert,” they’ll say: Why? Don’t you know how hard it can be to be a Jew? Do you know how much you must learn and do? Do you know you can never undo such a thing? Be a good person, and G^d will love you. It’s easier to be a saintly Gentile than a pious Jew. Do you want to risk being a Jewish sinner?
But, when a Gentile with a Jewish father comes to the Rabbis and says “I want to convert,” the Rabbis understand. They feel bad for the person s/he’s not a Jew. We’ll help you. Why should s/he suffer for the marital sin of the father? Now s/he’s 100% a Gentile, but s/he isn’t — you see?
“I come from such and such community. I always felt Jewish and was treated like a Jew and behaved like one. I never considered Jewish Law. But now, I want to belong also in accordance with Orthodox law. Can I convert please?” You think the Rabbis won’t help if it seems sincere?
Who is Hurting?
Instead of fighting over who is right, thought should be prioritized about who is hurting and what can be done about it.
Actually, many immigrants who were Jewish and Zionistic enough to come live in Israel are not recognized as Jews for Jewish Law. They need help to integrate into the Jewish People. The Rabbis of Old were great and could see possibilities where many others didn’t. We need to pray more fervently that we will deserve better leaders who can help. Meanwhile, don’t blame such people to go to the Reform or Conservative for help.
Maimonides ruled that a criterion for the conversion is the acceptance of Jewish Law. But that was when everyone in the world was religious. So, what do you do with people who are not interested in G^d? (Actually, the so-called secular Jews are often more religious and meritorious than the so-called religious Jews. They have so much respect for people! How can you think you are beloved by G^d if you despise some of His kids?)
You can’t truthfully say that a Gentile is totally not a Jew and cannot become one when s/he is not religious, feels connected to the Jews, loves Jewish culture, loves Jewish wisdom, loves Jewish literature, loves Jews, works for the Jewish State and the safety and well-being of Jews.
There must be ways to help not-so-religious Gentiles convert to Orthodox Jewish Law if they want so. (Maybe they can get the status of a slave, live with religious and outstanding Jews until they are ready to be full Jews on their own.) Where there’s a will, there will be a way. May it be found soon.
But, any time someone wants to discuss principles instead of the people hurting, try to steer the discourse to where it needs to be or walk away.