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Gabby Giffords And Other “Illegal Alien” Jews

Gabby Giffords And Other “Illegal Alien” Jews

I apologize for being such a delinquent blogger this past week. Part of it was being distracted by my reporting responsibilities (see my recent article on new Hebrew charter schools if you don’t believe me!)

But also I’ve been struck with something of a blogger’s block trying to decide whether and how to respond to my colleague Jonathan Mark’s “No, Not Everyone is Jewish Enough” post.

I think what most troubles me is not that we disagree but that he (and others) think I am disrespectful and, in the words of one commenter, “militant.”

I would like to think that I have not been disrespectful, but rather a respectful dissenter. I don’t ask Orthodox Jews to accept patrilineal descent in their synagogues, schools or marriage partners, but I would like to see more of them recognize that they do not have the monopoly on Judaism, that there are multiple ways of understanding what it means to be a Jew and that, particularly as such a tiny (and shrinking) minority in the world, Jews can afford a more expansive, welcoming (and dare I say emotionally sensitive) view of who and what can be accepted within our community.

It is also important to remember that even among those who see Jewish law as binding, this law is flexible, evolving and open to a wide array of interpretations and considerations. Even the Talmud gives space to competing, often widely divergent, views. Just because one interpretation is stricter does not make it more authentic or more correct. And while there are risks to dispensing with too many standards, there are also risks in imposing too many obstacles to people who genuinely want to engage in Jewish life even if they are not engaging at Jonathan Mark and Chief Rabbinate-approved levels of education and ritual observance. Plus, there are risks in insisting on an ideologically monolithic Judaism, on dismissing liberal voices as uneducated, uncommitted chutzpah-dik less-Jewish intruders.

And Jonathan’s assertion that non-Jewish spouses and patrilineal "illegal aliens" tend to be disrespectful of Judaism (as opposed to "pure" and "noble") is just ludicrous, particularly based as it is on a link to a tongue-in-cheek exchange on the New York Times’ dining blog, in which a writer (who never states whether she is gentile or Jewish) is irreverent about her boyfriend’s kosher observance.

Ultimately, perhaps this whole “who is a Jew” debate, at least in the diaspora, is a silly semantic exercise. Gabrielle Giffords will consider herself Jewish, as will many other people; some traditional and Orthodox Jews will not. Unlike U.S. citizenship, which Jonathan compares to Jewish identity, in the diaspora at least there is no Jewish government, no single entity authorized to enforce such matters, no voting rights within the entire Jewish world, no single Jewish passport, no power to deport people or strip them of their Jewish identities. And that is probably, given the dysfunctionality of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, a very good thing.

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