Who is a Jew?
That deceptively simple question is dividing the Jewish community worldwide as Israel marks its 50th anniversary.
At issue is the cherished Law of Return, the first piece of legislation enacted in the new State of Israel, which guaranteed each Jew the right to immigrate and claim citizenship.
The Orthodox rabbinate has controlled Israel's religious institutions since the founding of the state. It holds sway in important matters such as marriages and conversions. And the Orthodox rabbinate has consistently ruled that a Jew was somebody born of a Jewish mother or someone who converted "according to the Law," the 613 commandments strictly followed by all Orthodox. In practice, all converts had to be Orthodox, and conversions performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis were deemed illegitimate.
In Israel, the Orthodox parties hold pivotal roles in practically any governing coalition. Their latest attempt to codify their status has ignited a firestorm of controversy.
In Baltimore, as in other U.S. cities, the overwhelming majority of Jews belong to Reform or Conservative synagogues. They contribute tens of millions of dollars each year to Israel. Feeling that they were being denounced as inauthentic and illegitimate Jews, many have reacted with feelings of hurt and anger.
Reform Rabbi Donald Berlin of Temple Oheb Shalom in Upper Park Heights said the situation is anguishing and puzzling for non-Orthodox Jews who have a deep love of Israel, yet find their religious status questioned.
"It is in some respects ironic, maybe even outrageous, that today, after the Jewish people fought so hard to have a homeland, so that Jews could live and be free of any kind of political oppression, that Israel is one of the few places in the world, perhaps the only place in the world, where Reform and Conservative Jews experience overt prejudice from the government by denying its institutions, particularly its rabbis, to officiate at weddings, funerals, register births and confer conversion."
Conservative Rabbi Mark G. Loeb of Beth El Congregation said many non-Orthodox Jews felt that "the Israeli government and its citizens were conspiring in a way to somehow indirectly deny the Jewishness of our families. Even though it wasn't literally that, it felt that way to people - that they were putting in question the Jewish identity of many people's children and grandchildren, and that was not acceptable."
The result, Loeb said, is that enthusiasm for Israel has been dampened.
"I think the reaction is to be appalled, to be saddened, to be angered and emotionally detached, close to alienated from Israel at a time when we should have been more celebratory, rejoicing, than ever before," he said.
"If I have a concern," Berlin said, "it's that there has been a noticeable distancing between Israeli Jews and Jews elsewhere."
"You can ask many rabbis who otherwise would have been able to take groups of Jews to Israel in the summer. Very few are going," Loeb said. "People are not up to going. The feeling is, sad to say, there is a huge apathy."
Loeb said he advised his congregation to carefully pick the groups in Israel they gave money to.
"There are an awful lot of groups in Israel that are highly suspect in my eyes because they are not supportive of the idea of pluralism among Jews," he said. "Therefore, it is my hope that members of my congregation will use their money to serve projects that benefit needy Israelis, but projects that are clearly respecting of the diversity of the Jewish people."
Orthodox Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb of the Shomrei Emunah Congregation said that although he recognizes the pain caused by the division between the Orthodox and the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism, which he called a virtual "cultural war," some issues are not open to compromise.
The situation was exacerbated when Reform Jews decided in the early 1980s to consider children born of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers as Jewish, contrary to the traditional matrilineal descent.
"What I would like to see unity mean is that we can marry each others' families. That my grandchildren can marry another Jew's grandchildren and not consider that marrying outside of the faith," he said. "But if you're going to admit into the fold people who by my definition are not Jews either because they aren't born to a Jewish mother or because their conversion is not valid, then our children and grandchildren can't marry each other, and that's the ultimate disunity."
And yet, Weinreb said he has good relationships with nontraditional rabbis. Berlin said he works well with many Orthodox colleagues.
"There is conflict and there is debate," Weinreb said. "But I know at a deeper level, at a person-to-person level, there's healing going on, there's dialogue going on, there's cooperation going on.
"There are things happening at two layers," he said. "And time will tell which layer will out."
Pub Date: 4/26/98