Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Who is a Jew? In Nebraska

Every year the Philip Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization hosts a symposium where academics from all over the world present papers on a particular topic in Jewish studies.

This year the topic was "Who is a Jew." 

As usual the conference was well run by the host Dr. Leonard Greenspoon, who holds the Klutznick Chair at Creighton.  Many of the scholars were first rate and their papers and presentations were interesting.  

The topic of conversion, in Israel or in the US, is mostly a sensitive topic for Orthodox Jews because they have the highest standards.  Some of the presenters used the symposium as an opportunity to lay out the challenges and conflicts that arise from the "who is a Jew" question and to pose alternatives that demonstrate understanding and sensitivity to all sides.

Unfortunately, some presenters strayed from scholarship by injected some of their own personal feelings of frustration with "the Orthodox position."

First some of the high points of the conference.  

Matthew Boxer from Brandies University spoke about Birthright Israel and its effects on young American Jews.  He is employed by birthright, but he gave a fare presentation where he presented facts and statistics demonstrating some of Taglit Birthright's success.

Mara Cohen Iannodies spoke about who is a Jew as it faces the American Reform Jewish community.  She attends a Reform Synagogue and is active in the national Reform movement.  She spoke about the challenges that they face with non-Jewish members in Reform synagogues.  She was not referring to converts, but people who choose NOT to convert to Judaism but want to be members of a shul for different reasons, whether they be marriage or other.  She laid both sides to this debate.  One Reform Rabbi who was opposed to granting community membership to non-Jewish people said that if Reform shuls were to do so they would gradually devolve into social clubs.  Other interesting points is that it would somehow cheapen Reform conversions.  Those who have not converted would say, "I am already part of the community, why should I convert?"  Those who already converted would say, "Why did I bother spending all the time and money on conversion if it was not necessary?"  The presentation was a very honest assessment by a thoughtful person who cares deeply about the future of her own community.

Rabbi Dr. Moshe Goldeder from Emory University gave a great presentation demonstrating the diversity of opinions that exist within the Orthodox Halachic debate on conversion.  He ended by presenting a solution that he thinks should satisfy even the strictest positions.  Apparently even the strict authorities are more lenient when it comes to converting a minor, someone under the age of 12 or 13.  So for families where the mother is lacking Orthodox conversion and she is unable to adopt an Orthodox lifestyle, a requirement for Orthodox conversion according to most modern opinions, the children can be converted before they reach the age of adult.  I have heard people speak about this before and I hope that his solution one day can be adopted as policy.

I had some issues with the keynote speaker.

His thesis was that we really don't need any conversion at all.  If a person feels that they are Jewish that is enough.  They can just jump in any body of water and they are Jewish and should be accepted by the Jewish community.  

He also said that they don't really have to meet any standards.  What ever they feel is Jewish, whether it be historic, cultural, or their own spiritual ideas is sufficient.  

He brought a number of texts from the Talmud to support his position - each one  completely misunderstood.  Had he read the most basic commentaries, and in some case the very next lines of the text he sited, he would have seen how his interpretation of the text was completely mistaken.  

He made one truly outrageous statement.  He said that all of us are the products of illegitimate and non-Jewish unions because in the tenth century Jewish men would travel far distances for business and no-doubt they had affairs with non-Jewish women leading to children and there were no Jewish courts to convert these children.  So in one statement with no evidence to support it he called us all non-Jewish bastards.   

In the question and answer period a lady asked whether or not according to him a Christian can be a Jew.  His answer as yes.  If it brought them some spiritual meaning then a Christian can certainly be a Jew and we should all accept him or her as such.

The speech lacked any kind of formal scholarship. It was mostly the opinions of a layman in the area of conversion.

But there was something very irresponsible about this man broadcasting to our community.  This man, who comes from New Jersey, came to a small Jewish community with certain challenges that larger communities do not face.  We often have to contend with Christian missionaries who delight in telling Jews that there is no difference between Judaism and Christianity.  These Christians are generally just informed enough to seem very knowledgeable to an undereducated and unsuspecting Jew.  
At the lecture there was a particular lady who has obviously psychological problems who has been doing this for years.  Last year, after a community lecture given by Holocaust survivors she approached the speakers and presented them with Jews for Jesus literature.  For that she was told that she can no longer attend events.  But somehow she slipped into this event.   This man swooped in, emboldened this lady to continue harassing members of our community and then returned to his ivory tower in New Jersey.  

Fortunately, most thinking people, including Omaha's Reform Rabbi, realised how reckless and irresponsible the speaker was. Also, most people I spoke to felt that he was a poor speaker and the presentation put them to sleep. But it is impossible to know for sure what kind of damage this man may have caused.

It is very easy for someone with no standards to advocate a "compromise" where the rest of us abandon our standards to accommodate him.  The conversion issue is a complex issue, but I used to think that everyone agreed that in order to become Jewish you have to become Jewish.  Apparently I was wrong.  

But despite all of that, I had an enjoyable time.   It is always good to hear the opinions and ideas of others.  If I don't like it I can blog about it and say why.  And he can comment and tell me why I am wrong.  That is what makes ball games and that is learning.  

The symposium was great and I thank the Klutznick Chair at Creighton, the Harris Center at UNL, and the Schwab Center at UNO for bringing this great program every year to Omaha.  I can't wait for next year!


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