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Jewish Identity – An E-mail Dialogue

02/10/2012 11:40:11 AM


Rabbi George Gittleman

So, what does it mean to be a Jew? Other than the Halakic/Jewish legal definitions – your mother was Jewish or you converted through a recognized/acceptable process – are there other elements of Jewish identity, like a minimal level of religious observance, that one can point to as a clear marker that one is in fact an MOT (member of the tribe)?

The following dialogue is copied almost verbatim from a lively e-mail debate I had with Shomrei Torah member Howard Schoenfeld. He starts out with a comment about a parasha/weekly portion which he read in preparation for a d’var torah/sermon that Rabbi Kramer asked him to prepare.

Howard: Ok, I have read the section. Will I be able to do a burnt offering or is there a problem with the fire code :)…..On a more serious note….The section deals with both animal sacrifice and Kashrut, one of which the Halakah has kept and one discarded. At George’s suggestion, I am reading an essay by Slonimsky, “The Philosophy Implicit In the Midrash.”
(For more about Dr. Henry Slonimsky go to )

One of the things that he says that caught my eye is, And while Halakah will never be allowed its old dominion in Reform Judaism, there can be no doubt that more and more of it will be re-appropriated as time goes on, for there can be no Judaism without Halakah. The only question is, how much?

Rabbi George: Slonimsky sure was prescient on this one! He wrote his article when there was very little tradition in Reform worship or practice… How things have changed since then!

Howard: On the other hand, Alice (the sage of Wonderland) teaches, “Words mean what I say they mean nothing more and nothing less.” Herein lies my quandary: is there a baseline that the Reform Jewish community can require to “be a Jew.” I am not speaking of the legal definition…if a parent (Reform) or your mom (Orthodox) is a Jew, you are a Jew. Or how outsiders (like Hitler) define who is a Jew. What is the minimum the community can require? What separates us–in the positive sense? Can we just say we are Jewish (like Alice)? Is it enough to be active in social justice? There are lots of non-Jews that are, too… I guess we would agree that believing Jesus is God would rule one out, and believing in many gods as well…but it seems that we need not believe in any God…is that better than believing in many?

Rabbi George: Great questions! Seems to me this a perennial issue that is never really worked out in part because being “Jewish” can and does mean so many different things. That is to say that Jewish identity is multifaceted and can be defined a number of ways: cultural, religious, national, gastronomic, etc. One of the definitions that I find challenging is the ‘social justice’ definition because, as you point out, there is nothing particular to Judaism about social justice. Lots of religious groups care about social justice and many churches have “social justice committees,” whether they are called that or not. Of course there is a great tradition of social justice within Judaism, but it was never severed from the other aspects of Judaism. Rather, one flowed from the other. Nevertheless, I am grateful for any way Jews connect and find meaning from their Judaism, Jewish life and their/our community.

Howard: What really is the covenant?

Rabbi George: Some, like Rabbi Yitz Greenberg ( and Dr. Richard Rubenstein ( argue that there is no longer a covenant after the Shoah. Others work to redefine it. Eugene Borowitz ( is the big Reform thinker who writes on covenant. He is not my favorite theologian or writer. I think Rabbi David Hartman’s book, A Living Covenant ( (rabbi) is the best and, though he writes from a modern Orthodox perspective, I think it can apply to us as well. He basically argues that the covenant is what we make of it. It lives as much as we bring our lives to it.

Howard: Is Honoring the Shabbat in some way an essential part of being Jewish?

Rabbi George: A Shabbat consciousness of some kind seems key, for as Ahad Ha-Am used to say, “as much as Israel has kept the Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel” (, but again it will depend on your definition of “Jewish.” Another way to ask the same question is, “does one need to live with some sense of Jewish time to be Jewish?” If I said “yes,” sadly, much of the Jewish community of the U.S., not to mention Sonoma County, would be outside of the fold! On the other hand, without some sense of Jewish time – Shabbat, holidays and Holy Days – it is very difficult to have much depth or meaning to one’s Jewish experience. You are still Jewish but then, what does that really mean?

Howard: Is a relationship with Israel essential?

Rabbi George: I believe this is essential, but there are some in the Classical Reform world who argue(d) that one can be a religious Jew without a connection to am yisrael/The Jewish people. In fact, there are a few in the congregation today who feel this way. The fact is, for the 2,500 years or so of our existence, a connection to eretz yisrael (the land of Israel) and am yisrael (the people of Israel) has always been a part of what it meant to be a Jew.

Howard: We don’t want to be exclusionary… or do we?

Rabbi George: In the sense that without some boundaries there is no “there” there, we must be exclusive. For example, as far as I am concerned, a person with a Jewish background (born Jewish or converted to Judaism) who believes that Jesus is the messiah (Jews for Jesus), is no longer Jewish. Of course, Orthodoxy would say that in fact, they are Jewish, just bad/heretical Jews. Either way, they have crossed a line and are no longer considered an MOT. But inclusivity is an important value for us, as well, so we work to minimize all unnecessary boundaries. The problem is how one defines “necessary.”

Howard: We have never sought converts.

Rabbi George: We actually have sought converts. Ten percent of Rome was Jewish! We only stopped when Rome became Christian and punished those who sought Jewish converts and those who converted, with death! Same with Islam….Understandably, we lost our ardor for conversion since then.

Howard: What do we require of people? Where do we balance having a warm, tolerant, inviting community with so watering-down being Jewish that we sound like Alice?

Rabbi George: Again, I will lean on Rabbi David Hartman, who often said to me, “a religion that doesn’t require anything from its adherents is no religion at all!” On the other hand, we can’t lose sight of who our community is, and what its reality can handle, demands, needs, etc. You should know that this is a question that keeps me up at night sometimes.

Howard: You say, “Seems to me this is a perennial issue that is never really worked out in part because being ‘Jewish’ can and does mean so many different things. That is to say that Jewish identity is multi-faceted and can be defined a number of ways: cultural, religious, national, gastronomic, etc.”

This is what I struggle with….being able to define “Jewish” in a way that it means different things. Liking chicken soup should not define a Jew! Not saying morning prayers should not exclude one either.

I believe there is such a thing as a “Jewish Soul.” That is what (I think) Slonimsky would say allows us to partner with God in the continuation of creation. But it requires more than eating bagels and social justice. Maybe it is the way we eat bagels and pursue social justice? Justice Stewart famously said that “I cannot define pornography but I know it when I see it.” Perhaps I have to be satisfied with that. But I know that if we demand nothing we receive nothing.
Rabbi George: An anthropologist told me that whether other MOTs recognize someone as a member is a legitimate definition. But it may not be that helpful of a definition since East Coast Jews look different from West Coast Jews, Hassidic vs. Mitnagen, Sephardic vs. Ashkenazi, Pharisees vs, Sagucies … Seems as much as things change, they stay the same.

However, I did once attend a lecture at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. It was a debate between Rabbi Hartman and the famous Israeli thinker and philosopher, Yeshiahu Leibovitz, zikhrono l’brakha/May his memory be for a blessing, on this very subject (

Leibovitz argued that prior to Modernity and the development of the “Movements”, there was one definable Jewish Community, but since the proliferation of the movements like Reform and Conservative Judaism, a true splintering has occurred. I challenged him with examples of serious pre-Modern rifts in the Jewish world. He invited me over to his home for coffee and lectured me for two hours on everything, including how I needed to improve my Hebrew, if I was going to be a rabbi, even a Reform rabbi! It was the most amazing experience, literally sitting at the feet of a Jewish intellectual giant. But I still think he was wrong.

Howard: There are 29 flavors at Baskin-Robbins but each is still ice cream. It is troubling how much we do to divide ourselves. Maybe that is what makes us Jewish!

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