Monday, October 22, 2007

What Makes a Jew Jewish? (A Response to "The SY Empire")
It is now the most famous Rabbinic proclamation in New York. An 1935 edict issued by the Rabbinate of the Syrian Jewish community was the focus of an article in the New York Times last week. As the article explains:

Most American Jewish communities in those days (and many today) viewed intermarriage as a taboo. Conversion, however, was a loophole. The Edict intended to close that loophole. It proclaimed, ''No male or female member of our community has the right to intermarry with non-Jews; this law covers conversion, which we consider to be fictitious and valueless.''

A 1946 clarification added specifics: ''The rabbi will not perform Religious Ceremonies'' for such unkosher couples. ''The Congregation's premises will be banned to them for use of any religious or social nature. . . . After death of said person, he or she is not to be buried on the Cemetery of our community . . . regardless of financial considerations.''

With these words, Chief Rabbi Jacob Kassin effectively excommunicated any member of his flock who married a partner with gentile blood….

I mean no disrespect to any of the 225 rabbis who have signed onto this edict. But this edict is absolutely wrong, period.

I’m sure a hundred sermons have noted the proper Jewish attitude towards conversion. Included in the responses will be references to multiple sources, such as Rashi’s statement that says that Abraham and Sarah our ancestors were missionaries and that “Abraham would convert the men, and Sarah would convert the women… (Gen. Rabbah 39:14)”. Or Maimonides’ explanation, in a letter to Obadiah the Convert, that the pedigree of converts is greater than that of a natural born Jews:

Let not your ancestry be insignificant in your eyes. Because if we trace our ancestry to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then you trace yours to the Lord Himself.
And of course, any discussion of conversion must cite the Mishna that says it is a sin to discriminate against a proselyte on the basis of their origin (Bava Metzia 58b).

But forget questions of human dignity and/or political correctness for a moment. This edict gets to the heart of a fundamental question: What makes a Jew Jewish?

This edict, (as it is now percieved by some*), defines Jewish identity as having Jewish blood. As Jakie Kassin, the grandson of the edict’s author explains:

''Never accept a convert or a child born of a convert,''…. ''Push them away with strong hands from our community. Why? Because we don't want gentile characteristics.''
Here you have a simple, chauvinistic explanation of Jewish identity; Jews are Jewish because they have Jewish blood. Jews are a tribe apart, genetically destined to be different than everyone else. Surprisingly, this tribal vision is often subscribed to by marginally involved Jews; they turn their nose up at anything related to Torah, but still expect their children to marry a member of the tribe.

I believe tribalism is one of the greatest threats to the future of the Jewish people**. A Jewish identity that is fixated on tribalism must marginalize spirituality. The tribal consciousness worries about one thing: keeping the tribe together. So, instead of focusing on the Jewish mission to transform the world, tribal Jews seek to build walls to hold others out.

But authentic Judaism was never about genetics. What makes a Jew Jewish is a unique spiritual outlook. Central to this outlook is the desire to transform the world. Ido Hevroni explains the covenantal sign of circumcision this way:

…we find a position represented throughout the Hebraic tradition, from Genesis to the prophets to the rabbinic tradition. This position is unwilling to accept the world as it is, and is therefore characterized by a restless, uncompromising desire for improvement. This view takes on symbolic application with the severance of the foreskin, the marking of the most impulsive organ of the human body with an open and blunt statement: Man is not an animal. Man shares with God the ability to stand outside of and apart from nature. Man is a creation whose horizon of aspirations lies far beyond the satisfaction of his natural impulses. Man wants to change, even to create, the world.
Circumcision, like the rest of the Torah, is about transformation. We can change nature, we can change history, we can change the world. Indeed, the greatest Rabbi of the Talmudic era, Rabbi Akiva, transformed himself from ignorant shepherd into insightful teacher. It is no surprise that according to one tradition, {R. Nissim Gaon, Berachot 27b}, R. Akiva is the descendent of converts. Akiva, like Abraham, reinvents himself and refuses to accept the status quo. Akiva is such an effective teacher of Torah because he embodies spiritual transformation, the very attribute the Torah is founded on.

The best rejoinder to the philosophy of tribal Judaism is the fact that tribalists could never have accepted or appreciated a Rabbi Akiva. But today, tribal philosophies of Judaism may be facing a greater challenge: America.

21st century North America is the graveyard of tribes. Various groups, from the Greeks to the Italians to the Armenians, have tried valiantly to hang on to their culture. But the allure of being assimilated into the mainstream has been too strong a force to hold off assimilation.

Jewish tribalists may try to build walls to hold everyone else out. They may find short term success in doing so. But in the end these walls are fated to crumble; no wall is strong enough to stop the onslaught of the American melting pot.

Jewish continuity will only succeed if we can inspire our fellow Jews and all of humanity to embrace the values of the Torah. Each of us must light a fire within that will spread to those around us, transforming ourselves and the rest of the world.

Which is exactly what Abraham envisioned, right at the beginning of the Jewish people.

**(Please note I am not arguing whether or not the Syrian community has been successful in holding off intermarriage. But this community, with a deeply religious, tight knit and committed base, probably could have been equally successful without ostracizing converts or embracing chauvinistic misunderstandings of Jewish identity.)

* (please see the next post)


Anonymous said...

Apparently, Jakie Kassin's remark quoted in the NYTM article is a gross misrepresentation of the 1935 edict.

Here's a letter to the editor (I saw it on a post on Hirhurim):

Oct. 15, 2007
Letters to the Editor, Magazine
The New York Times
620 Eighth Ave.
New York, NY 10018

To the Editor,

Jakie Kassin is the son and grandson of rabbis and a dynamic do-gooder, but he is neither a rabbi nor a scholar of Judaic studies. The statements attributed to him in “The SY Empire” (Zev Chafets, Oct. 14, 2007) are a gross distortion of Judaism as well as of the 1935 Edict promulgated in the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn. That Edict was enacted to discourage community members from intermarrying with non-Jews. It acknowledged the reality of the time that conversions were being employed insincerely and superficially. Accordingly, conversion for marriage to a member of the community was automatically rejected.

However, it is important in this regard to clarify the policy of the community rabbinate and particularly that of the long-time former chief rabbi of the community, Jacob S. Kassin (the originator of the Edict), and his son, the present chief rabbi, Saul J. Kassin. I quote from an official formulation of the Sephardic Rabbinical Council of several years ago that reflects their position: “1. A conversion not associated with marriage that was performed by a recognized Orthodox court – such as for adoption of infants or in the case of an individual sincerely choosing to be Jewish – is accepted in our community. 2. If an individual not born to a member of our community had converted to Judaism under the aegis of an Orthodox court, and was observant of Jewish Law, married a Jew/Jewess who was not and had not been a member of our community, their children are permitted to marry into our community.” Based on these standards a goodly number of converts have been accepted into the community. Genetic characteristics play no role whatsoever.

No rabbi considers sincere and proper conversions “fictitious and valueless.” (The comma in the English translation cited in the article that gives that impression was the result of a mistranslation by a layman, a matter I made clear to Mr. Chafets when we spoke.)

In addition, the quote claiming that even other Jews are disqualified from marrying into the community “if someone in their line was married by a Reform or Conservative rabbi” is a totally false portrayal of community rabbinical policy. Many Ashkenazim whose parents were married by such rabbis have married into our community.


Moshe Shamah
Rabbi, Sephardic Synagogue
511 Ave. R
Brooklyn, NY 11223

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz said...

I appreciate Anonymous' comment - and although I was careful with the way I wrote about "the perception" of the edict, maybe I wasn't clear enough. for that, I apologize.

However, in dealing with the viewpoints of the community, Jakie's remark is perhaps more important than the edict itself. Sometimes,the widely held perceptions of the masses are far more important than the more nuanced understandings of the elite. Even here in Montreal, hundreds of miles away from the Syrian community, there are some people who harbor similar feelings about jewish "genes". I can only imagine how much more prevelant this attitude may be in a community that heavily emphasizes the exclusion of converts.

Most important, as I wrote, is that it is important for for all of us to persuade those with tribal/genetic vision of Judaism to reconsider their views, whether they are in Flatbush or Montreal.

Anonymous said...

Hi - I'm the same anonymous commenter that cited Rabbi Shamah's letter to the NYT.

First of all, I wouldn't jump to conclusions about the prevalence of the "tribal" attitude based on Jakie Kassin's comments. The author of the article clearly had an axe to grind, and perhaps the comment was not understood properly in context. And in any event, your piece basically accuses the entire Syrian community of a racial attitude as reflected by the edict, and this is simply not fair. Also, I don't know if it's true that this community "emphasizes the exclusion of converts." This exclusion is practiced, but I wouldn't say it is emphasized, it is not a central part of their attitude and lifestyle. I have heard literally dozens - perhaps hundreds - of derashos from Syrian rabbanim, and read lots of their literature, and the only time I heard the edict mentioned was in the precise opposite context - a prominent Syrian rabbi made the point of how Judaism recognizes the potential of every human being for greatness notwithstanding the Syrian minhag not to marry converts.

I generally like your blog very much, but in this instnace I believe you are wrongly condemning a large community and disparaging their talmidei chachamim based on one clearly-biased article. I think you should get to know some Syrian Jews more closely before casting such harsh judgment and calling them racist.

Anonymous said...

Just to clarify a bit more my complaint against this post:

The syrian takana was made as a "migdar milsa" in response to what was perceived as a wave of pseudo-conversions for marriage purposes. The takana is NOT what you make it out to be - a reflection of a fundamentally diffrent attitude towards the Jewish people whereby we are Jewish by blood and race rather than conduct and so on. Personally I'm not comfortable with the takana, but I am honest enough to see it what is, and not turn it into an expression of racism.

Trust me, Rav Yaakov Kassin zt"l knew well aware that Rabbi Akiva descended from gerim, and he was very familiar with the Torah's emphasis on the need to love and embrace gerim - no less than Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi was aware of the prohibition against writing down the Torah. But rightly or wrongly, he felt it necessary to issue this ban, and today's Syrian rabbis either feel that it is still necessary (which I would disagree with) or simply are afriad to repeal it because of the level of respect that Rav Yaakov Kassin commanded as founder and leader of the American Aram Tzova community.

You can disagree with the ban - as I said, I do - but it is VERY WRONG to see it as a fundamentally racist perception of Judaism and the Jewish people.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the conversion ban,I do know that it is specifically for conversions that are for the purpose of marriage.Conversion for adoption is very common in our community.In fact all the Rabbis of the community agree that regarding adoption conversion is appropriate.Therefore this is most definitly not a blood issue as some have portrayed it.

Anonymous said...

There is nothing racist in the Syrian community. My sister was raped as a teenager and her daughter who was raised by my parents does not look anything like other "Jews" and yet she had no problems dating SY's.

Another man, the son of a young girl who was raped by a black man and raised by her parents, married the daughter of one of the most prominent Rabbis in the community. And their children (one of whom is a Rabbi in the community)have also married into top families.

The granddaughter of one of the original five signers of the Edict married a man who was adopted and converted at birth.

The Edict has nothing to do with conversion or racism. It is a ban on intermarriage only. Because so many Rabbis permit intermarriage as long as the Gentile woman will agree to take a dip (and this is ALL it is because in very few cases is there ANY commitment to Torah observance), the obvious had to be banned.

The Edict is no different than banning bacon cheeseburgers, any Rabbi who will permit a bacon cheeseburger after assembling three of his buddies into a Beit Din declare it kosher is no Rabbi and the Beit Din is no Beit Din. (This is EXACTLY what the Israeli Rabbinate has said as well). The fact that bacon cheeseburgers are forbidden according to Torah law is something that we all know.

Having relations with a Gentile is also forbidden by Torah law and any Rabbi who will permit a Jewish man to do so after assembling three other Rabbis to declare it kosher is also no Rabbi. Such a Beit Din is not qualified because of their obvious disregard for the most basic of halachot.

It should not need to be stated in an Edict, but in the crazy world of American Judaism where Rabbis are beholden to rich donors and more committed to them than Torah, it is necessary.

Anonymous said...

I am a proud Jew who converted eight years go. I am interested in some examples of "gentile characteristic" Mr. Kassin is trying to avoid. If someone can illustrate what specific characteristics Mr. Kassin is so afraid of outside his world, I would really appreciate this.

Thank you.