Every Friday night at 6 PM Eastern Time we video-stream a Shabbat service. You can watch it live, or you can always catch the archive anytime during the week. We generally share readings about Shabbat and specifically the candles, challah bread, and wine (or juice). As always, our liturgy reflects an inclusive and contemporary voice. And, Rabbi Barr and I always have a conversation during services. It’s especially fun for me because I keep the computer in front of me and (in addition to listening to him) I get to read the Facebook, Twitter, and Livestream chat streams from all of our participants. Often you all have more interesting comments than we do!
Tonight’s topic is Who Is a Jew? We actually needed to pre-record tonight’s service because of travel schedules, so this one won’t be live – but it will still be interactive.
The topic of Who Is A Jew? is one that comes up quite often. According to halachah (traditional Jewish law), a person is Jewish if s/he is born to a Jewish mother. The father’s religion is irrelevant for these purposes.
This definition falls short. If a person is born to a Jewish father and raised with a Jewish identity, then s/he is just as Jewish as someone who is born to a Jewish mother and raised with a Jewish identity. And, if someone is born to parents who are not Jewish but later learns about and identifies with Judaism as his/her religion, then s/he is Jewish in my eyes.
The organized Jewish community is often fond of telling people that they “are not Jewish enough.” Even if the message is not explicit, many communities send this message implicitly.
I’m sick of it, frankly. Jewish professionals often wonder “why are so many Jews walking away from Judaism?” The reality, though, is that Jews aren’t necessarily walking away. Many of them are being pushed out by the community that does not truly embrace them for any one of several reasons – like they don’t meet a certain definition of being Jewish.
This recently came up in the news when a prisoner requested a kosher meal. A Chabad rabbi who served as a chaplain at the corrections center asked the prisoner if his mother was Jewish. The prisoner answered that only his father was Jewish. So, the rabbi went back to the corrections center and said “No, he is not Jewish,” and the prison then denied prisoner Thomas Feldheim’s request for kosher meals.
I agree with Alexander Shalom, the ACLU of New Jersey’s policy counsel, who said: “Decisions about religious affiliation are deeply personal, and it is not up to the state to determine whether a person’s beliefs are sincerely held.”
There are many ways to be Jewish. I think the Jewish community is greatly enhanced when we welcome those who want to be part of it.