To be or not to be Jewish? The future of Judaism without shades

The Nuremberg law of genetic "Jewishness"

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.Above: The Nuremberg law of genetic “Jewishness”

Rabbi Farber : “Sixty per cent of North American Jews would not be able to break the threshold of proving they’re Jews”

Reflection on Paul Lungen’s article “Israeli Rabbi to discuss conversion issues”. Canadian Jewish News, November 11, 2010.

Orthodox rabbi Seth Farber is the founder and director of Itim, an Israeli non-profit organization offering information on Jewish lifecycle events such as birth, bar/bat mitzvah, marriage, divorce, death and burial, and conversion.  (Wikipedia).

In a recent article, Rabbi Farber expressed his concern about the grave dangers associated with the status of hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens, mostly recent immigrants from ex-USSR, who are very much part of the state of Israel, but not recognized as Jews.

“It is creating two different Jews here in Israel. They all have seders on Pesach and they celebrate Chanukah, but they don’t share the same definition of Jews.”

The “children (of these Israeli citizens) will not be considered Jewish, and they may be in trouble in the future when can’t get married [to other Jews]. They won’t be part of this commonwealth. They won’t be part of the collective entity called the State of Israel,” he said.

Rabbi Farber calls their status “a demographic time bomb.”

He goes on to explain that that in Israel and in many communities around the world, there is an ongoing “delegitimization of the Jewish people”. Their “jewishness” is being challenged or questioned.  Perfectly genuine conversions are being challenged and in some cases reversed.

Rabbi Faber also addresses an often-ignored (or perhaps deliberately-ignored) fact.  He contends that “Sixty per cent of North American Jews would not be able to break the threshold of proving they’re Jews, even though they may care deeply about the Jewish peoplehood… This is an alarming fact.”

What is even more alarming is not that sixty per cent of North American Jews would not be able to prove that they are Jewish, but that, according to a strict application of the chalachah, this number may actually be underestimated.

The reality is that all Jews are descendent of individuals who at one point converted to Judaism.  Very few Jews are able to prove their “jewishness” beyond a couple of generations.   They may be able to find a birth certificate, a Bar Mitzvah certificate or a Ketubah from their grandparents or great-grandparents, but the undisputable and authenticated trace of “jewishness” rarely goes beyond two or three generations.

What appears more outrageous is that a very large portion of Haredi or orthodox Jews who, with the greatest self-indulgence, claim to hold the seal of orthodoxy and have bestowed upon themselves the authority to question the “jewishness” of other Jews, are from Germany or Eastern Europe (Poland, Ukraine, Russia, etc.).  Eastern European Jews are descendent of Jews who often lost everything fleeing the holocaust or Russian pogroms and therefore do not have any documents proving the status of their parents or grandparents.  Their situation, albeit a few decades anterior, is in fact quite similar to the Jews who more recently escaped the Soviet regime (which was neither particularly known to be Jew-friendly) without any material evidence of their jewishness.

Are all the new Russian-Israeli immigrants Jewish?  No, of course not.  Very few could actually show anything to prove much connection to the Jewish faith at all.  Should they be embraced and welcomed as Jews into the tribe?  Absolutely and unquestionably!  As a good friend of ours, Leon, once said with great disillusion: “In Russia we were called Jews … here we are called Russians”.

Were all the Jews taken to the extermination camps Jewish?  Certainly not according to the Chalachah.  The German criteria of jewishness was known to be generously “encompassing”, and many were taken to the gas chambers who would certainly not have been “able to break the threshold of proving they were Jews”.  Many of them did not even know that they had “Jewish blood” amongst their ancestors!

The Nuremberg Laws mandated that having a single grandparent considered Jewish (I.e. having affiliation with the Jewish faith) was sufficient to be classified as a “Mischlinge” of Jewish blood, and eligible for deportation to the extermination camps.  Even if one’s mother was not Jewish and neither was her mother, and if their family had been of Catholic faith for generations, it did not matter.  Not being chalachically Jewish was not considered a valid criteria from Nazi perspective in its definition of who was a Jew.

Are all the descendent of Jews who survived the Holocaust Jewish  (many of whom are today members of ultraorthodox congregations)?  Clearly not.  In fact, according to the definition of Jew utilized by the Nazis, many people killed in the camps would certainly not have been “able to break the threshold of proving they were Jews” by the most lenient standards, and at the time, many may in fact have attempted to prove the opposite.

However, one would certainly hope that any Jew having escaped the Nazi camps, the Russian pogroms or the Russian Gulag would never have to endure the disgrace of seeing their jewishness questioned.

Are sixty percent of Jews today not Jewish?  Very likely, according to Rabbi Faber’s perception of current orthodox regulations. And this number of “non-Jewish Jews” is clearly growing by the day.

It is well known that Orthodox zealots (many of whom could not break the threshold of Jewishness themselves) rarely consider as “truly Jewish” members of Conservative, Reform and other liberal congregations; and certainly not anyone converting within these congregations, nor any of their descendents.

Unfortunately, the Jewish religion is shrinking rapidly.  Even if one had to consider all Jews to be truly Jewish, and all their descendents as truly Jewish, as a whole Judaism is losing ground dramatically in proportion to other faiths.  If one had to be more objective and, as Rabbi Farber acknowledges, recognize that at the very least half of today’s Jews are not chalachically Jewish, the picture would be even bleaker.

As per Encyclopedia Britannica, the figures for the 1990 to 2000 decade are extremely alarming and, unfortunately, the projections for the future even less encouraging. (wikipedia fastest-growing_religion).

Christianity is still fast growing.  On average, over the 1990 to 2000 decade, the number of children born to Christian families has been around 22,700,000 per year.  Conversions have averaged around 2,500,000 each year; bringing the total growth of Christianity to about 25,200,000 new members each year.

Islam is the fastest growing of the main religions.  Growing faster than Buddhism or even Hinduism and proportionally about 50% faster than Christianity.  Over the above decade, the number of children born to Islamic families has been around 21, 700,000 per year.  Conversion rates have been 850,000 each year, bringing the total growth of Islam to about 22,600,000 new members each year, for a total of 1,000,000,000 to 1,800,000,000 members.

While many other faiths see their numbers growing steadily, the numbers for the children of Israel have been mostly stagnant – Haredi Jews excluded.

Over the above decade, the number of children born to Jewish families has been around 195,000 per year.  Contrary to most other religions, conversion rates have been constantly negative at (MINUS) -70,500 each year.  Judaism is indeed the only major religion that has the sad privilege of losing over one third of its children to other faiths each year or about half if Haredi Jews are excluded from the calculation.

The annual growth of the Jewish tribe is therefore only around 125,000 new members each year.  To put this number in perspective, at the current rate, it would take about 180 years for the entire Jewish population (including all Jews unable to “break the threshold of proving they’re Jews”) to increase to a level equivalent to the number of members Islam is adding to its mosques each and every year!

The Haredi sect is the only growing segment of the Jewish tribe.  Wikipedia: “If Haredi Judaism is regarded as a separate religion from mainstream Judaism, then it is the fastest growing religion in the world by percentage growth per year. In Israel, Haredi Jews grow at a rate of 6% per year or a doubling time of about 11.5 years, mainly because of sustained high fertility levels. However, the current total population of Haredi Jews is around 1.3 million globally.”

Based on the above numbers, the Haredi sect if in fact growing by about 70,000 members each year.  This means that today, close to half of the children born into Judaism are from Haredi parents, and this trend is only increasing.  On the other hand, it also means that about half of the Jewish children born in all other congregations are being “lost” to other faiths, mostly through intermarriage.

So what do all these numbers mean for the Jewish tribe in the years to come?

  1. Judaism will keep shrinking rapidly in proportion to other main religions – primarily against Islam, which is the fastest growing of the main religions in the world.  From a pure numerical aspect, Judaism will become a negligible entity.  (It is often said that the entire number of Jews in the world is substantially lower than the statistical error on the Chinese population census.)
  2. The remaining members of the Jewish tribe (Haredi Jews included) will for the most part be composed of people who “would not be able to break the threshold of proving they’re Jews”.
  3. The number of Jewish children being lost to other faiths through conversion attrition and intermarriage will gradually increase from the current level of +/-50%.  In time, Haredi Jews excepted, Judaism will lose more children to other faiths than it will gain through natural birth growth and conversion combined.
  4. Extremely disparate birthrates between Haredi Jews versus non-Haredi Jews will create an unbalanced situation, with a fast growing Haredi community weighing heavily on the future directions of the Judaic faith (including conversion issues) and negatively on the historically secular Israeli society and its internal and international politics.
  5. The general trend for Judaism will be to have on one hand a fast growing ultra-orthodox, ultra-conservative fringe (soon to become a majority), with its inherent problems of intolerance and sectarianism, and on the other hand a fast shrinking, elitist club of highly educated, cosmopolitan and liberal non-orthodox Jews, mostly in Europe and North America, who have truly very little in common with their distant Haredi cousins.
  6. Tensions between ultra-orthodox and non-orthodox communities will increase mutual integration issues, such as conversions and intermarriages (within and outside of the tribe).
  7. Demographic pressure on Judaism and on the state of Israel, such as the explosive growth of its Arab “minority”, will gradually weaken their international recognition and threaten their very existence.
  8. The growing refusal of dialogue promoted by the Haredi community will reduce the likelihood of a pacific resolution to the Israeli-Arab conflict in the Middle East.

What can be done about it?

Rabbi Farber and many others have voiced their concerns that Israel and, by extension, the Jewish tribe are facing demographical, conversional and existential time bombs.  Current trends are weakening Israel and Judaism.  Time is not on our side.

New strategies, new beliefs and new attitudes are required if our grandchildren and their grandchildren have any hope of being part of thriving and growing communities that will influence the world in a positive manner as they have in past centuries.

Israel, and all Jewish congregations around the world, should recognize officially the equal value of all proper, genuine, national or international Jewish conversions and the equality of all Jews before the law – including the laws of immigration.

Israel should deal with its 800,000+ immigrants that have no proper religious status as soon as possible.  As these “questionable citizens” have children and grandchildren, the problem keeps compounding.  These (not so) new immigrants and their children strongly feel the injustice of being considered “Jewish enough” to serve in the army and die for Israel, but “not Jewish enough” to be sincerely embraced by other Jewish Israeli nationals.

Bi-parental genetic transmission of Judaism should be recognized.  Children born of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers should be recognized as Jewish in the same way that children born of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father are.  (See “Who is  a Jew?  Should Judaism recognize children of Jewish fathers as halachically Jewish?” February 21, 2010).

All Jewish congregations – and particularly orthodox congregations – should urgently work at welcoming all individuals who wish to embrace Judaism in any of its multifaceted forms.  If one wishes to embrace Catholicism, it is not expected for that individual to become more Catholic than the Pope.  Millions of people are welcomed every year in various Christian churches.  On the other hand, many Jewish congregations are particularly unwelcoming to potential Jewish converts, requesting from them a level of orthodoxy that is not requested of other members of the congregation.  Subsequently, individuals who still decide to proceed with conversion, are often not being considered “truly Jewish” by other congregations or even not considered Jewish at all – often rejected by Jews who themselves would not be able “to break the threshold of proving they’re Jews”.

If no effort is made to be more welcoming, the Jewish tribe will keep losing half of its children to intermarriage, often in situations where a conversion of the non-Jewish partner would have been highly desirable.  If the spouses of our children do not feel that they are warmly and truthfully welcomed and invited to join the tribe, if they don’t feel desired as valued and equal members of the community, most of them will eventually say, The hell with it,” and move on.  Since Judaism is losing roughly 70,000 members each year, being more welcoming could potentially translate into a net increase of members of well over 100,000 each year.  Adding a hundred thousands new Jews to the tribe each year, as well as their children and future grandchildren, would potentially translate into millions of new, productive members, bringing badly needed revitalization to many dying or aging communities.

Intermarriage, defined as the marriage between someone born Jewish and someone (in the process of) being welcomed into the faith, should be seen as a blessing and not a curse – the unique opportunity to bring new members, fresh blood, fresh DNA, fresh perspectives and new dynamism into the tribe.

One should always remember that intermarriage within the tribe, where spouses often share fairly close family ties, is not without its own consanguinity problems.  Jewish genetic disorders, such as Bloom Syndrome, Crohn’s Disease, familial colon cancer, etc., are conditions that are unusually common among Ashkenazi Jews.  These same diseases can affect Sephardi Jews and non-Jews, but they afflict Ashkenazi Jews more often – as much as 20 to 100 times more frequently.  See: Judaism genetic disorder.

Being more welcoming – mostly through the positive influx of intermarriages – would also bring much happiness to Jewish parents who would see their “potentially lost” children, their sons and daughters in-laws and grand children grow into the tribe, rather than being excluded from it.

Intransigence is a lost and indefensible cause.  Locking children away from the “gentile world”, in this day and age, where over 99.9 percent of the world’s population is non-Jewish, is clearly a poor and ineffective strategy.  Today’s Jewish children will virtually all go to college or university where most of their friends will very likely not be Jewish.  From a purely statistical standpoint, the likelihood of marring outside of the tribe is much greater than inside.  Expecting partners of intermarriage Jews to beg for acceptance is ludicrous, illusory and rather offensive – particularly in societies where self-determination is seen as paramount.  Integration of new members into the tribe should be a mutual move, a convergence, an embrace, and a true welcoming.

The choice of losing all these children or welcoming them into the tribe with their partners and children lies in the hands of the various Jewish communities – predominantly the Orthodox communities that tend to question and reject Conservative and Reform conversions and that render their own conversions excessively long, complex and demanding.   The status-quo option is very real, and unfortunately very likely.  It will only lead to a further unavoidable dilution of the Jewish tribe through attrition and intermarriage.  Paradoxically, orthodox Jews who fear that very dilution and tend to close all doors to the outside world are perhaps the primary source of its occurrence.

In post WWII Europe, Jean-Paul Sartre famously said, “A Jew is someone that someone else calls a Jew.”

I similarly believe that it should be accepted that a Jew is someone who calls himself or herself Jewish and truthfully embraces the principles and traditions of the Jewish community he or she is part of – including people who genuinely embrace such principles and traditions through conversion, in the same way that all Jews did at one point or another in history.

It is time for Judaism to go back to its roots.  What was good enough for Abraham should be good enough for all Jews.  Abraham was not converted by a Haredi rabbi. Abraham was certainly not able to validate his jewishness by exhibiting his grandparent’s ketubah.  Abraham and his children for thousands of years certainly did not look, dress, pray or live their Judaism in any way that even resembles the fairly recent traditions of many ultra-orthodox communities.  Abraham simply made a commitment towards Judaism (or towards what gradually became Judaism and, at a later stage, Islam and Christianity).  In the same way, millions of Jews over the centuries have embraced a set of beliefs and a set of customs that have gradually evolved into the multiplicity, and diversity of numerous Jewish congregations all around the world, from India to Ethiopia, from Kazakhstan to Argentina, from Sephardic to Ashkenazi, from Reform to Conservative.

The only hope to see Judaism thrive in the future is to accept and value its various incarnations, its various customs, its many forms and its various members as equal elements of a multifaceted evolving religion.  It will certainly rest on the excessively difficult and challenging effort from each and every member of each and every community – particularly, but not exclusively, members of the orthodox community – to overcome their differences and their visceral distrust, and to embrace and welcome new and all who embrace Judaism as true members of the tribe.

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About Michel Botman

Michel Botman was born in Belgium, where visual arts have always flirted with the limits of reality. In the eighties, Michel Botman started exploring the first tools to manipulate images though computers. For about 15 years, Michel Botman worked throughout Europe in the emerging field of Computer Applications for the Graphic Arts. Extensive experience in Digital Imaging allowed Michel to move into the field of computerized systems for Diagnostic Imaging. As VP Sales & Marketing for eSys Medical and later with Eclipsys, Michel Botman always remained dedicated to the creativity and innovation that are at the heart of his career. At the present time, Michel Botman is refocusing his life towards graphic arts. “I studied photography in Europe, but never had time to practice it enough. Life took me on other paths towards computer technologies and running a business. I enjoyed it very much, but I also love art. I always keep my eyes open for exciting opportunities and people that touch my heart.” Michel Botman lives in Toronto with his wife Lindy and son Noah. Above Gravatar pictures are of Michel Botman, his wife Lindy Amato and his son Noah Botman.
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