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Sharing Jewish Space: Membership, Conversion, and the Search for Community

Over the last two centuries, the Jewish people and their religion have become diverse as never before. As a result, it has become increasingly difficult to define a shared ethos around which the Jewish community can remain unified


Community may be defined as a collection of individuals who share something in common. That "something," whatever it may be — space, ethnicity, values and so forth — constitutes a basis for the formation of the community, and serves to demarcate its particular identity. It is what gives meaning to membership in "this" as distinct from "that" community. Among the principal tools for protecting a community’s identity are its admissions or membership policies. Through these policies, communities govern who is allowed in, limiting entrance to those who share and foster its particular identity. 
This is how it works in theory. Real communities, however, of which the Jewish community is a fine example, have neither a unified membership nor a clearly articulated or demarcated identity. More often than not, communities are formed not at some constitutional gathering, where a group sits down to define its commonality, but rather by members who "inherit" each other — resulting in a diverse membership body, with differing notions of the purpose of their collective enterprise. Given these circumstances, articulating a membership policy is a particularly complex and often fractious experience, for agreement regarding common purpose and shared identity is lacking. At times a certain policy will prevail, but in general this is more a measure of the power of the advocates of the policy than of its relevance or value. When this happens, there will be members whose understanding of the collective identity is not reflected in the admissions policy. These people, consequently, feel marginalized — even if their own membership is not contested. The spread of such resentment steadily undermines a community’s collective life. Despite these difficulties, a community cannot abdicate its role in determining its membership policy, since membership issues inevitably arise, and need to be resolved. Who is to be granted citizenship, rights, access to the goods that the community distributes? Such issues require a clear membership policy.  
  Havruta, a publication of Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem, Israel
The Jews, nowadays, face their own particular predicament. Over the last two centuries, the Jewish people and their religion have become diverse as never before. As a result, it has become increasingly difficult to define a shared ethos around which the Jewish community can remain unified. It is hardly surprising that perhaps the most pointed expression of denominationalism is the bitter contentiousness into which any discussion of membership and admission inevitably devolves. As a people divided over the question of what constitutes Judaism, we have been sadly unable to reach anything near a consensus on the question of “who is a Jew,” and all current attempts seem only to exacerbate an unhealthy intra-communal hostility within contemporary Jewish collective life.
A Jew is a Jew is a Jew?
The question of Jewish membership surfaces very early in our traditional literature. In God’s opening line to our founding father Abraham, God says: “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 12:1-2). But who will constitute this “great nation”?
Within Jewish traditional law one can locate three different criteria for membership — birth, marriage to a male Jew, and conversion — yet all three never co-existed at any one historical moment. In the biblical period, conversion was not a mechanism of membership, though marriage was. After the days of Ezra and Nehemiah in the Fifth Century BCE, marriage to a male Jew was no longer an admission ticket to the community. And from the rabbinic period onward — until the last twenty or thirty years — birth and conversion were the only two methods for acquiring membership.
In the Bible, being a part of Abraham’s "great nation" meant being one of his actual descendants. As we read in Genesis 12:7, "The Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘I will assign this land to your offspring.’"  As a signifier of its ethnic foundations, the Jewish nation takes the name of Abraham’s grandson Jacob, also called Israel: Bnei Yisrael, the children of Israel. Some Jews have given this ethnic notion a literal, racial interpretation, by which members of the nation are the sole carriers of a common “holy seed,” an image from the Book of Ezra (9:2).
The ethnic factor inevitably brings us to the thorny topic of patrilineal versus matrilineal descent.  In our own time, rising intermarriage rates yield higher percentages of children with only one Jewish parent. Is one Jewish parent enough, and if so, which one? In the Bible, ethnic affiliation and legal membership are transmitted to the offspring of Jewish fathers.  This ancient policy for determining ethnicity remained in effect as long as intermarriage was considered legal – which, in practice, meant Jewish men (Moses, for one) taking non-Israelite wives. Once intermarriage was banned, first by Ezra and later by rabbinic law, the patrilineal definition was dropped. If a Jew married a non-Jew, his marriage was not recognized by Jewish law, and his membership was not extended to his wife or children, who would be part of the mother’s community. Yet when a Jewish woman married a non-Jew, her children would remain Jews, though her husband would not become one (Mishnah Kiddushin 3:12).
This policy remained intact for close to two thousand years. It is still applied by the Orthodox and Conservative movements worldwide, by the Israeli and Canadian Reform movements, and by traditional and secular Israelis. In the United States, however, Reform Judaism formally adopted, in 1983, the position that either matrilineal or patrilineal descent is sufficient to confer membership in the Jewish nation, so long as the child is brought up Jewish.
This last phrase is critical. Ever since antiquity, Jews have pondered the question of whether ethnic belonging is sufficient in itself. Beyond the ties of blood, does membership require other factors as well, such as shared faith and behavior?  According to one age-old perspective, birth is enough, on both an individual and collective level. The covenantal promise of God to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their descendants is inviolable, regardless of Israel’s behavior. Children may stray, but they never cease to be one’s children.  As famously stated in the Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 44a: "Even though he has sinned, he is still an Israelite."  Belonging transcends faith and behavior, and is unaffected by ideological differences or sin.  A Jew is a Jew is a Jew.
But from the very beginning, another voice emanates from the Bible and Jewish law. Isaac and Ishmael shared the same father, Jacob and Esau the same father and mother, yet neither Ishmael nor Esau was considered a forefather of the Jewish people, nor were they or their offspring included in the Israelite nation. Something beyond biological descent seems to factor into the Bible’s definition of membership, but what this condition is, the Bible doesn’t say. 
Rabbinic commentaries filled in the gap. The Tosefta, an ancient supplement to the Mishnah, portrays Ishmael, the banished and disinherited son, as an idolater, adulterer and murderer. And even in the womb, the Midrash Genesis Rabbah explains, Esau pursued idolatry while Jacob pined after the study of Torah. The adult Esau is depicted in the Talmud as an adulterer, murderer and heretic. While these characterizations are found nowhere in the biblical narrative, they dramatize the notion, implied by the election narratives of Isaac and Jacob, that ethnicity alone is insufficient. Indeed the paradigm for the piety-based admission policy is found in Abraham himself. Abraham’s election is contingent on his leap of faith: "Go forth from your native land," and (if you do) "I will make of you a great nation." Throughout his life, Abraham was subjected to a battery of loyalty tests to justify his status. Only after he passes the final test of the Akeida, the Binding of Isaac, does God state: "Because you have done this and not withheld your son your favored one, I will bestow my blessing upon you" (Genesis 22:13).  
For a while, the performance factor seems to disappear. All of Jacob’s male children, without exception, are classified as members of the chosen family. But after the Exodus from Egypt, a legal code is woven into the biblical narrative.  Being God’s people is not simply an inheritance acquired at birth and guaranteed for life, but a dynamic identity composed of requirements and expectations. To remain God’s holy nation, Israel must "obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant." Israel does not simply inherit a promise – they inherit a purpose. Covenantal fidelity is now defined as the ultimate goal of election itself.  And if Israel rejects this purpose, the covenant is broken, with frightening consequences: 
You shall be left a scant few . . . because you did not heed the command of the Lord your God. And as the Lord once delighted in making you prosperous and many, so will the Lord now delight in causing you to perish and in wiping you out. (Deuteronomy 28:62-63). 
Only after they repent – which they inevitably will, sooner or later – will God reactivate His covenant with Israel.
Among the sharpest expressions of this conditionality of membership is found in the writings of Maimonides, who takes the position that ethnicity is not only insufficient, but is barely relevant. The central condition for membership is faith, as articulated by Maimonides in his introduction to Perek Helek, the last chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin:
When all these [thirteen] foundations [of faith] are perfectly understood and believed in by a person, [then] he enters the community of Israel and one is obligated to love and pity him and to act towards him in all ways in which the Creator has commanded that one should act towards his brother, with love and fraternity . . . But if a man doubts any of these foundations, he leaves the community [of Israel], denies the fundamental, and is called a sectarian, apikorus, and one who cuts among the plantings. One is required to hate him and destroy him. 
According to Maimonides, a Jew who rejects certain key principles of faith is cast out of Israel’s shared cultural space, regardless of his ethnic roots. Birth is not enough.
Intermarriage: Ruth the Moabite
Before intermarriage was declared illegal by Ezra, members of Bnei Yisrael included the non-Israelite women who married into the community. The first evidence of this process appears in Genesis, when the matriarchs and the subsequent wives of the sons of Jacob are integrated as members, despite their non-Abrahamic ancestry. Jacob’s daughter Dinah, by contrast, having no Israelite man to marry (other than her brothers), ultimately disappears from the story, and both she and her possible descendants are not mentioned among the Israelites who descended to Egypt. Women, in short, may acquire ethnicity, but do not transmit it.
However, intermarriage was sanctioned as a process of acquiring membership only if the non-Jewish spouse accepted the religious and national obligations of her husband. Otherwise, given the danger that the Israelite might become integrated into the idolater’s milieu, the intermarriage was forbidden. Thus the biblical awarding of membership through marriage is, in effect, a conceptual precursor of later rabbinic criteria for conversion.  In the Bible, however, such conversion of identity was achieved without a formal procedure, as in the classic case of Ruth the Moabite.
Ruth, of course, is often referred to as the first convert to Judaism, but mistakenly so.  She marries one of the sons of Elimelech and Naomi while these Israelites are sojourning in Moab. The intermarriage is cited matter-of-factly in the biblical text, with no explicit or implicit censure. The nature of Ruth’s relationship to the religion and people of Israel while in Moab is not discussed. Upon Naomi’s return to Israel, after the death of her husband and sons, she urges both her daughters-in-law to go back to their mothers’ homes. Naomi depicts Orpah, the Moabite daughter who opts to return, as returning to "her people and her gods" (Ruth 1:15), implying that her marriage to Naomi’s son had entailed a connection to a new people and a different god. Ruth, on the other hand, stubbornly professes loyalty to Naomi:
But Ruth replied, "Do not urge me leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people are my people, and your God my God" (Ruth 1:16). 
While rabbinic sources later interpreted this statement as a moment of conversion, Ruth does not convert in any formal sense. She never undergoes any official process of changing her religious or national identity (unless of course one identifies her mother-in-law Naomi as the first female rabbi). Rather, she joins the community and its religion through marriage, and remains a member despite her husband’s death. As such, in the words of the Book of Ruth, she is like "Rachel and Leah, both of whom built up the House of Israel." 
In the Book of Ezra, and subsequently in rabbinic sources, intermarriage as an avenue to membership is strictly ruled out. One of the more revolutionary aspects of contemporary Jewish life is the return of intermarriage as a viable option for Jews. 
What is particularly striking is the growing phenomenon of intermarried couples adopting a Jewish identity for their families. In the past, intermarriage often entailed a rejection of one’s Jewishness, and it was almost inconceivable to imagine a non-Jew wanting to adopt a Jewish identity. In the Middle Ages, for example, or in the Hitler era, a desire to convert to Judaism might have raised serious doubts as to one’s sanity and psychological stability. With the decline in anti-Semitism, and the mainstreaming of the Jewish people and Judaism into Western culture, especially in North America, that is no longer the case. Not only does the Jewish partner often preserve his or her Jewishness, but the non-Jewish spouse chooses to affiliate as well. For the first time since the biblical period, we are witnessing the resurrection of the intermarriage model for acquiring Jewish membership, with ever-increasing numbers of non-Jews, and children of mixed marriages who never underwent a formal conversion ceremony, taking an active part in the religious and collective life of the Jewish people.
In this context, the Reform movement’s policy of recognizing both patrilineal and matrilineal descent — with the critical proviso that the children be educated as Jews — may be seen as another expression of this membership option. When a marriage creates a Jewish family unit that confers Jewish identity and obligation, argue proponents of this approach, then the children born to that family are Jews, regardless of which parent is ethnically Jewish.
Jews by choice: The policy of Hillel the Elder
Conversion as a means of attaining Jewish membership was legally established during the Second Temple period, confirming the idea that Jewish identity transcended pure ethnicity.  For close to two millennia, until the 19th century, the rabbinic arbiters of halakha primarily viewed conversion as founded on the decision of an individual to become a member of the Jewish people and their religion, with little consideration given to his or her future fidelity to Jewish law. Just as a born Jew can freely choose to deviate and sin, so too could a convert, with the same consequences: marginalization, exclusion, and, presumably, divine punishment.  
A prime example of this view can be found in Hillel the Elder’s strikingly inclusive approach to the conversion process. In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, Rabbi Hillel converts three individuals whose commitment to observe Jewish law (to say nothing of their motivation for conversion) is highly suspect. In the first case, Hillel is willing to convert an individual who rejects the Oral Torah in its entirety. In the second, the individual is willing to convert so long as the process does not take more than a few moments, making a mockery of the process. (Perhaps he is converting as a favor to his spouse or her family.) In the last case, the individual wants to convert simply because he believes that he will acquire some financial gain; neither the laws nor the faith of Judaism are of any consequence to him.
In none of these instances, the Talmud tells us, does Hillel raise an objection or precondition before assenting to the proselyte’s request. For Hillel, the mere desire to convert is sufficient. Only after the conversion is complete does the education process begin – which Hillel himself immediately initiates with each new Jew.
The central legal source defining the process of conversion in the Talmud, in Tractate Yevamot, likewise does not set faith or practice as preconditions for becoming a Jew, but it does stipulate that the convert must know what he is getting into, politically, religiously and legally. Similarly, the three major medieval codifications of Jewish law hold that the primary condition for the convert’s acceptance is that he must be cognizant of the fact that conversion to Judaism joins him not merely to the God of Israel, but to a particular historical community, whose members have often suffered as a consequence of their affiliation.  If the convert is still willing, "he is accepted forthwith" as a Jew.  Only at this point is the newcomer formally made aware of other factors that might cause him to get cold feet and reverse his decision.  These include a cursory tour of Jewish law and the consequences of transgression. Prior to conversion, the person could eat what he or she wanted, ignore the Sabbath, and even neglect the poor and hungry.  Once a Jew, however, the convert will be held liable, like all other Jews, for deviance from the legal system.
As opposed to this minimalist approach to conversion, a longstanding minority opinion in rabbinic and medieval Jewish law required of potential converts a prior commitment to all or much of Jewish law. By this view, conversion should only be granted to those aspiring to become ideal citizens. As stated quite starkly in the Sifra, an ancient halakhic Midrash on the Book of Leviticus: "A convert who accepted upon himself [as binding] all the words of the Torah with the exception of one, is not accepted. Rabbi Yossi son of Rabbi Yehudah said: Even if [the exception] is a minor matter of Rabbinic minuteness."
This Midrash advances a model of conversion that is conditional on the convert’s full acceptance of all of Jewish law. While an ethnic Jew may reject the law yet remain a Jew by virtue of his ethnicity, a convert can only join to the extent that he or she embodies the ideal notion of the shared ethos of the Jewish community.  This latter approach to conversion, while still debated, has become increasingly dominant in Orthodox Judaism since the middle of the 19th century, when secularism and Reform Judaism began to present viable alternatives to living Jewishly.  In the 20th century, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a leading halakhic authority, ruled flatly that “a convert who did not accept upon himself mitzvot . . . is not a convert at all.”
Reweaving the safety net
Where does all this leave us?  Confused and divided, with no agreement on any one of the avenues for acquiring membership utilized by Jews in different periods in Jewish history. The American Reform movement, by adopting patrilineality as an admission ticket to Judaism, creates a debate, for the first time in our history, with regards to the question of just who is a Jew by birth. Officially, all the Jewish denominations reject intermarriage as a means of acquiring membership, yet a huge proportion of Jewish people outside of Israel are acting differently, as intermarriage enters mainstream Jewish life and gentile spouses often affiliate with Judaism and the Jewish people. As to formal conversion, there is no broad consensus, especially in light of Orthodoxy’s adoption of the tougher policy that sets Orthodox faith and observance as preconditions. If an individual can become a member through conversion only by fully embodying the ideals, values and practices of Orthodox Judaism, then by definition, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist conversions are meaningless according to the Orthodox.
Though the disagreement over conversion might seem less significant, given the relatively small number of converts overall, it has become the source of some of the most divisive and rancorous inter-denominational debates. A policy that legitimizes only those converts who are willing to be Orthodox does not affect converts alone, but all Jews who are not Orthodox. Through this policy, non-Orthodox Jews feel that they are being disinherited and disrespected.  When this policy is upheld by the State of Israel, then non-Orthodox Jews feel that Israel, a major focus of modern Jewish collective identity and memory, is being taken from them. The proliferation of these feelings generates strong forces of bifurcation that threaten Jewish collective unity.
The disagreements on birth and intermarriage pose an even greater threat. Even if some did not view birth as sufficient to express Jewish collective identity, throughout the ages it provided a form of safety net for the community. Even if we disagreed with each other regarding issues of faith and law, these disagreements only rarely resulted in excommunication or apostasy. An Israelite, even though he or she had sinned, was still considered an Israelite. But by debating who is a Jew by birth, with roughly half of the Jewish children born today in the United States having only one Jewish parent, the contemporary Jewish community has lost its safety net.
Real communities are rarely defined by what their diverse members hold in common, and can at best aspire to be united by a search for an elusive collective identity. This search, however, presupposes an agreement regarding the makeup of the individuals who are building this common life. When Jews disagree on the issue of who is a Jew, when one side brands the other as outsiders whose opinions need not be taken into account, the search for a Jewish collective identity across denominational lines cannot even begin.  
The threat to our collective life is real and it is our religious responsibility to respond. We must decide whether we want to be a part of one people, to share and live together as partners in the same “house,” or whether we want to move out and create separate communities. If we want to stay, then it will require our acute attention and a common willingness to do take action.
If it were possible to imagine a compromise that would require all parties to relinquish something of their denominational "truth" for the sake of the Jewish people, we could at once begin the process of building a shared membership policy. Unfortunately, it’s hard to envision what such a compromise would look like. Reform Judaism is not about to repeal its decision on patrilineality; Orthodoxy is not about to recognize non-Orthodox conversion procedures or rabbinic courts; and intermarriage as an acceptable option for a great many Jews is here to stay. Given these circumstances, how are we to construct the necessary safety net, one that can transcend ideological rifts and enable us at least to recognize one another as members of the same people?
While it may seem counterintuitive and untenable, I believe we can solve the problem if all Jews accept as members anyone who would qualify under any one of the traditional membership policies outlined above.  At issue is not whether we all adopt the idea of patrilineal descent, or agree on any specific conversion process, but rather that we recognize that we cannot determine the membership policies of the whole Jewish people on the basis of our own particular ideology or denominational affiliation. A community’s "shared space" must be determined by the members of the whole community, even a divided one.  We have listened to the narrative of how individuals have joined our people over our long history, and we have arrived at differing conclusions. But so long as a person remains within the boundaries of this broad narrative, I believe it is our duty to recognize the legitimacy of his or her claim to membership in the Jewish people. 
Initially, this suggestion will surely be greeted with widespread condemnation.  But let us unpack the inevitable objections and see if they can be surmounted.  Adopting an inclusive outlook that awards membership to individuals whose status is contested need not be an issue in most areas of Jewish collective life.The State of Israel, as the home of a diverse Jewish population and a world center of Jewish life, can and should be the first to abide by this policy. Citizenship in the state is not a halakhic category, as is evidenced by its non-Jewish citizens. Israel’s secular Law of Return already has a far broader definition of Jewish membership — one Jewish grandparent — than that of halakha.  What remains to be done is to ensure the right of non-Orthodox denominations in Israel to confer Jewish membership as a civil category.
For countless Jewish communal institutions around the world – synagogues, Jewish federations, JCC’s, day schools, summer camps – there need be no legal impediments to a broad definition of membership.  There is no halakhic reason why a child of patrilineal descent whose parents want to send him or her to a Conservative or Orthodox day school should be barred at the door. And if the right to a Jewish education need not be limited to one denomination’s definitions, the same surely holds true for leadership positions in Jewish organizations. We might also ask ourselves whether the eligibility of Jews for such ritual roles as being counted in a minyan or receiving an aliyah should be based on an examination of his or her membership credentials, considering the pain, embarrassment and factionalism this might engender. In all of the above areas, I suggest that we adopt the rule of thumb whereby all Jewish institutions, including the State of Israel, should be willing to allocate membership in accordance with the same inclusive criteria they already use for awarding honors for financial contributions. Donors to Jewish organizations are routinely embraced as Jews regardless of their religious pedigrees. Analogously, young men and women who are Jewish enough to be drafted into the Israeli army should be counted as insiders for membership purposes as well.    
In fact, the only area where a seemingly insurmountable problem remains is that of marriage, where differences of opinion over membership lead to boundaries that many Jews believe cannot be overcome.  Welcoming a child into Hebrew school, or sitting on a board with a patrilineal Jew, or saying Amen when a Reform convert is called to the Torah are one thing; but marriage is quite another. The divergent polices regarding membership will invariably lead some Jews to refrain from marrying others.
Yet this problem, however grave in theory, does not in practice necessarily require a collective solution. Most Jews today do abide by the broadest definitions of membership. Jews who are willing to marry outside the faith are obviously likely to accept patrilineality; but so are many Jews who are opposed to intermarriage. For the majority of Jews, so long as an individual has converted, regardless of the form the conversion took, he or she is considered a full-fledged member and potential marriage partner. Where the problem is most acute is obviously in traditional circles, Orthodox Jewry in particular. Here too, however, the problem in most cases has a functional solution.  The child of a Reform convert, for example, who wishes to marry an Orthodox Jew who abides by Orthodox ideology, will simply need to accept Orthodox definitions of membership, and undergo a new formal conversion. And if Orthodoxy does not want to find itself with a shrinking marriage pool, increasingly isolated from the rest of the Jewish community, it will utilize or at least approximate the precedent set by Hillel and adopt conversion processes that are more welcoming and sensitive.
In the end, the question is whether we are committed enough to the Jewish people to stop playing denominational politics with our future. Although a shared and common membership policy is preferable, it is in no way a necessity. All we need is to recognize that Judaism is a collective enterprise, larger and stronger than any one of our denominations. Accepting this truism does not entail the violation of any halakhic commitments or affirmations of faith, nor does it require some idyllic consensus. We are an ideologically divided people and such we will remain. What we need is not to relax our principles, but to back away from political posturing, and resist the urge to de-legitimize one another.
Once we do this, we will realize that in most areas – indeed the most important areas – of our collective life, we can in fact accept each other as Jews even though we may disagree with the Judaism the other professes. Sectarian loyalties have too often persuaded us that compromise is impossible, yet in most instances this simply isn’t so. And where compromise cannot be reached, ad hoc solutions are readily available. All that is needed is a healthy will to survive, not as individuals, but as a people, one people.
Adapted from an article in Havruta , a new publication of Shalom Hartman Institute. Click here for subscription information.  

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