It’s silly season again in the Jewish world. In other words, yet another fight has broken out over conversions in Israel, and ostensibly smart people have taken to saying some truly risible things.
In one corner, we find David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, reviving an old chestnut, one I’d thought had been laid to well-deserved rest years ago, but is apparently hardier than I assumed. His argument: When Hizbollah bombed a Buenos Aires Jewish center, killing scores, all that mattered for the terrorists was that the victims identified as Jews; likewise, there were no separate Nazi box cars, ghettoes and barracks for different Jews based on degree of Jewishness. Ergo, anyone with a sustained hankering for kasha varnishkes or Israeli folk dancing has a moral right to join the Jewish people.
There are a number of ways to respond to Mr. Harris, such as testing the logical limits of his position by asking if he knows how to spell unmentionable phrases like Jews for Jesus – but, honestly, there’s other silliness to cover, so we’ll have to suffice here with saying this: No thanks, we’d prefer not to hand the ultimate authority for defining Jewishness over to Adolf Eichmann and Hassan Nasrallah. The “argument from Hitler,” to coin a phrase, has emotive power, but little else to recommend it in a serious discussion among serious people.
Before taking leave of David Harris, however, one parting thought is in order. He begins his piece: ”I am a Jewish pluralist. I recognize that we are all on one journey, even though we proceed on many diverse paths.”
No, Mr. Harris, you’re a well-meaning fellow who’s concerned about Jews, but you’re no Jewish pluralist. If you were, you wouldn’t be able to write, as you do further on, that “there are those” – e.g. this writer and a majority of the Hamodia readership, in contrast to the Reform and Conservative movements, David Harris, the Nazis and Hizbollah – “who would willfully divide us, investing a monopoly of power in one interested party, creating hierarchies of ‘membership in the club,’ and relentlessly questioning the legitimacy of other would-be Jews.”
For David Harris’ benefit, here’s a one-line primer on pluralism: It begins with the pluralist’s openness to understanding the basis of the other’s position, and certainly to not mischaracterize it, and is followed by his commitment to live and let live to the extent no one is threatened thereby. Such tolerance for the other is grounded in respect, not necessarily respect for the other’s position, which the pluralist may regard as deeply erroneous, but respect for the other’s inherent human dignity and cherished staus before G-d.
Strange as it may seem, then, I am far more of the authentic pluralist in the matter of conversions, because I fully understand both my own position and that of Mr. Harris and company.
My position? There is one G-d, Who gave the Jewish people His Torah, and in that Torah, as interpreted by the Sages to whom He entrusted its transmission, He told us who, in spiritual reality, is a Jew and who is not. Harris’ position? First, a negation of all or almost all of the above. And once G-d has had nothing to say about who’s a Jew, the field is wide open.
As he himself put his worldview so well (with the liberty of a bit of embellishment by this writer), we’re all on one indefinable, amorphous journey, of unknown duration and nature, to an inherently unknowable destination, even though we proceed on many diverse, indeterminate paths. Given this definition –for lack of a better word — of Jews and Jewishness, if you’ve got your matzah balls, you’re all set, and logically so. A dip in the mikvah? Maybe, if it’s hot out. Circumcision? Nah. Genuine acceptance of the mitzvos? Fuggedaboudit.
So, as the reader can see, I clearly understand both positions on this issue. And while I honestly rue the tragedy of David Harris being robbed, likely through no fault of his own but by historical viccissitude, of his connection to the truth about G-d, Torah, the Jewish people and, ultimately, himself, I appreciate that, given his mistaken starting premises, his position makes good sense.
More: In keeping with my commitment to pluralism, I would not oppose Israel’s granting all who hold Harris’ position, as well as heterodox movements of all flavors, full authority over conversions to their sundry belief systems, as it grants such authority, and funding, to the Samaritans and other Jewishly schismatic sects.
But to protect the wellbeing of the Jewish people, there must be one proviso: the would–be converters and converts must be willing to set aside their personal and institutional egos, and acknowledge loudly and clearly that the terms “Judaism,” “Torah” and “Mitzvos” have already been taken – trademarked, if you will — by the Orthodox, and indeed by the Judaism of the ages, and that there is truth to the words of the refreshingly honest, late Reform clergyman David Forman (about whom more shortly): “While American Jews are creating a brand of Judaism that may be legitimate for its own reality, it is creating something that is simply not recognizable to the collective historical experience of the Jewish people.”
But, David Harris, what about you? As an aspiring pluralist, do you not owe it to me to make the effort to understand the basis for my position on conversion that I outlined concisely above? And more importantly, do you not owe it to me to respect my integrity and sincerity in espousing that position, based on authoritative Jewish legal rulings and love for fellow Jews, rather than to fling hurtful, false accusations about divisiveness, monopolies of power and sinister attempts to “relentlessly question the legitimacy of other would-be Jews”? Is this, truly, the language of the pluralist?