Dr. Netanel Fisher is a visiting scholar at the Kohelet Forum and at the Israel’s Open University. Dr. Fisher holds a PhD from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has served as an adjunct scholar at the University of Pennsylvania and at Hebrew University and as an Associate Researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.
This exchange focuses on Becoming Jewish, a new book edited by Dr. Fisher and Professor Tudor Parfitt (Cambridge Scholars Publishing). In the next installments we will also be speaking to Professor Parfitt. Part 1 can be found here.
Dear Dr. Fisher,
In your first response, as you described the scope of the conversion phenomenon your book deals with, you seemed to bundle active, life-long Reform Jews who have non-Jewish mothers together with people who have simply “decided” that they are Jewish without any procedure or sign of commitment. You wrote that while many people declare themselves Jewish without seeking the approval of gatekeepers, “we need to carefully pay attention to this new reality: joining the Jewish people has become a vague and fluid action.”
Now, non-orthodox Jews who don’t strictly follow the halakha are not a fringe group in the Jewish world today – they have been the majority for a while. Membership in this group may indeed be fluid. Membership in the Satmar Hassidic sect is clearly less fluid.
My question: Who exactly needs to “carefully pay attention” to the phenomenon you describe? Should the so-called fluidity of joining the Jewish people be a concern for non-orthodox Jews? If so, why?
Thanks again for paying attention to our study.
Let me open with the fact that the book does not just deal with conversion. Indeed many “new joiners” convert to Judaism, but most of them don’t. People join the Jewish people by simply being the spouse or the child of a Jew; by having a long-distance connection to Judaism (such as the Anusim or the ten lost tribes decedents); or by simply identifying as Jews.
One more important preliminary point: the book is an academic effort to “connect the dots” between all the different phenomena discussed in Becoming Jewish. We are not policy makers or policy advisors. The scholars who contributed their papers to the volume did their best to delineate and describe a new reality in Jewish history. With all due respect, our personal views on “dealing with” or “solving” this new challenge have no more weight or importance than the views of others.
Having said that, let me try to address your questions:
I wrote that we need to “carefully pay attention to the phenomenon” in two senses:
First, as scholars, it’s a fascinating phenomenon. Its amazing to think of how only a few decades ago Jews were in such a terrible situation during the Holocaust and of how now it seems we are in a completely opposite era, one in which so many people want to join us. One can even see that as the fulfillment of the vision of the prophets, who talk about the gentiles coming closer to Judaism and the Jews. I think it is worth thinking of how our history is changing before running into practical dilemmas. Don’t you think so? Don’t you think we need to ask ourselves what is the meaning of this new reality before we try to come up with solutions?
Now I will get to your question directly. I can’t speak on behalf of anyone else, but I do think that the new trend should be a concern for everyone who cares about Judaism. In fact, it already is a concern for a large part of the Jewish people. Take, for example, the current debate in the Conservative movement about whether to allow non-Jews to formally be part of the community. This discussion is a direct consequence of a reality in which non-Jews are already becoming part of the Jewish community, in this case the Conservative movement. The Reform movement has its dilemmas too. They also have a debate about whether to marry Jews and non-Jews and, if so, under what conditions. Rabbi Dr. Dalia Marx, an Israeli Reform Rabbi, presents in the book beautiful theological dilemmas in the Reform movement regarding how to modify the prayer book (the Sidur) and service in the face of a reality, in which so many non-Jews are part of the community.
In short, what I’m trying to say is very simple – The changes described in Becoming Jewish are already transforming the Jewish world right now. It’s a reality that every Jewish movement is facing in its own way, and my prediction is that it is going to shake up the Jewish world more and more in the coming decades. Being Jewish is interesting, fascinating and challenging these days, isn’t it?