Aliyah eligibility should not depend on level of Jewish observance
Former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau weighed in on the difference between a democratic state and a Jewish state. To him, it’s clear that one supersedes the other, despite both being important.
According to him, since the word “Jewish” appears more than 10 times in the Israeli Declaration of Independence, there is no question that this is the basis upon which Israel was founded. While this is true, there is a big difference between the words “Jewish” and “Judaism,” the latter being the title of a recent Jerusalem Post article titled “Judaism is the foundation of Israel, not democracy, former chief rabbi claims,” (JPost online, March 19).
Sadly, the confusion of these two words has been the basis of a terrible misunderstanding of who is rightly eligible for citizenship in the Jewish homeland. It’s almost incomprehensible how such a misconception could exist because each of these words has a completely different meaning and representation.
The word “Jewish,” according to dictionary.com means, “relating to or characteristic of the Jews” while the word “Judaism” means, “the monotheistic religion of the Jews, having its ethical ceremonial and legal foundation in the precepts of the Old Testament and in the teachings and commentaries of the rabbis as found chiefly in the Talmud.”
What is the difference between "Jewish" and "Judaism"?
Obviously, one refers to the people while one refers to the religion, yet the mixing of these two words and their erroneous amalgamation has been responsible for a great injustice that has been happening throughout the history of Israel, causing the rejection of some Jewish-born individuals from gaining entrance into the country of their forebears.
While it’s true that one is born into a peoplehood, tribe or race, it is not, likewise, true that one is born into a religion. The adoption of a particular faith must be a personal decision made by everyone once they become adults and are convinced that those precepts are what they believe. You may be born into a Catholic family but that does not make you Catholic until you take on the religion as a personal choice.
However, Jewishness is a race, a tribe and a peoplehood one is born into. In other words, you are either born a Jew or not a Jew. And similar to the religion of Catholicism, you enter the faith of Judaism once you choose to accept its tenets. For those born into the tribe who do not choose to accept the tenets of Judaism, they nonetheless remain connected to the tribe and peoplehood regardless of their religious views.
This is the crux of the matter but for some strange reason, very few people seem to understand this very simple and very clear separation. This confusion, whether deliberate or not, is still happening at a very dangerous time in history, when every Jew should be regarded as part of the tribe, irrespective of their belief in the religion.
Why does the difference between "Jewish" and "Judaism" matter?
Why is this important? Because the Diaspora is home to some eight million Jews, the vast majority of whom are not following Judaism as prescribed by the rabbinate, which only views Orthodox Judaism as the one accurate and genuine expression of the Jewish faith, largely based on the Talmud, which is not always consistent with the Jewish scriptures.
As things stand, if you are one of those eight million who has decided that given the many scary developments for Jews in today’s world, you would like to make Israel your home, you will, first and foremost, be required to provide a letter from a rabbi in your community, stating that you are Jewish and preferably active and observant. Short of such a letter, you will not be considered for citizenship. That’s the way it works.
This means that if you were born Jewish but chose to not be religiously active or observant, your identity as an authentic Jew has been diminished or downgraded. It means that you are, at best, looked upon as suspicious and, at worst, a traitor. This, of course, is very troubling because one’s birth into a Jewish family is not good enough for Israel.
It’s even more disturbing when you realize that birth into a Jewish family is the very reason why someone is persecuted. Contrary to what some may think, Jewish persecution is not necessarily because of religious observance or a connection to the political decisions that have been made by the Jewish homeland.
Persecution does not begin and end with the yarmulke
One does not have to wear a skullcap and black clothing to be persecuted as a Jew. Non-religious and non-affiliated Jews have been persecuted for the simple reason that they are known to be Jews or have facial recognition as a Jew. It could also be that they live in a Jewish area or have attended a culturally Jewish event, even though they are not religious.
The point is that if Jews, both religious and non-religious, are at risk of persecution or worse, why is it that the one safe place for a Jew, Israel, has made it impossible for non-religious Jews to be just as accepted for citizenship as religious Jews? Why does it continue to combine religion with ethnicity as a prerequisite for entrance into the homeland? Why at a time like this when all Jews are vulnerable, regardless of their beliefs?
A stiff-necked people
The Jewish people were not called stiff-necked for no reason. Jews are notoriously known for being individualistic, possessing many opinions, arguing many positions and choosing to live a wide variety of lifestyles. They are neither monolithic nor monochromatic and that is why it is impossible to force them into one particular box that obligates them to adopt one set of beliefs.
It is incumbent upon Israel to understand the difference between the words “Jewish” and “Judaism,” because the times demand that they do. As we are embroiled in the controversy of reforms, this is one which has been a long time coming and one which must be reconsidered in order to finally set the record straight.
If someone is born a Jew, they remain a Jew – full stop. Having a different belief system from Orthodox Judaism or having no belief system at all, does not cancel out one’s connection to the tribe and the peoplehood.
If Israel continues to act as if it does, they will have been the ones who turned away their own people from the safest refuge in today’s world for a Jew. That would be an unforgivable and tragic irony that would indict the same people who waited 2,000 years to finally come home. All Jews must have that same right – especially now.
This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post on March 21, 2023 and is reposted with permission.
A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.