The Orthodox columnist offers his own scathing view of what he calls a ‘failed Reform experiment’
Not a week passes in the Jewish media without a reference to it. Acres of print are devoted to its analysis. Diverse stories all boil down to one question. Who is a Jew?
In Israel, a religious court has ruled that conversions performed by the head of the conversion authority are not halachically valid, leaving people who thought they were Jewish in limbo. In London, children are barred from a Jewish school because, despite having Jewish fathers, their mothers did not convert halachically — so they are not Jewish. A new scheme has opened for young Russian Israelis doing their army service, offering a quickie six-month Jewish conversion. The Jews of Britain are increasing in number, we’re told, or maybe not — depending on who is counted as Jewish.
It’s the “Who is a Jew” thing again and again — the old-wine-in-new-bottles arguments. And yet — it is so simple, so very simple.
You are Jewish if your mother is Jewish. It doesn’t matter about your father — he can be Buddhist, Afro-Caribbean or Saudi-Arabian; it makes not a jot of difference to your Jewish status. You’re Jewish if your mother is Jewish or if you converted to Judaism according to the halachah. If you did it any other way, you’re not a Jew. I know that’s upsetting to read, and hideously unfair on the children who suffer the consequences of their parents’ folly. But I didn’t make this up.
It’s actually amazingly simple, really. Now, if you want to make a succah, there are dozens of laws telling you what is and isn’t kosher. The light through the roof has to be just so; the height and the number of walls — even your intention when building the succah is taken into account.
But one of the defining principles of Judaism is glaringly easy. You’re a Jew through matrilineal descent or halachic conversion. And there is no other way. Yes, it’s hard; it takes time and dedication and a quantum leap in lifestyle. But it depends how dedicated you really are.
No matter who tells you to the contrary, you are not going to be counted as a Jew unless you do it properly. If you take the one-year “Jew-Maker Lite” programme, then the only ones who will call you a Jew are the makers of the programme. I hear these euphemisms today: “She’s half-Jewish,” they say. Half-Jewish? That’s like being half-pregnant. You’re either pregnant or you’re not.
The halachah is what it’s all about. Make no mistake: Reform, progressive, Conservative, Masorti, reconstructionist — these man-made groups operate a pick-’n’-mix style halachah more akin to “Jewish-style” food: it looks and smells like the real thing, but it isn’t. Without the halachah, it is impossible to be Jewish.
Real converts know the score — you don’t become Jewish by passing a year’s diploma. Woody Allen joked that he’d done two years of a three-year black-studies course. “If I’d done the extra year,” he said, “I’d be black by now.”
The biggest advocates are not those after academic discussion; if you look at the people who push this deformation of Judaism (excluding their officials), the majority of them have a clear agenda. They want to marry a non-Jew. They want their bride accepted as a Jew because they want Jewish children or their parents not to be too embarrassed, or, indeed, they want to be regarded as still Jewish; which of course they are. But their wives and children? Sadly not.
One day, a wealthy and influential chap assailed me about this subject. “My Israel charity will not do business with you unless you recognise my wife and children as real Jews — and my rabbi,” he said. I replied that his rabbi was a Jew because his mother was, but the others...
The Reform experiment of “Grow-Your-Own-Jews” has utterly failed on its own terms as well. Instead of producing hundreds of reformed Jews, according to the latest American Conservative figures, they have produced a generation of grandchildren who in the majority assimilate or marry out. It’s the same in the UK, and they know it.
Last year the Reform organisation got upset that an Israeli minister wouldn’t call its official a rabbi. Some readers of the JC wrote in to complain when I did the same thing on the same principle. It’s time that reformist movements stopped looking for Jews to recognise their new religions and for themselves to recognise that they are Jews if their mothers are — not by their own non-halachic conversions, or the say-so of an official who presides over same-sex marriages.
Charles Golding is a broadcaster and journalist. He runs media and presentation training courses at www.bowtie.co.uk.