Earlier this month, National Public Radio aired a report on its afternoon program All Things Considered that began with this question:
When is a Jew not Jewish enough?
The story went on to describe the circumstances of one Jonathan Leavitt, a native Californian who recently arrived in Israel as a new immigrant to discover that, according to Jewish law, he cannot be considered a Jew because his mother’s conversion process had not been overseen by a Torah observant rabbinic authority.
Amidst numerous quotations from two victims of “domination” by the “ultra-Orthodox” and one indignant representative of the Reform movement, NPR honored its own version of editorial balance by including two sentences from an Orthodox rabbi who, although a distinguished authority, was clearly less than fluent in the English language.
Predictably, the article concluded by playing the “Holocaust card,” implying that Orthodox Judaism is somehow comparable to the Nazi party and blaming its rabbis for dividing the Jewish world.
For those genuinely interested in understanding the other side of the issue, I offer this letter, only slightly revised from the one I sent NPR:
I listened with interest to Lourdes Garcia-Navarro’s report about Jewish identity in Israel. Regrettably, your reporter did your audience a disservice by not clearly representing both sides of the issue.
For the first 3,100 years of Jewish history, there existed virtually no debate over the fundamental prerequisite for conversion to Judaism: namely, a demonstration of sincere commitment to upholding the precepts of Torah law. Consequently, the ultimate decision regarding acceptance of any prospective convert finds its basis in the collective scholarship and wisdom of judges who are themselves fully observant and grounded in the legal traditions of Torah law and practice.
Since the early 1800s, however, the Reform and Conservative movements have, by their own admission, discarded adherence to Torah law as an essential principle of their belief systems. Consequently, because individuals converted by representatives of these movements have been denied the information necessary to make any real commitment to Torah observance, their conversions cannot be considered authentic.
No one is questioning the sincerity of Jonathan Leavitt or any other intended convert whose Jewish identity is not accepted by the Israeli rabbinate. But just as an immigrant seeking United States citizenship must meet the requirements of this country before he can be considered a true citizen, so too must any hopeful proselyte meet the established standards of traditional Jewish law to be universally accepted as a member of the Jewish people. If not for this single standard, the Jewish nation would truly become a house divided against itself.
There is no issue of politics or elitism here. Neither is there, as your correspondent suggested from the first line of her report, a question of being “Jewish enough.” Unlike any other people in history, the Jews have survived countless generations of persecution and attempted genocide because we have remained firm in our commitment to our values and laws. Today traditional Judaism is under assault from a new adversary: the political correctness of contemporary culture, with media outlets like NPR grasping for every opportunity to discredit Torah Jews in the eyes of the world for daring to insist that the traditions of 33 centuries are sacred and inviolable.
Finally, and for the record, there is no such thing as an “ultra-orthodox” Jew. It is a media-created term, designed to imply irrational extremism, just as the name “orthodox” was imposed by the early Reform movement leaders two hundred years ago to imply anachronism and calcification. Such disingenuous labeling stifles meaningful discussion and is inconsistent with responsible journalism.
Rabbi Yonason Goldson
Emily at NPR replied to my email, informing me that my feedback is important to them, and that my thoughts have been noted.
It is comforting to know, as well, that “NPR is always delighted to hear from listeners.”