“Are you Jewish?” – A Breakdown In Communication

On my campus there is an active Chabad “shaliach” who often stands in the public thoroughfares of the university searching for Jews. Now, how one searches for “Jews” is anyone’s guess since, last I checked, being “Jewish” is not a strictly racial affiliation and the irreligious or non-religious Jews that he is looking for do not stand out from all the other students in any meaningful way. They also have tattoos, popular hair styles, clothing, and now even full beards! Some such “shluchim” look for the stereo-typical “Jewish nose” or other such [supposedly] identifying features, but mostly they are at a loss as to the object of their search – and so they stand there looking almost lost themselves.

But one thing is for sure: they are driven by a misguided mystical, racial, and xenophobic definition of Jewishness, even if on the surface they appear as though they have the interest of Torah and the halakhah in mind. They are so worried that they may spend (read “waste”) their time with someone who either isn’t Jewish but is interested in Judaism or identifies as Jewish but only shares patrilineal descent (a situation that most other groups view as a problem worthy of solving), that they often miss Jews who are right in front of their faces.

I know this because while after having approached this “shaliach” wearing a black leather kippah and tzitzit, having spoken to him in fluent Modern Hebrew, having declined to shake his lulav because I told him that I already had done so in shul that morning, and having shared with him that I had made aliyah with my family several years ago – after all this – he looked me in the eye and asked, “So, you’re Jewish, right?”

I was borderline indignant and gave him a polite, but stern piece of my mind. “Rabbi,” I said, “are you serious? Why would you ask me after this entire conversation if I am Jewish?” He responded by saying, “Well, I have to ask because you never know for sure.” I told him, “If we can never be ‘sure’ then you are suspect too, rabbi! How do you make ‘sure’ that someone is Jewish? Is there a blood test that can definitively tell you who is and who isn’t? And why ask? I can tell you whatever I want – what if I’m lying?” I could tell that he saw my point, but he maintained his [decidedly racist] position on the matter, turned away from me, and continued on his snipe-hunt.

I thought about how this type of questioning is not only unnecessary, but is also completely useless. In fact, I came up with a scenario where it could lead to complete error. The following is loosely based on my conversation with this “shaliach” and also other similar conversations had by others (with other Chabad “shluchim”) of which I am aware. I submit it for your amusement and as food for thought.

Rabbi: “Are you Jewish?”

Passerby: “Yes.”

Rabbi: “So, your mother is Jewish?”

Passerby: “No.”

Rabbi: “Ah, so your father is Jewish?”

Passerby: “Yes, of course.”

Rabbi: “You know that no matter how Jewish you may feel, you can only be Jewish if your mother is Jewish. Even if you have a Jewish father, that does not make you Jewish. I’m sorry, my friend, but you are not really Jewish.”

Passerby: “No, I’m Jewish even without a Jewish mother.”

Rabbi: “What are you, then? Reform? Conservative? Reconstructionist? Secular?”

Passerby: “I’m a convert. My mother is a Christian and my father is Avraham Avinu.”

And this, my dear friends, is how a racist, Eurocentric, and xenophobic approach to Judaism and halakhah can mislead someone into breaking 36 mitzvot of the Torah all at once. Yes, I do believe that it is that serious. In fact, this type of elitism is what Orthodox Jews are unfortunately known for throughout the non-Jewish world. In order for this to change, we need to come to grips with the idea that a black man may be born Jewish and a Semitic-looking man may be a convert – but that both are certainly Jews. This is because, like America (le-havdil elef havdalot), Judaism is not a religion per se, but a nation with laws. Those that become citizens of that nation are looking for a better life and believe in its common moral, religious, and political ideals – completely irrespective of their race.

Just some thoughts.

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