Out-of-touch rabbi comment of the day

I still receive weekly E-mails on Jewish law from Rabbi Yirmiyahu Kaganoff, an American-turned-Israeli Orthodox Jewish scholar and writer.  Rabbi Kaganoff is a very intelligent man, and he really knows his stuff when it comes to Jewish law.  But in this week’s article, which is apparently recycled from one he wrote in 2010 (see here), he writes the following when introducing the laws regarding conversion to Judaism:


To the non-Jewish or non-observant world, the definition of a Jew is based on sociological criteria. But to the Torah Jew, the definition of a Jew is someone who is a member of a people who are obligated to fulfill all of the Torah’s commandments. For this reason, it is axiomatic that no one can become Jewish without first accepting the responsibility to observe mitzvos [the commandments] (kabbalas mitzvos).

This concept, so obvious to the Torah Jew, is almost never appreciated by the non-observant. Someone who does not (yet) observe mitzvos himself usually does not appreciate why observing mitzvos is imperative to becoming Jewish. This is why a not-yet-observant Jew often finds our requirements for giyur [conversion] to be “unrealistic” or even “intolerant.” However in true reality, attempting to bend the Torah’s rules reflects an intolerance, or more exactly, a lack of understanding. The Torah Jew realizes that the basic requirement for becoming a Jew is accepting Hashem’s commandments, since a Jew is by definition someone who is bound by the Torah.

With all due respect to the rabbi, I think it’s impressive he was able to squeeze so much misguided, retrogressive thought into so few sentences.

Despite the arrogant tone with which he sets us straight about how “We Torah Jews know what the Torah really says about conversion,” the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), in fact, says zip about conversion.  In Jewish day school, we were taught that the word ger (with a hard g) in the Hebrew Bible means “convert;” however, if one sees how the word is used, one immediately notices ger cannot mean “convert.”

For instance, when the Torah says, “You shall love the ger, for you were a ger in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19),” translating this commandment as “You shall the love the convert, for you were a convert in the land of Egypt” would be nonsensical, because the Israelites weren’t converts in the land of Egypt.  Rather, ger refers to a resident alien – i.e. someone who is not ethnically a member of the local people – in this case, the Israelites – but lives in its community, and so his/her status is different.  Typically a resident alien could not own land, for instance, and thus we find the beautiful commandment to make sure that those who don’t own land, such as the Levite, the ger, the orphan, and the widow are as happy as you are when you gather your hard-earned crops you worked so hard to reap from the land you are fortunate to own (Deuteronomy 16:14).

And so the rabbi’s assertion that the Torah view is that conversion requires accepting the commandments is baseless, since the Torah doesn’t say anything at all about conversion.

Secondly, and equally importantly, the idea that becoming a member of the Jewish community requires accepting the commandments with it is like saying writing with a pen requires using a quill.  In Biblical times, being part of a community necessarily included accepting the community’s local god.  If you moved to Moab and wanted to identify with the Moabites (part of modern-day Jordan), you most likely had to accept the Moabite god Chemosh.  If you moved to a Phoenician (modern Lebanon-area) community and wanted to identify with the Phoenicians, you most likely had to accept the religion that centered on worshipping Baal.  And the same was true if you moved to an Israelite community.  Thus, when, in a touching assertion of loyalty, Ruth the Moabite famously refused to forsake her Israelite mother-in-law Naomi and told her, “Your people is my people, and your god is my god (Ruth 1:16),” the two (people and the local god) went hand in hand.

Today, however, pens no longer go together with quills and joining a new community no longer goes together with accepting the community religion.  You can become Irish without becoming Catholic, and you can also join a Jewish community, where people celebrate Jewish culture, etc., without accepting any specific religion.

Granted, for many centuries the definition of Jew included following the Jewish religion.  Over the last 300 years or so, however, most Jews have defined themselves as Jewish and yet do not follow the commandments.  And so there’s no reason someone cannot join the community of the vast majority of Jews who define Jewish as one who connects with an extremely rich Jewish heritage and culture, independent of their adherence to the Torah’s commandments.

Finally, is there anything more worthy of throwing an article into the trash than seeing the good old “not-yet-observant?”  It’s a shame that the not-yet-enlightened and not-yet-out-of-the-17th-century Rabbi Kaganoff is not yet observant that calling people “not yet observant” is offensive.

I feel better now.

Thanks for reading.  Please add your thoughts below!


5 thoughts on “Out-of-touch rabbi comment of the day

  1. monkey

    People who cannot be abused over alleged mitzvot cannot be abused and traumatized into donating millions in “charity” to their millionaire rabbi rhusbleaving themselves impoverished. There are more barely wealthy people than incredibly wealthy people. So it is only basic laws of supply and demand that torture be part of conversion.

  2. Cynthia

    The rabbi clearly isn’t using “Torah Jews” to refer to folks who follow only the 5 Book of Moses and nothing else. While I’m not a fan of the term, it does refer to those who are committed to following Jewish law as set out in the Written Law (ie. 5 Books of Moses) AND Oral Law (ie. the Talmud), as interpreted through the ages.

    In traditional Jewish law, there were 2 categories of ger. The ger toshav, or resident alien, was someone who was committed to the 7 Noahide laws and who has certain rights and obligations as a resident of the community, but is not considered to be in the same position as a Jew. The ger tzedek, following the example of Ruth, declares an intention to not only become part of the Jewish people, but also to take on their God (and the full weight of the commandments for Jews). Except for marrying a Kohen, the ger tzedek is fully accepted as a Jew, and passes on this status to any children. The ger toshav status isn’t really in use today, although the concept of a Righteous Gentile certainly exists, and there have been proposals to revive the ger toshav concept. Personally, I think the ger toshav term could be really useful to describe those who are allies of the Jewish people, or who want to join our communities without taking on the full ritual obligation.

    The rabbi’s piece makes sense if you constantly read in “under traditional Jewish law” in every sentence. It’s fundamentally a formal, legal position, for those who are committed to following traditional Jewish law. It could be compared to asking someone at the Italian consulate “What is an Italian?” (or Canadian, American or Dutch, etc.). You will get the formal, legal answer about citizenship requirements. That answer is not wrong, and when we are talking about getting passports and other rights and obligations, the formal, legal answer matters. At the same time, it’s not exactly wrong for someone born elsewhere who has an Italian background to think of themselves as Italian, as long as they realize that the embassy may not see it that way. You can lose your citizenship, but keep your ethnicity.

    It’s also a quirk of citizenship that new citizens need to commit themselves to laws and obligations that born citizens ignore. Being guilty of a crime can get you permanently or temporarily barred from citizenship in the United States, even though plenty of Americans commit crimes (and may not consider some crimes to be a big deal). In Canada, an otherwise outstanding permanent resident cannot get citizenship without swearing allegiance to the Queen.

    1. Freethinking Jew Post author

      Hey Cynthia, thanks a lot for reading and commenting. Sorry I’m finally getting to respond.

      Cynthia, over 90% of Jews do not observe traditional/Orthodox Judaism. You really don’t think it’s just a tad silly/arrogant for an Orthodox rabbi to say that in order to join the community of Jews, over 90% of whom do not follow the commandments and do not believe doing so is a prerequisite for being Jewish, you need to agree to follow the commandments? Don’t you think the other 90% of Jews should be allowed to decide what the rules should be for joining their communities?

      If he were saying, “In order to get into MY club – the Orthodox club – you need to accept to follow the commandments like we do,” that would be understandable. But to say you’re NOT JEWISH if you don’t agree to be like us 10% of Jews? I don’t see how you don’t see how egocentric and out-of-touch that is.

      1. Cynthia

        1. That’s where a revival of the ger toshav category or developing something similar makes sense – we need a term for those who are committed to joining our communities and buying into the basic moral structure without taking on the full ritual obligations.

        2. Going with my citizenship comparison – I don’t know any Canadians-by-birth, other than my late grandmother, who give a rat’s ass about the Queen, yet it’s still impossible for an immigrant to become a Canadian citizen without pledging allegiance to her.

        3. I ultimately don’t know the best way to deal with this. Here’s the dilemna, as I see it:

        a. If you see the movements as ultimately being completely separate, then it makes no more sense for an Orthodox rabbi to weigh in on a Reform conversion than he would on a Catholic conversion – it’s something separate, beyond his jurisdiction. At the same time, there would be no reason for anyone in the Reform movement to care about what an Orthodox rabbi says, any more than they would care about a statement from a Catholic priest.

        b. If you don’t want to see the movements as essentially separate religions and want to retain a sense of one people, then you need some sort of protocol for mutual recognition. I don’t know how you get that if you don’t take traditional Jewish law into consideration. If everyone had a seat at the table when discussing conversion requirements, some of the current nonsense which goes WAY beyond any traditional requirements could be eliminated.

        Today, this is often seen as just an Orthodox issue, but I know that in the 1990s, the Reform movement in Canada was actually quite concerned about the idea that all movements wouldn’t define who was a Jew in the same way, which is why they initially opposed recognition of patrilineal descent, but their concerns were drowned out by the much larger American Reform movement.



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