Oftentimes, our community struggles with balancing the desire for inclusion with the established norms of Jewish law. I feel that it is necessary for us to always promote a path of greater inclusion within traditional bounds. Exclusion is sometimes necessary, but should never be our guiding policy.
Inclusion and exclusion are more than values, they are ethics. They shape how we view all other values, determining which values and laws we emphasize or downplay. The Jewish experience has taught us that we have a responsibility to promote an ethic of inclusion whenever possible, a responsibility that I fear we often overlook.
The tension between normative Halakha and an inclusive worldview is strongly felt when discussing the issue of who is a Jew. Recent events in the Orthodox world have brought the treatment of converts to the fore yet again.
Once a potential convert demonstrates a basic level of sincerity we need not be suspect of his or her motivations and commitment. Let us recall that King David is a descendant of Ruth, who converted in what seemed to be a very organic process, as she told her mother-in-law “your people are my people.” In that vein, anyone who decides to join our people should be embraced with open arms. Disturbingly, there is an obsession on the part of some about whether particular conversions are valid post-facto, mostly on the part of the Israeli Rabbanut. These rabbis have adopted a persistent ethic of exclusion when relating to those looking to join the community, obsessed with fulfilling the strictest laws of conversion or making political statements about more left-wing factions of Judaism, at the sake of the convert. Conversion invalidation is destroying the lives of countless converts and their families, and instilling fear into rabbis and converts all over the world.
This discussion of inclusion also bears relevance in terms of Orthodox acceptance of Jews that are outside looking in, according to technical Halakha, such as non-Orthodox converts and patrilineal Jews. Many of these Jews are bearers of the tradition, in both faith and practice, and serve as leaders of various Jewish communities. In spite of this reality, Orthodox Jewish law does not currently recognize these individuals as technically Jewish. Anecdotally, when I recently started teaching in a non-denominational Hebrew school, I repeatedly received the same shocking question from my Orthodox friends: “how do you feel about the fact that some of your students are probably not Halakhically Jewish?”
I do not have a right to determine another’s self definition. If they define themselves as Jewish and are coming to learn Torah; that’s good enough for me. My inclinations are toward inclusion, and I exclude only when there is sufficient reason. On a personal level, maybe I would not marry a Jew who is patrilineally Jewish without an Orthodox conversion, but I would never label them as “not Jewish.” The definition of a Jew is multifaceted; the lack of technical legal definition does not determine their entire reality. We must include those who self-identify as Jews, while recognizing that we may not accept their Jewish status for all intents and purposes.
The problem of promoting exclusion applies in many other areas as well. The tension between inclusion and exclusion in many ways defines many of the major conversations occurring in the Orthodox world. How can we further include women in the prayer service and in the Halakhic and pastoral processes? How can we further include LGBT Jews in the fabric of our communities? Though all of these questions are major discussions within their own right – each with their own unique concerns – both inclusive and exclusive Halakhic options exist in each case. We must always seek to promote the inclusive Halakhic option.
The above notwithstanding, at times, the value of exclusion is necessary. Using conversion as an example, there is a value in our not immediately accepting every potential convert that comes knocking. As the comedian Groucho Marx once stated, “I do not care to be a part of any club that will have me as its member.” When a club is too open to anyone and everyone, its broader message and purpose become diluted. If Ivy League colleges accepted every single applicant, then their very foundational philosophies would crumble and decay; some applicants do not meet the criteria for admission to Harvard. Similarly, the Jewish people carry a divine message to the world. We must make sure that the mission of the Jewish people is never watered down for the sake of recruiting members who do not take our mission seriously.
However, we are not an Ivy League college. Our responsibility lies not just with the so-called elite – those of pristine Jewish lineage or conversions of the strictest degree. Judaism is at the essence of the identity of millions of people. It is a method of improving society at large through the lens of the Divine. Our doors must be open so we can spread our message, so that we can be healthy and vibrant in working together to promote the Torah and its values.
In practice, then, given two viable options – one that promotes inclusion and one that promotes exclusion – the weight of the value of inclusion alone should bring us towards the inclusive option, even if the former is more tenuous from a technical standpoint.
And, when exclusion ultimately is the most rationally sound option it is never cause for celebration. There is wisdom in Halakha; if exclusion is the only viable option, we will practice as such, however, an ethic of exclusion should never exist as an acceptable status quo. It should be a bigger chiddush when we exclude fellow Jews from leading a prayer service, teaching Torah, or just being considered part of the community than when we include them.
Best fulfilling our mission requires that we be open both externally and internally. Externally, open to those on the outside looking to come in. Internally, open to greater inclusion of those on the inside who feel like outsiders. We are responsible for promoting the Halakhic options and values that includes these Jews on the fringes, those of the questionable conversions, of uncertain lineage, of different genders, races, and sexual orientations than the establishment. It is here that our responsibilities lie.