Hey Goat & Cnorman,
goat wrote:From what I hear (Since I never went through a conversion program), many of the Reform synagogues have actually tightened up the requirements for conversion, just so that the issue about 'are you really a Jew' does not arise.
Yeah, Reform is trending more toward Conservative nowadays. I think, however, that the requirements for conversion are very much up to the discretion of individual rabbis and beit dins. In other words, on rabbi may insist on a mikvah, another may not, etc.
cnorman wrote:That wouldn't surprise me. Reform Jews were at one time commonly almost militant about being different from Conservative and Orthodox - in the early years, they commonly worshipped on Sunday - and were not only nonobservant, but actually actively discouraged observance. Twenty years ago, ushers at Temple Emanu-El, the largest Reform shul in Dallas, would ask Jews from other branches to remove their yarmulkes for services. That is an absolute fact. They don't now, and yarmulkes are common. Some Reform Jews even keep kosher now.
The ushers at Temple Emanu-El in New York had the same rule--no one was allowed to wear a kippah (yarmulke.) But they've softened up and you will see Kippot now.
As for Reform Jews being hardcore anti-observance in the past--well, let's not forget the infamous Treif Banquet! Back in 1883, the first graduating class of Hebrew Union College went out of their way to serve non-kosher food. That act so horrified some folks that they founded JTS and Conservative Judaism.
However, with Reform Judaism moving to the right and Modern Orthodoxy moving to the left--well, Conservative Judaism is in a bad way. We're bleeding members to both groups. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I think we'll come back strong and find our niche again, but time will tell.
Back to the subject at hand:
cnorman wrote:Okay, as often happens here, I find my position changing.
I personally have always accepted, like you, that anyone who is accepted as a Jew in any branch of Judaism is a Jew. I'm not especially pleased with having my own Jewishness questioned by the Orthodox, so I'm not eager to pass judgment on the Jewishness of another.
My concern is with friction between the branches. The Orthodox have already dealt themselves out of that hand, and I find that disturbing enough; but I'd hate to see the same thing happen among the other branches. From what I've been reading, if the Reform branch formalizes the recognition of patrilineal descent, within a generation the same de facto schism will exist between Reform and Conservative as between the Orthodox and everyone else. My own Conservative shul - well, one of them - has close ties to Reform; my own instruction in my conversion class was conducted by a female Reform rabbi.
I suppose it's acceptable if every branch has its own standards and everyone agrees that conversion or reconversion is necessary if one is going to affiliate with or marry into a stricter branch. That's where we are now with the Orthodox, anyway. I guess I'm advocating that the strictest standard ought to prevail, and unless I'm willing to buy into Orthodoxy, that makes no sense.
In my own community, Reform shuls usually require milah but not mikvah for converts, unless the convert requests both. Weird, but whatever. That seems to be because some of the local Conservative rabbis will accept a convert without mikvah, but not without circumcision.
I think it's good that we have no central authority to rule on these things. I guess a certain amount of chaos is the price we have to pay for that freedom.
By the way, I agree with your judgments on "Messianism." "Messianic Jews" are properly called "Christians." If an ethnic Jew wishes to worship Jesus and still self-identify as a Jew, okay, but that should be qualified as "a Jew who does not practice the Jewish religion."
Question: there are in fact five branches of Judaism. Do you recognize those who practice Humanistic Judaism, which is explicitly atheistic in nature, as Jews? I think I do, if they are born into that branch.
They also have a ceremony or procedure analogous to conversion for non-Jews; no circumcision or ritual bath required, of course. Of the Jewishness of those who "convert" to that branch, I am not so sure. Maybe.
It's my understanding that many if not most Israelis are growing sick of the dominance of the Orthodox over religion and marriage policies. There are more Messianic "synagogues" (I hate that term for them too) in Israel than Masorti (Conservative), and I think that's an atrocity.
Your last point is well taken, too. Chances are that if we knew our total family history and enforced halakhah strictly, very few of us could call ourselves Jews.
And I DO wish someone had the authority to standardize transliteration of Hebrew to English. I know of eight ways to spell Hanukkah - that, Hanukah, Chanukah, Hanuka, Chanuka, Hannukah, Channuka, and Channukah.
I appreciate the way you've reconsidered this difficult and complex issue. And I agree that the different standards we apply to figuring out who's Jewish is an acceptable price to pay for our autonomy and lack of a central authority.
Regarding the fifth group, Humanistic Jews: You know, I've never given them much thought. I have nothing against atheistic humanist Jews and I see no compelling reason not to view them as a legitimate branch of Judaism. So I'll tentatively say that I'll view their converts as Jews (although their website doesn't say much about how one goes about converting to their branch.)