By Harriet P. Gross
A funny thing about old questions: we think we’ve answered them. But then, they sometimes come back in new forms and we have to look at them all over again. And perhaps consider new answers.
A great example comes from the current, winter edition of “The Jewish Veteran,” the quarterly publication of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States. On base, the question concerns who is a Jew, which we may all agree has been answered in this tried-and-true way: Anyone who was born of a Jewish mother. (Of course there are some “denominational” arguments about the validity of conversions and whether having a “born Jewish” father is enough to confer Judaism on an individual. But for purposes of the question-to-come here, we can consign these arguments to the convenient old category of “two Jews, three or more opinions … ”)
So here it is: “Can a person who was born Jewish, but has converted to another religion, be eligible for membership in the Jewish War Veterans?”
This question recently came into JWV’s national headquarters, where it was answered by Rabbi Harold Robinson, national chaplain of the organization. To render the negative ruling, Rabbi Robinson drew on both Jewish tradition and a decision issued by “the secular courts of Israel,” he says. In this last regard, he cites the case of a man who was born Jewish, then later not only converted to Roman Catholicism, but became a priest — after which he claimed the right of return upon moving to Israel.
We all know about that right: Any Jew who wants to make the Jewish state his or her home may do so as a full-fledged citizen. But is that right still applicable to Father Joseph, the man in this example, or others like him?
Rabbi Robinson leans on the court decision and its quoted relevance to tradition: “While one can be a member of a Jewish community without believing in or practicing Judaism, one puts oneself outside the community by explicitly adopting another faith. So the short answer, accepted by all movements in Judaism today, is no, because by his conversion to Christianity he has taken clear actions that put himself outside the community.” A passive Jew, the rabbi says, is not like the convert who has actively joined another community.
All that may seem clear enough. But at this time of the Jewish year, as we remember the Shoah and honor its diminishing pool of survivors, I think we have to take into account those I’ve come to call “Hitler Jews” — some people who were non-participatory Jews, some who didn’t even know they were Jewish at all and some who had chosen long before the despot’s rise to power to give up their Judaism in favor of another faith.
No one except the Nazis considered these men and women Jewish, but by Hitler’s definition, they were all marked for destruction on religious grounds. By his perverted “standards,” even Father Joseph, a priest in the religion that Hitler claimed as his own, would have been a candidate for capture, torture and death.
So here it is, an old question dressed up in new clothes. If the man who recently queried JWV’s national office about the possibility of becoming a member was born a Jew and served honorably in any branch of the United States Armed Forces — should he be denied access automatically because of his conversion?
Rabbi Robinson’s ruling ends with this: “As our grandparents used to say, you can only dance at one wedding at a time, and he can be a member of only one community at a time.” But Hitler would have considered him to be a Jew whether he wanted to be known as one or not. And after the Shoah, perhaps we should remember that when we are asked to answer what seem on the surface to be old, easy questions …