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The Seed of Israel

Haim Amsalem.

Until modern times, the boundaries of Jewish identity were cut and dried. If you were born to a Jewish mother, or if you were a convert according to Jewish religious law (halakhah), you were Jewish. If not, you weren't.  But during the course of the 20th century, the traditional definitions came to be outstripped by the high rates of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews in the Diaspora.

Relevant Links
Rabbi. Parliamentarian. Heretic?  David Horovitz, Jerusalem Post. “There is no monopoly on Torah”: an interview with Haim Amsalem.
Helping Israel's Image  Dina Kraft, Jewish Telegraphic Agency. In Spain, descendants of forced converts learn about their Jewish heritage and how to become voices for Israel in their communities.  
A Credo for Conversion  Irving Greenberg, Jewish Ideas Daily. An American modern-Orthodox rabbi would synthesize traditional requirements of the law with a principled openness to converts who will not become fully Orthodox. 

Now, because of these developments in the Diaspora, and especially in the former Soviet Union, the problem of intermarriage has penetrated the Jewish state as well. According to the Law of Return, anyone with a Jewish grandfather can immigrate to and claim citizenship in Israel—which is what, during the 1990's, hundreds of thousands of former Soviet citizens did: individuals who identified themselves as Jews for purposes of the Law of Return but who were not Jewish according to halakhic criteria. These new Israelis have become part of Israeli society, serving in the army, studying at colleges and universities, integrating into the workforce—and marrying other Israelis. At the turn of the 21st century, what is to be done about this phenomenon?

By and large, Israeli leaders, both political and religious, have failed to respond to the problem or have responded in unhelpful ways, either by choosing to ignore it, on the one hand, or, on the other hand, by demanding wholesale conversion according to the most stringent and uncompromising religious standards. One brave exception is Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a member of the Knesset from the Shas political party.

In 2010, Amsalem published a massive Hebrew-language work, Zera Yisrael ("The Seed of Israel"), arguing that, when it comes to the non-Jewish descendants of Jews, things really are not all that cut and dried. Bringing to bear a host of authoritative sources, Amsalem persuasively demonstrates that such persons may be seen as falling under the little-known but legally valid category that gives his book its title. They might not yet be Jewish, but through their origins they are still definitely connected to the Jewish people, and this connection has important ramifications.

The most immediately relevant ramification, for Amsalem, is that these non-Jewish descendants of Jews should not only be encouraged to convert, but that the standards for their conversion should be relatively lenient:

They need clearly to commit themselves to at least behaving like "traditional" Jews. This means completely leaving their previous religion, denying idolatry, observing the fast on Yom Kippur, refraining from eating hametz on Passover, keeping kosher, lighting Shabbat candles, wearing tefillin (ritual phylacteries), and so forth. 

From the perspective of ultra-Orthodox authorities, Amsalem's claim is utter nonsense; according to them, being Jewish means punctiliously observing all of the commandments. For his pains, Amsalem has been viciously attacked by the ultra-Orthodox press, and declared persona non grata by his political party. And yet, as he shows, the ultra-Orthodox are not the only authorities; on the issue of conversion, the authoritative Jewish legal tradition is far broader than contemporary ultra-Orthodox ideology allows.

Special attention should be paid to Amsalem's invoking of "traditional" Jewry. While it may be customary to divide Jews into two camps, the secular and the religious, a 2002 survey of Israeli Jews revealed that most are neither the one nor the other but something in-between. That something is characterized by a love of tradition together with a commitment to individual freedom. This tolerant and rather Middle Eastern stance, which honors the weightiness of religion, but from a distance, and observes the commandments, but not all of them and not all the time, is what goes by the name of "traditional."

Amsalem would require that newly converting Jews from among the recent immigrants conform to the practices of this segment of Israeli society. After all, these are people who are likely to marry "traditional" Israeli Jews, and it was out of concern for the welfare of both groups that Amsalem composed his book in the first place. That, and the desire to preempt the demands of religious liberals who would replicate the ruling of American Reform Judaism according to which Jewish identity can be passed down through patrilineal descent. That particular response to the problem of intermarriage has further confused an already perplexing situation by creating a branch of the Jewish people that much of the Jewish world doesn't recognize as Jewish; implementing it in the Israeli context would be equally if not more disastrous.

Amsalem's own political future is uncertain. Even as he has paid a price for his views within his former party, he has also become a kind of folk hero for many religious-Zionist, traditional, and even secular Jews. But wherever he ends up, he remains committed to advancing his vision for conversion, and he has much of the public behind him.

Moreover, it is not only from a legal perspective that the concept of the "seed of Israel" can be seen as a potential opportunity in meeting the challenges facing Israel and world Jewry. Around the world, there are non-Jewish descendants of Jews who feel an affinity for Israel and the Jewish people even if they have no intention of immigrating or converting. They include the Bnei Anusim, descendants of Spanish and Portuguese "crypto-Jews" forced to convert to Catholicism in the 14th and 15th centuries, and the hidden Jews of Poland who since the fall of the Soviet Union have become interested in learning about the Jewish dimension of their identity.

The only organization that has recognized the benefit of reaching out to such individuals is Shavei Israel, best known for helping descendants of the "Ten Lost Tribes" who are eager to return to the Jewish people. For Michael Freund, who heads Shavei Israel, it is a shame that no one has been actively engaging with such groups—who, whatever their status, hunger for a connection, whether intellectual, cultural, literary, or spiritual, with the Jewish people. For them, too, the notion of "The Seed of Israel" could function as powerful stuff, strengthening their commitments and motivating their loyalties.

Amsalem and Freund share a view of the future that is long-term and strategic. One hopes others will become convinced to take a similar view.  

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COMMENTS

Independent Patriot/Elise on January 26, 2011 at 8:07 am (Reply)
I find it incredibly insulting that the ultra-orthodox, a lot of whom do not serve in the Israeli army, has decided that those who give their lives for the Jewish state may not be Jewish enough in their eyes. I wonder when it became the rule that only they get decide how God would or would not rule in a situation. Basically who died and made them the rulers of the Jewish people? Their singular self-important notion that only they are the ones who can decide Jewishness is unseemly.They have continually decided that only their version of halacha is correct and that if we do not practice their version of Judaism we are repugnant.Their intolerance and refusal to deal with the fact that Judaism is a vibrant religion imbued with mankind's ability to think for themselves is what is repugnant. Furthermore, they tend to forget that the laws that they hold so fast to are not God's law but it's their interpretation of God's law. There is a huge difference between the two concepts.But for them to understand that it would take a leap out of their self-importance.

I and the overwhelming majority of the world's diaspora Jewry do not care what the religious authorities say in Israel.In fact if the Israeli authorities do not catch up with the rest of Judaism they risk alienating themselves from the rest of world Jewry. The reality is that patrilineal descent is welcomed and accepted in the diaspora.These children are viable and welcome members of the Jewish world. Our version of Judaism is just as righteous as the ultra religious and we are just as good if not better Jews in so many ways than they happen to be. To begin with we tend to be more tolerant and alot more filled with respect for others without condemnation and hubris. It is time to leave the ghetto and remember that Jews live in the entire world.

They should remember why the Law of Return includes anyone with a Jewish grandparent, because those were the people targeted by the Nazis.We may not want outsiders to define us, but we should also remember our history and have respect for those that died because of their Jewish ancestry at every level. It was Ben Gurion who said that a Jew was anyone crazy enough to stand up in this world and declare that they are a Jew. It is time that the religious authorities in Israel remember our history, the realities of life and the reason that Israel was reborn in the first place.
adam on January 26, 2011 at 10:14 am (Reply)
The Karites also accept patrilineal descent.

The reality is most Jewish people until recently DID NOT remain Jewish unless BOTH PARENTS were Jewish.

Furthermore, I don't see why someone from a nonjewish father has to practice Judaism because he is not from any of the Jewish tribes. It seems to me the Rabbis outlawed men doing it because they good be Jewish and in the exile they were worried it would lead to pagan practices creaping in and were concerned about Deutoronomy 7:3 which in Israel they should be concerned about.

This idea that a child is Jewish just because her mother is has no basis and as longer as the "Orthodox" ignore this we will still have problems.

It puts the Jewish people in danger as well especially if the child is a boy in the real world.

So I think in general both parents should be Jewish (and certainly if the father is not Jewish at least in the exile you have no reason to support the Jewish nation) Even in Israel there are problems if the father is someone who is from another nation that has different beliefs about Israel.

So it is sad how the Orthodox also has ignored reality and the fact that most Jewish women who marry nonjewish men are not raised Jewish nor do the children have to keep obligation that are only required if you are from the Jewish nation which your nation and tribe is determined by your father. The Rabbis can't engage in replacing the written torah with their ideas which they are doing here. They can prohibit men from marrying from certain nations to protect the nations identity but they can't claim that a child from a nonjewish father should be obligated to keep laws that are based on what nation you are from.
Rralph R. Garcia on January 26, 2011 at 11:18 am (Reply)
What's so special about the Israeli stance on conversion? I could care less. I am a Jew and I could care less what Israeli officialdom thinks.
Ruth de Sola Mendes on January 26, 2011 at 2:44 pm (Reply)
Yasher koach, Rabbi Amsalem! Remembering that many opposed the writing of the Shulchan Aruch because they feared the it would result in the casting in concrete what had been a tradition of evolving Judaism—ultra-Orthodoxy has indeed shut down discourse and organic growth in Jewish tradition. His book clearly recognizes the need to allow the laws to grow within Jewish tradition and respond to the challenges and needs of Judaism at this time. The respectful rivalry of Hillel and Shammai has no contemporary counterpart in ultra-Orthodoxy.
Anita Jewish Gems on January 26, 2011 at 5:01 pm (Reply)
It takes one kind of courage to speak out when you're "outside" the circle. It takes a far deeper store of courage to do so from "within" the circle, and this seems to be what Amsalem is doing. Judaism has always walked the balanced, nuanced and carefully considered line between written law and adaptability to the current day. To do otherwise is to ignore all of Rabbinic Judaism. Yashir Koach to Haim Amsalem
Bob Zucker on January 26, 2011 at 9:12 pm (Reply)
It is important to examine the rabbi's argument and see the countervailing arguments. The decision of the Rishon LeZion decides the matter.
Ben Freeman on January 27, 2011 at 3:37 am (Reply)
Is R. Amsalem's idea that the "seeds of Israel" will remain an autonomous sect within - or more likely, on the fringes - of normative Judaism? Sounds like he is trying to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to keep them close (for demographic reasons) but not totally inside (for halachic reasons). Sounds a bit like the so-called "God-fearers" in antiquity (i.e., Gentiles who observed Jewish rituals without fully converting to Judaism, e.g., Acts of Apostles 10:1-2)? If so, this cannot be good for Judaism in the long run. History shows that fringe groups that are not fully integrated into the central organism are easily swept away by charismatic evangelizers. Most of the "God-fearers" were familiar with the Hebrew Bible and fond of the Jewish liturgical calendar but not opposed to seeking spiritual sustenance outside of normative Judaism. And then along came Paul and gave them what they wanted - full membership without the heavy burden of mitzvot such as circumcision and kashrut. Because they were not invited to become full members of the "house of Israel," there was little incentive for them to stay.
Emanuel Yakobson on January 27, 2011 at 4:33 am (Reply)
I fully agre with this article.

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I am the President and the Founder of the Jewish DNA Foundation (JDNAF)

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Converter on January 27, 2011 at 9:12 am (Reply)
Wow actually encouraging people who are now Christians to become Jews. Who would have imagined we as Jews would be proselytizing this late in the game?!!
Avigayil on January 27, 2011 at 9:38 am (Reply)
Kol HaKavod to Rabbi Amsalem for his courageous stand on Zera Yisrael, those who, though they are not halachically Jewish, are part of our Jewish family. In 2008 I started a non-profit (501c3) in the DC area called Open Dor Foundation to reach out to such individuals through classes and counseling. The response has been very positive to reclaiming our own children and grandchildren and inviting them to explore their Jewish heritage with no strings attached.
Ron Broxted on January 27, 2011 at 12:07 pm (Reply)
The Russians are interesting, look at the idiots (Petah Tikva?) who organised a neo-nazi cell. As for "keeping kosher, observing Rosh Hashanah, etc" one may outwardly be a pious Jew but does that make one Jewish "inside"?
Michael on January 27, 2011 at 12:18 pm (Reply)
The "perplexing situation" is NOT as stated: "by creating a branch of the Jewish people that much of the Jewish world doesn't recognize as Jewish: RATHER IT IS: The continued narrow Orthodox control of identity will polarize Diaspora Jews (most of whom accept patrilineal descent in practice) against the State of Israel. Amsalem's stricture that "They need clearly to commit themselves to at least behaving like "traditional" Jews" is a case of Israel unique obscuration. Go look at the date and don't attempt to let Israeli Religious Politics cut off Diaspora Jewry from its heritage.
adam on January 30, 2011 at 1:49 pm (Reply)
I still think the idea of Matrilineal descent shows a lack of understanding of Chumash and if anything the idea of feminism having a strong impact for a long time as the Rabbis had no reason to outlaw it because clearly the father determines the nationhood of the child and they had no reason from a Rabbinic perspective to outlaw it.

Over time though this got distorted as Christianity a religion that for good or for bad were in countries that practiced this and there were periods of tolerance and intolerance their religion likes to pander to women and we just imitated this practice.

Children without a Jewish father don't have to practice all the Jewish laws (as they are not from any of the Jewish tribes since their father is not Jewish) if they don't want and are we going to force them or kidnap the child from the father. That in itself is absurd. You're telling me someone who for 6 generations the mother was Jewish and the father wasn't she is obligated as a Jew. It is absurd.

It is sad we have our own dogma that we don't want to honestly look at. Or the fact that most practicing Jews have "two" Jewish parents.

This idea that we don't care who the father is interestingly is actually very socialist and feminist in origin and not at all right wing.
bob on January 31, 2011 at 9:31 am (Reply)
Adam does not understand Jewish law. He should contact an Orthodox rabbi to study Jewish law.
Additionally, he might see if there is a junior college nearby which teaches English composition.

A person is Jewish if born to a Jewish mother. This is halakhah le'Moshe miSinai.
adam on January 31, 2011 at 11:59 am (Reply)
They are not God and they have free choice like everyone else and have to prove their position from the written torah. Simple as that. Rabbi's and halacha is not a religion to itself. That is replacement theology that we pick and chose from our bible like everyone else.

Then the Rabbi believe in replacement theology and don't even understand their own written torah where a person's nation if defined by their father 100% of the time.The Rabbis could build a fence by saying men can't marry nonjews but that can't claim that a child without a Jewish father has to keep all the Jewish obligation. Some of the Rabbis like the church want children kidnapped in these situation and maybe that is a halacha too. Whatever the Rabbi from Babylon said.

It is sad that Judaism today is not much different then Christianity and Islam and we have so many ignorant people that just male religious leaders without question like a cult.

Does Halacha belive the written torah is meaningless.
Emanuel Yakobson, Ph.D. on February 1, 2011 at 9:50 am (Reply)
My name is

Emanuel Yakobson, Ph.D.and I am carrying out research in the field of Jewish genetics for more 15 years.

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I am currently developing a comprehensive, robust, DNA full genome based testing for Jews and related ethnic individuals. My participation at latest NGS DNA sequencing workshop (www.genotypic.co.in)
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Robin Margolis on February 3, 2011 at 5:59 am (Reply)
Thanks to Aryeh Tepper for a very interesting and informative article!

Correction of one error -- he says Shavei Israel is the only group interested in welcoming the descendants of intermarried Jewish fathers.

Actually, my own organization, the Half-Jewish Network, welcomes the adult children of Jewish fathers or Jewish mothers and the grandchildren of intermarriage from all over the world. We also have people joining us whose DNA analyses have revealed that they have partial Jewish ancestry.

Within Israel itself, the Israel Religious Action Center, the Assocation for the Protection of Mixed Families' Rights, and the New Family have all tried to help the family members of intermarried Jews.
chaiml on February 6, 2011 at 1:34 pm (Reply)
I think that in the responsa this offspring was referred to as 'Zerah Kodesh" or holy seed. The Posek said that they should be converted easily, as who knows what greatness may come from this zerah kodesh.

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