The Seed of Israel
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.
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.