Are Non-Orthodox Jews Still Jews?

Part One

A group of Rabbis known as The Agudas Harabonim of America said that their statement does not suggest that Jews in Reform and Conservative synagogues are any less Jewish than those in Orthodox synagogues. They are, however, being taught things contrary to the Torah. Anything contrary to the Torah is not Judaism. Jews are urged not to attend synagogues affiliated with those movements, but are instead urged to study with the Orthodox.

--The New York Times
Monday, March 24, 1997

It makes one wonder, doesn't it? Why would everyone read it wrong? The Rabbis very clearly said that a non-Orthodox Jew is still a Jew. So why did everyone read it as if they had said that the non-Orthodox are not Jews?

I think the answer is that most people these days are more familiar with Christianity than with Judaism. Most people tend to think in Christian terms.

To many Christians, if you don't keep Christianity, you are not a Christian. They are unfamiliar with the Jewish concept of inheriting one's race and religion together. Among Jews, the two are intertwined. If you are born Jewish or convert to Judaism, you are always Jewish. If you are a Jewish woman, then your children will always be Jewish. That status can never change. Nor is there any other way to be Jewish. This is the Torah's Law. And the Torah says that Torah Law may never be changed.

Neither Reform nor Conservative leaders should be confused about this issue. It has been at the heart of a number of vociferous debates in the past few decades or so. They've known about this for quite a while.

For example, Conservative and Reform leaders are concerned about their falling population rates due to assimilation. In response to their very high rate of intermarriage, many Conservative congregations take a lax attitude towards interfaith couples (though they don't generally encourage it), and Reform congregations have begun accepting as Jews people with only a Jewish father or a Jewish spouse.

Orthodox Jewry has always been very clear on the subject. Reform and Conservative Jews involved in these debates know whom Orthodoxy does and does not consider Jews. Why doubt it now, when the Rabbis' statement was very clear?

The confusion was started by a newspaper in Los Angeles that wrote in their headline that Orthodox Rabbis have declared all other Jews "not Jewish." Yet the article itself made it clear that this was not the case.

The New York Times reported the matter fairly accurately, I believe, but the New York Daily News actually reported that Orthodox Rabbis declared Orthodox Jews to be the only Jews. Both my letters to their editor were ignored, and they have never printed a retraction, as far as I know.

Some Reform and Conservative spokespeople have recently made the claim that Orthodoxy has never before declared any deviant group or movement to be "not Judaism." They claim this charge was not made even against the Sadducees.

This is false, and absolute nonsense. The Rabbis of the Talmud very clearly stated that Sadduceeism is not Judaism. Rabbis said the same about many other deviant groups, including the Haskalah movement, which eventually deteriorated into today's Reform movement. (The Rabbis never said it about Hassidism, incidentally, though many Rabbis decried the movement when it first arose, misunderstanding its purpose.) Today's Reform movement is a far cry from its progenitor, and is far less observant of Judaism, as they themselves freely admit.

Recently a number of Conservative Rabbis have agreed that what they teach is not Judaism. And when over 40% of Reform Rabbis state that they do not believe in G-d, that is not Judaism. If it changes the Torah, it cannot be called Judaism.

It is a Principle of Judaism (which I discuss later), that Jewish Law may not be changed. Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist all assert that Jewish Law not only may be changed, but that it should be changed. This is one of the primary reasons that those belief systems are not Judaism.

The Agudah's statement may have been ill-advised, since anyone could have foreseen that it would be misunderstood. No matter how clearly one states something, there is never a shortage of people who will misunderstand and misinterpret it. And then there are people like the staff of the Daily News, who don't even care.

Below are questions on this matter asked me by friends, along with the answers I gave them.

Q. If the Orthodox do not accept non-Orthodox conversions (because what the non-Orthodox are practicing is "not Judaism") then a non-Orthodox Jewish convert is not "still a Jew" according to the Orthodox. So you are saying that they are not Jews, aren't you?

A. I'll try to take that question point by point.

Non-Orthodox conversions are a matter of contention, this is true. But first, please note that I was not discussing that particular issue. I was addressing the incident in which unscrupulous or negligent, irresponsible journalists "reported" that Orthodox Rabbis had supposedly dismissed all non-Orthodox Jews as not being Jews. It was, of course, untrue. It would in fact have been forbidden by Jewish Law to make any such statement. All Jews are Jews.

But they have to be Jews to be Jews. Funny, how that works, isn't it?

About non-Orthodox conversions: Orthodox Judaism cannot accept non-Orthodox converts, but not just because "they are not Judaism." A convert must assume firm resolve to perform all the Commandments that will be relevant to him/her. When converting to Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist, one is ipso facto assuming very few (in some cases none) of the Commandments.

A convert, at the time of conversion, must intend to keep the Commandments. If at the time of conversion s/he has (or had) no intention of keeping the Commandments, the conversion is not valid.

Just a bit of Halachah (Jewish Law) here: It is forbidden to convert someone who has an ulterior motive for converting. But if it should happen that a person converts and assumes all the Commandments, and we find out afterwards that s/he had an ulterior motive, the conversion is still valid.(1)

However, not assuming the responsibility of observing the Torah is another matter. The convert must declare before the full Court his intention to fulfill the Commandments. If he failed to do so, the conversion was never valid at all.(2) If, however, he declared his willingness to perform the Commandments, and he did indeed perform them for a significant time, he is a complete convert.

Even if a convert changes his mind, even if he returns to the church, is still Jewish by Jewish Law. He would still need to give a get (Jewish divorce) to any woman he betroths during that time.(3)

There are yet other issues. The presiding Judges must also act as witnesses to the conversion. A conversion is valid only if the witnesses themselves are valid witnesses in a Jewish Court. This has nothing to do with affiliation. An Orthodox Jew could be an invalid witness as well. Here are some of the disqualifications: someone who eats non-kosher food; one who publicly does not keep Sabbath or the Holidays, even if the infraction is minor; a gambler; a proven defrauder; a usurer; a freethinker; a heretic; or someone who has sworn falsely in court. Anyone who publicly does not fulfill even only one Jewish Law is not valid as a witness. (Past behavior, now corrected, usually does not count.) And not only sinners, but also someone who knows little or no Torah, even if he's Orthodox, is not acceptable as a Rabbinic Judge.(4)

These are just two of the reasons that make non-Orthodox conversions very problematic.

A friend of mine (an Orthodox Jew) is a convert who was first converted Conservative. He later learned about Orthodox Judaism, and decided this was what he wanted.

There was an interesting wrinkle in his case. The people witnessing his conversion were actually Orthodox. In the Midwestern town in which they lived there was no Orthodox synagogue in which to pray, so these aged Orthodox men prayed with the Conservative. (Younger men would have built their own synagogue, but these elderly people had no such energy.) The key factor here is that even though they were part of a conservative community, and prayed in a Conservative synagogue, they were fully and properly Observant (to the best of their abilities). Thus, it seemed possible that his conversion, though it was done by the Conservative, could have been Halachically valid.

But then the Rabbi handling his Orthodox conversion discovered a very pivotal piece of information. The conservative official had failed to inform and teach this convert properly. He had refused to teach him the very basic Principle of Jewish Faith that the Torah was given to us by G-d.

According to Maimonides (the classic Jewish legal codifier), one who does not accept and believe this Principle is not a valid convert. Since not all Conservative Jews believe that all of the Torah is from G-d, many of the Conservatives do not teach this to aspiring converts. Thus, this person's "conversion" was not valid, despite the fact that acceptable witnesses were present at his performance of the conversion rituals.

Let me clarify this point. Today, the official Conservative position asserts that the Torah "is not a human invention." As explained to me by students at the Jewish Tehological Seminary (the premier Conservative college), back in 1981, Conservative Jews believe (i.e., these students were all taught -- I have no idea if all Conservatives assert this, but this is what that class was taught) that the Oral Torah was first composed by Jews centuries after we had the Written Torah. Yes, they were Divinely inspired, but it was their version of how to understand the Torah, these students told me, and it was not the way it was understood by the earlier generations.

I wish to make no bones about this. That is heresy. However, since I first heard about this in 1981, it is possible the Conservative position has changed since then. Nevertheless, the official Conservative position considers the Oral Torah to be more malleable and changeable than Jewish Law actually allows. They speak of "valid adjustment." The fact is, the Torah needs no "adjustments." it always boils down to imporper understanding of the Law in the first place.

Interestingly, the Conservative official at my friend's first performance of the rites advised him to later undergo an Orthodox conversion, so that his conversion would be accepted by all.

So, it's not as if they don't know about Orthodoxy's attitude about this. In this case, the official was at least honest about it. I have read about people who have not been similarly warned, and later suffered because of it.

The pity of it is that many Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist "converts" are very sincere. (For that matter, so are many of the Jews born into those movements.) It is often no fault of their own that they are not considered Jewish by that conversion. It is only their lack of knowledge, and the misleading assurances of the non-Orthodox leaders that they have "sufficiently" converted.

It must be agreed, however, that in more recent years many of the Rabbis of the Conservative Movement have taken some positive steps towards a firmer acceptance of Jewish Law (which, in truth, was their original intent when they broke off from the Reform way back when). We hope and pray they will return completely, so we can all heal the breaches together, and not compromise Jewish Law in any way in doing so.

Q. How can you say that they have not sufficiently converted? Aren't they sincere?

A. Imagine that there is a member of the Iraqi underground (if there is such a thing). He resents Saddam Hussein. He considers himself an American. He fights valiantly against the Iraqi army on behalf of the United States. He plants American flags at every place he conquers. He disperses tracts about the American form of government throughout Iraq.

One day, the war ends, and he takes a boat to America. He arrives triumphantly on the shores of the U.S., and loudly demands to be given a mansion and free room and board, like any good American.

Understandably, he is told that he is not yet a citizen. He must fill out the forms, he must wait on line, he must get approved and accepted, he must swear or affirm an oath, he must actually find a job, and he must -- gasp -- pay taxes!

"But how can you do this to me?!" he shouts. "I am an American war hero! I am a citizen! It is my right! I have killed and put my life in danger for this country! How dare you tell me I have no right to call myself an American! And pay taxes? It's an outrage!"

There can be little doubt of his sincerity. There can be no doubt of his desire to be an American, under his terms. But regardless of his sincerity, he has to follow the rules. If he does not file the forms, or take the oath, he cannot become an American citizen, regardless of his sincerity.

And if he refuses to pay taxes, he just might go to jail, or even get deported, regardless of his heroism.

The American ideal involves all the more difficult aspects of American life as well as the supposed freedom and liberty it touts. We must pay taxes, to keep the government we consider the bastion of freedom. We must keep within the speed limits when driving, because that is the price of republican government.

Above all, we must work for a living, because the American dream does not mean being supported by the government, but striking it rich through hard work and ingenuity.

Judaism has its rules as well. Not everyone who wants to be called Jewish is automatically called Jewish, just because s/he "feels Jewish." They might even be a true hero -- for which they are guaranteed to be rewarded -- but they are not Jewish if they do not follow the procedure. And they are not exempt from obeying the Laws, regardless of their war record. They may be righteous Gentiles, and they may even be more righteous than some Jews, but that does not make them Jews.

The degree of sincerity is irrelevant if the actual deed has not been done. If one has not converted to Judaism, one is not a Jew. If he is sincere, let him convert to Judaism.

There is only one kind of Jew, and every Jew is that kind of Jew. Some simply choose to ignore that, that's all.

[Continue on to Part Two]

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1. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah, 268:12

2. Ibid, para 2

3. Ibid, para 1, 12

4. Culled from Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat, Laws of Judges, 7-8; Laws of Testimony, 34