For a week I have watched this surprising headline pop up around the international media as predictably as Artium Dolgopyat cajoled his fine-tuned body through spinning gyroscopes on his way to an Olympic Gold Medal in Artistic Gymnastics this year in Tokyo.
Foolishly, I hoped the news cycle would fade, but even our own Jerusalem Post still highlights the menacing “Israel won’t let Olympic gold medalist Dolgopyat marry” click bait. All too predictably Dolgopyat’s non-Jewish mother’s cry resounded across the lurking media ready to pounce. “They won’t let my son marry here!” she lamented, and the world screamed, “apartheid,” “horrific,” “uncivilized.” How could they? A genuine Israeli hero, one who deeply loves their (his!) country, who gave them their craved positive world attention, how could he not be allowed to marry in the Jewish nation? Do we need more proof of their depravity?
Artium, of course, is just one of a quarter million Russian immigrants who are not considered Jewish according to Halacha (Jewish religious law), and thus are unable to wed in Israel in a Jewish wedding where marriages are conducted solely by the Religious Orthodoxy. Of course there are alternative paths for Artium and his non-Jewish mother, as for all citizens, to obtain a civil betrothal, but that’s another story. This is a crisis that has been brewing since the day Israel generously opened her gates to Soviet Jewry in the 1980s.
The modern Exodus to Israel included Russians and Ukrainians who are kosher enough to make Aliyah because they have at least one Jewish grandparent, a ruling that dates back to the birth of the nation following WWII and came to counter the Nazi’s malevolent machinations that anyone with a Jewish grandparent is Jewish enough for the gas chamber.
While the vast majority of our Russian immigrants have fully integrated into Israeli society, many excelling in high-tech, medicine and engineering, an official Jewish wedding raises a particular problem. Many of these immigrants do not want to be, nor see themselves as Jews. Should anyone be considered Jewish without any guidelines?
On the one hand, there must be some obligation to be a Jew. Tradition holds that potential converts must be made fully aware of the difficulty and danger before becoming part of the Jewish people. It’s counting the cost. This is based on the story of Naomi who tried to send Ruth away three times before fully embracing her as a member of the tribe. Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative code of Jewish law, establishes basic requirements of at least embracing the Shabbat and Kashrut. Many, if not most Russian immigrants would not even consider these basic traditions.
At the same time, in the Bible it was not uncommon for Jews to marry non-Jews. Even highly renowned Jews like King David whose third wife, the mother of Absalom, was the daughter of the king of Geshur. Or David’s son King Solomon who had numerous wives from Edom, Ammon and Egypt who, according to Nehemiah, did not convert. The list is long.
In response to this dilemma, a number of options have become available to any Israeli or new immigrant desiring to be recognized as a Jew for the sake of a Jewish marriage, and for their yet-to-be-born children to be Jewish as well. I spoke to a young couple who want an official Jewish wedding ceremony for these very reasons and are part of the popular Nativ program. “This course has opened my eyes to the true meaning of what it means to be Jewish,” the bride-to-be told me. “I grew up in a family where we had no idea of what being Jewish meant. We didn’t even know the stories about Moses or Abraham. Now that I understand, I am excited about raising a Jewish family here in Israel and being a part of the Jewish people.”
Of course this program goes much deeper than knowing who Moses is in its mission to pass on understanding what it means to be Jewish, but no program, path or definition to being Jewish will satisfy everyone. There is, however, no good reason why we cannot avoid the more extreme religious examples, some of which do not allow conversion under any circumstances, and find a way forward to preserve the fundamental values and traditions of Jewish life and family for our people.
The new government under the leadership of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a kippa-donning Religious Zionist, has brought a fresh spark of hope for many in Israel, that at last, and at least, it seems, these crucial questions have come to the forefront of our national debate.
As of this writing, Minister of Religious Affairs Matan Kahana, himself a Religious Zionist, is working on a new approach to a broader acceptance in the definition of who is a Jew, breaking with the longstanding status quo Orthodox option. This is a bold move, and the risks of splintering even further the deep divide between the Orthodox and Traditional Conservative Jewish streams are great. If by some miraculous gymnastic juggling Kahana and the new government are successful, the whole Jewish nation deserves a gold medal. Of course no matter what happens, plenty of our citizens will be aggravated and cry “foul play” like the Russians did when they lost the gold to another Israeli gymnast in Tokyo after years of dominating the sport. And the media around the world, who aren’t even in the game, will find some way I am sure to spin the headlines faster than Artium Dolgopyat’s artistic twists.