This week's Torah portion, Shelah Lekha, noted the rabbi at Shabbat services, presents a conflict between "being" vs. "doing." The Israelites expect God to protect them despite their transgressions because, well, they're the Jewish people. But that's not enough for God. (According to commentary in Etz Hayim : "God is prepared to forgive... slights against Heaven, but not sins against the idea of the Jewish people [who refused to believe Moshe and Aaron] as the people of God.") God does protect Caleb and Joshua, however, who take action--who do--and risk their lives in the process.
What better defines a Jew, wondered the rabbi, being or doing? The latter idea was irrelevant during the Nazi era; only blood counted. Traditional halakha is equally unforgiving: feel free to call yourself Jewish (aka Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform), but of course don't try to have a legal religious wedding in Israel unless you're Orthodox (according to whatever the current standard might be).
But there's also the case of Brother Daniel, aka Oswald Rufeisen, a Jew who escaped from a Nazi labor camp. He survived by hiding in a convent, and then decided to convert to Christianity and become a monk. In 1962 he applied for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Despite his religious beliefs, he saw his fate and destiny as part of the Jewish people, and was a halakhic Jew by any standards. His application was nevertheless denied: " The Supreme Court [...] ruled that despite the halakhic logic of the rabbinate’s position and the unusual circumstances (Daniel had single-handedly saved several hundred Jews in the town of Mir), you couldn’t be both a Catholic priest and a Jew. " To decide otherwise, suggested the rabbi on Shabbat morning, would have been tantamount to acting like the Nazis, for whom only blood counted. Rather, the Supreme Count deemed doing Jewish more important than being.
Where do we stand today? In the 1990s, Hillel, the Jewish campus organization, put most of their efforts into creating events (otherwise known as the "Jewish bowling syndrome") that brought Jews together rather than engaged us in prayer or tzedaka. Connection, being, was considered most important for survival; the rest would follow, or not. For many Americans whose forbears came here during the last century's great wave of immigration, it did not. But we're still as Jewish as our grandparents, or are we? Is it just semantics, or does it really matter?
The rabbi's words struck a nerve. When I first considered setting foot inside a synagogue after years away, I wondered for about a second if they'd let me in, or might see a big scarlet letter "chet" on my forehead and chase me away with cries of "Imposter!" I neither felt like a good Jew nor spared a whole lot of love for Am Yisrael, especially since I had more of a connection to church music than any kind of mumbling in a minor key. I had the same doubts the very first time I was offered an aliyah, as part of a group at the singles retreat that began my renewed spiritual journey. It was an exciting and confusing moment, and I half expected a bolt of lighting to strike me dead. Even as a child in Hebrew school, I always had a sense that I wasn't yet sealed into this place and people--that one day I might grow into my Jewishness, and then perhaps the contradictions and little hypocrisies would make sense. They still do not, but now that I'm engaged in doing, everything else--the part about being a good person and honoring the tradition which which I have chosen to cast my lot, the part about what makes a real Jew--finally does.