Insider Information

  • Email
  • Print
  • Share
January 27, 2010

Over dinner my cousin, David, asked me whether it would be possible for him to become a Scottish Calvinist. I knew that, as an observant Jew, my kippah-coiffed cousin didn’t have Calvinist aspirations though he professed to a strong desire to wear a kilt. His question came in the middle of our discussion of a book called Abraham’s DNA: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People which claims, amongst other things, that Jews are Jews by DNA, and that about 75% to 80% of male Jews have Middle Eastern DNA.

The reason I’d brought up Abraham’s DNA was because of a recent court case involving Jewish identity in Britain. A child whose mother had converted to Judaism, but not with an Orthodox rabbi, was denied admittance to a state-funded Jewish day school. Why? Because the chief rabbinate associated with the school didn’t recognize non-Orthodox conversions as being validly Jewish.

Even though the child’s father was Jewish and they were a believing and practicing family, they were told that Judaism is and always has been conferred matrilineally, and not by checking off “Jewish” in a box. When the child’s father argued in the British courts that the school’s decision was discriminatory, the courts sided with the family. Essentially the non-Jewish British court served as the final arbiter in deciding what criterion Jews should use to define themselves. In effect, the court was saying faith, not DNA, determined inclusion in this particular religious club.

It was then that David claimed a deep desire to become a Scottish Calvinist. I am literal-minded; I tend to take words at their face value. My friends all know this, and like to test my credulity. Just last week, I got an email from a friend in Israel that described something called the Bethlehem Ostracon. An ostracon, apparently, is a pottery shard from the distant past. This ostracon, according to the email, contained six lines of text dating from the time of King David: “What a great day! I killed the giant, Goliath. And now I will be king over all Israel, from the Wadi of Egypt to the River Euphrates.”

I almost fell for it too, just like the way I did, for many embarrassing minutes, believe my cousin David wanted to become a Scottish Calvinist. I told David that he could become a Christian, because that was about faith, but could not become Scottish, since that was about DNA.

David, of course, played right along. He kept his poker face on, as I became more and more earnest in my explanation. Of course, David didn’t need me to explain the difference between religion and ethnicity. He was asking another and more global philosophical question: Can an outsider of any kind ever really become a 100% insider? Are communities, especially insular, religious ones, willing or able to let them in? And are we defined by others, or by ourselves?

Recently, I was reminded of the difficulty of translating inside lingo to outsiders when a Jewish friend, Judy, told me about her e-harmony mismatch. In describing the kind of person she was looking for, she checked off “Jewish” (“reluctantly,” she said) as well as “spiritual but not religious” and “Christian,” thinking that a Christian was simply a non-Jew. Based on her answers, e-harmony sent her men who were passionately Christian Christians who referred to Jesus as familiarly as if he were someone they played pool with on Saturday nights.

Judy had assumed that checking “Christian” was the same as checking “Jewish.” For her, “Jewish” didn’t imply that she went to synagogue every week or even that she made a mean matzah ball soup. She didn’t realize that if a guy makes a point of checking off Christian, then believing in Jesus as the savior is central to his life. Judy didn’t give any thought to personal salvation. It’s not a particularly Jewish thing. Salvation from what? Unlike Christianity, where being Christian is synonymous with belief you don’t have to believe to continue to be a Jew. You’ll still be a member of the tribe, and your child can still go to the Hebrew day school, your personal faith notwithstanding.

When I decided to exchange my kilt for a kippah (so to speak), I chose an Orthodox conversion, not because I thought it was better but because, frankly, I didn’t want my kids to ever feel like “outsiders” within their family. I didn’t want their insider status to be questioned, or ever put them in the position in which they weren’t allowed entrance because their mother (me) wasn’t “really” Jewish. People often ask me if I feel the Jewish community genuinely accepts me as being Jewish, since I wasn’t born Jewish, and I always answer yes. And I do. What I never say is, “Who cares? I know who I am, and God knows who I am, and that’s sufficient.” This is probably a leftover Christian attitude: the apostle Paul said that it is one’s circumcised heart that God sees. Faith is internal, not cut into one’s flesh.

Though my cousin swears he was kidding and that he does not suffer a Scottish tartan fetish, some jokes are woven from truth. As it turns out, a 3,000-year-old pottery shard with five lines of text in proto-Canaanite script was actually found recently in the valley where the battle between David and Goliath took place. The words on the ostracon have been translated to read:

1 you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord]. 2 Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an] 3 [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and] 4 the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king. 5 Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.

As the earliest known Hebrew writing, dating from the time of King David’s reign, the words of the 3,000 year old ostracon are similar to verses found in books currently in our possession – Isaiah, Exodus and the Psalms. They thus serve as a testament of the ability of language to faithfully transmit words and values from one generation to the next. As a Jew, the Apostle Paul, too, was quoting language that he’d learned from the book of Deuteronomy: “The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants.” Paul took those words and spun them in such a way that the non-Jews of his time – the new converts - could enter into a covenant with God without having to undergo circumcision of the flesh.

There’s something to be said for embracing outsiders, for “supporting the stranger” and allowing them to be insiders, without requiring them to pass a DNA test. There’s something to be said for faith, which can’t be proven by archaeology, nor quantified by rabbis or a court. And there’s also something to be said for passing down these ancient Hebrew words to the next generation by writing them on our hearts and on our foreheads and on our doorposts. In so doing, whether we believe the words or not, we continue to check off “Jew” in the box.

ZEEK is presented by The Jewish Daily Forward | Maintained by