January 20, 2011

Rep. Giffords and Patrilineal Descent

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism at 6:57 am by chavalah

U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.)

By now, most of us are probably familiar with the Arizona shooting that took place outside of a supermarket on Jan. 8. Jared Lee Loughner, 22, is accused of killing six people and wounding several others during a “Congress on Your Corner” event.

Jewish news picked up on the story because the alleged target, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Gifford (D-Ariz.) and her now deceased aide, Gabriel Zimmerman, are members of the tribe. Giffords, who is Jewish through her father’s side, is making a slow but remarkable recovery from a gunshot wound to the head if, it stands to reason, it were a few inches off, might have killed her on the spot.

Much of the Jewish world has rallied to the Congresswoman. Giffords, who belongs to a Reform synagogue and is staunchly pro-Israel, is lauded as one of our own. But this admission does not come without consternation among “traditional” Jews. I am taken with Rabbi Jason Miller, of the Conservative movement, and his struggle to reconcile Giffords’ patrilineal descent with standard teachings. Although he ultimately moves towards a more Reform/Reconstructionist outlook of considering Giffords Jewish because “she lives a Jewish life,” he admits that although many Conservative and Orthodox synagogues might offer prayers for her, “they would be violating their own religious policy if they ever called her to the Torah for an aliyah honor.”

Miller’s column led me to a Jerusalem Post editorial (albeit a little dated now when it comes to knowledge about Loughner,) which shows how Israel, too, struggles with the idea of patrilineal descent. The Law of Return grants the right of anyone with a proven Jewish grandparent (no matter which side), converts and also the non-Jewish spouses of Jews (like my dad) the right to apply for Israeli citizenship. Many of these “non-halachic” Jews, the editorial contends, serve in the IDF and otherwise become productive members of society. The editorial also lauds Giffords for her Jewish and pro-Israel pride.

I am heartened and excited to learn that growing numbers of my people are coming to realize that Jews of patrilineal descent can give so much to the Jewish community. JPost uses the emotionally charged words, “we can’t ignore reality that many ‘non-Jews’ are more Jewish than their ‘Jewish’ fellows.” I prefer the more neutral hope that the more we accept Jews of various familial backgrounds, the more we can find pride in our community as a whole, and reduce the threat of assimilation. People go where they feel welcome, folks.

I only hope that next time, it doesn’t take a tragedy for the Jewish world to celebrate how much our “non-halachic” fellows have to offer. May Rep. Giffords—Gavriela bat Gloria v’Spencer—be granted a speedy refuah shlemah.

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