Who Isn't Jewish Enough

Hadar is "a place in which you can be your full Jewish self without compromising on questions of values and gender that is in line with tradition and really continuing that," [Rabbi Elie} Kaunfer said. "Being a place that other people can point to and say, 'Oh yeah, the kind of Jewish life that I believe in exists, and here it is.'"

Hadar students are “a fairly representative sample of what American Judaism looks like in terms of denominational background and geographic diversity,” Tucker said. “No single denomination comprises a majority of the background of our students.”

“denominational labels threaten to make Torah sectarian. I think the Torah paints on a broader canvas. The Torah is the property of the entire Jewish people and speaks to the entire Jewish people. That means that all Jews, irrespective of their background, have the right to demand that the Torah speak to them and address who they are and give them guidance based on the lives they actually lead. It also means that the Torah commands and has expectations for all Jewish people.”

R' Ethan Tucker 2011


Hadar, a respected pluralistic institute of Jewish study known for its inclusivity of women and queer people, stunned and outraged many of its supporters this week by suggesting that it was redrawing traditional definitions of who is a Jew — to make them more restrictive.

The Orthodox and Conservative movements generally consider Jews of matrilineal descent and converts members of the tribe, while the Reform and Reconstructionist movements include Jews of patrilineal descent as well.

But on Monday, the Hadar Institute posted an application for its Beit Midrash Fellowship that said candidates needed either to have converted or have two Jewish parents.

. . .

Hadar quickly pulled the language from its site, and on Tuesday released a statement apologizing and saying the institute’s policies had not changed; it would continue to follow matrilineal descent for admission to its fellowship programs.

“This language misrepresented our approach to this highly sensitive topic and the lack of clarity led to many people feeling excluded and hurt,” wrote Rabbis Aviva Richman and Ethan Tucker, who head Hadar’s yeshiva program. “We deeply apologize for the miscommunication and the pain that we caused.”

. . .

“Judaism is an invitation to responsibility, and therein lies some of the tension,” Rabbi Tucker [said] in an interview. “To the extent inclusion means you know, just come without any expectations – well, we have a tradition that has expectations,” he said. “That’s part of our covenant, that’s how we reach towards God, that’s how we build community. But it’s very much an invitation.”

Tucker’s three-part essay and a three-part lecture are all available on Hadar’s website. In them, the rabbi suggests that matrilineal descent stems from a tradition in which the mother was the primary parent and that the realities of modern parenting, in which a non-Jewish father would likely take an active role in raising his children, demands a change in approach.

His proposed solution is to perform a giyur l’chumrah, a conversion ritual done if there is any doubt about someone’s Jewish background, on anyone of mixed parentage. The process involves immersion in a mikveh, or ritual bath, in front of rabbis and, if relevant, a symbolic circumcision in which a drop of blood is drawn.

Jewish status is relevant for its flagship year-long and summer-intensive yeshiva fellowships. “These programs are designed for cohorts characterized by shared obligation in mitzvot and halachic practice,” the statement said. It included among these daily minyanim, or prayer services requiring a quorum of 10 Jews; most Orthodox institutions count only men in a minyan, but egalitarian institutions, including Hadar, generally count all Jews.

In an interview, Rabbi Tucker expanded on this, explaining that “these two programs are anchored around Jewish practice, and so you need a working definition of Jewish status to have shared prayer.”

(י) וַיֵּצֵא֙ בֶּן־אִשָּׁ֣ה יִשְׂרְאֵלִ֔ית וְהוּא֙ בֶּן־אִ֣ישׁ מִצְרִ֔י בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיִּנָּצוּ֙ בַּֽמַּחֲנֶ֔ה בֶּ֚ן הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִ֔ית וְאִ֖ישׁ הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִֽי׃
(10) There came out among the Israelites a man whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian. And a fight broke out in the camp between that half-Israelite and a certain Israelite.
(א) כִּ֤י יְבִֽיאֲךָ֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֥ה בָא־שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּ֑הּ וְנָשַׁ֣ל גּֽוֹיִם־רַבִּ֣ים ׀ מִפָּנֶ֡יךָ הַֽחִתִּי֩ וְהַגִּרְגָּשִׁ֨י וְהָאֱמֹרִ֜י וְהַכְּנַעֲנִ֣י וְהַפְּרִזִּ֗י וְהַֽחִוִּי֙ וְהַיְבוּסִ֔י שִׁבְעָ֣ה גוֹיִ֔ם רַבִּ֥ים וַעֲצוּמִ֖ים מִמֶּֽךָּ׃ (ב) וּנְתָנָ֞ם יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ לְפָנֶ֖יךָ וְהִכִּיתָ֑ם הַחֲרֵ֤ם תַּחֲרִים֙ אֹתָ֔ם לֹא־תִכְרֹ֥ת לָהֶ֛ם בְּרִ֖ית וְלֹ֥א תְחׇנֵּֽם׃ (ג) וְלֹ֥א תִתְחַתֵּ֖ן בָּ֑ם בִּתְּךָ֙ לֹא־תִתֵּ֣ן לִבְנ֔וֹ וּבִתּ֖וֹ לֹא־תִקַּ֥ח לִבְנֶֽךָ׃ (ד) כִּֽי־יָסִ֤יר אֶת־בִּנְךָ֙ מֵֽאַחֲרַ֔י וְעָבְד֖וּ אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֑ים וְחָרָ֤ה אַף־יְהֹוָה֙ בָּכֶ֔ם וְהִשְׁמִידְךָ֖ מַהֵֽר׃
(1) When your God יהוה brings you to the land that you are about to enter and possess, and [God] dislodges many nations before you—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations much larger than you— (2) and your God יהוה delivers them to you and you defeat them, you must doom them to destruction: grant them no terms and give them no quarter. (3) You shall not intermarry with them: do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. (4) For they will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods, and יהוה’s anger will blaze forth against you, promptly wiping you out.
וְכׇל מִי שֶׁאֵין לָהּ עָלָיו קִידּוּשִׁין אֲבָל יֵשׁ לָהּ עַל אֲחֵרִים קִידּוּשִׁין הַוָּלָד מַמְזֵר וְאֵיזֶה זֶה זֶה הַבָּא עַל אַחַת מִכׇּל הָעֲרָיוֹת שֶׁבַּתּוֹרָה וְכׇל מִי שֶׁאֵין לָהּ לֹא עָלָיו וְלֹא עַל אֲחֵרִים קִידּוּשִׁין הַוָּלָד כְּמוֹתָהּ וְאֵיזֶה זֶה זֶה וְלַד שִׁפְחָה וְנׇכְרִית
And in any case where a woman cannot join in betrothal with a particular man, as the betrothal does not take effect, but she can join in betrothal with others, i.e., the woman is considered a member of the Jewish people and can marry other Jews, in these cases the offspring is a mamzer. And in which case is this applicable? This is one who engages in intercourse with any one of those with whom relations are forbidden that are written in the Torah. And in any case where a woman cannot join in betrothal with him or with others, the offspring is like her. He is not considered his father’s son at all, but has the same status as his mother. And in which case is this applicable? This is the offspring of a Canaanite maidservant or a gentile woman, as her child is a slave or a gentile like her. If he converts, he is not a mamzer.
וְהִלְכְתָא: גּוֹי וְעֶבֶד הַבָּא עַל בַּת יִשְׂרָאֵל — הַוָּלָד כָּשֵׁר, בֵּין בִּפְנוּיָה בֵּין בְּאֵשֶׁת אִישׁ.
The Gemara concludes: And the halakha is that with regard to a gentile or slave who engaged in intercourse with a Jewish woman, the lineage of the offspring is unflawed, whether she was an unmarried or a married woman.
הַהוּא דַּהֲווֹ קָרוּ לֵיהּ ״בַּר אַרְמָיְיתָא״, אֲמַר רַב אַסִּי: מִי לָא טְבַלָה לְנִדּוּתַהּ? הָהוּא דַּהֲווֹ קָרוּ לֵיהּ ״בַּר אַרְמָאָה״. אֲמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי: מִי לָא טְבַל לְקִרְיוֹ?
The Gemara details the circumstances of Rav Asi’s ruling: There was a certain man whom people would call: Son of the Aramean woman, as they cast aspersions on the validity of his mother’s conversion. With regard to that case, Rav Asi said: Didn’t she immerse for the sake of purifying herself from her menstruation? A similar incident is recounted: There was a certain man whom people would call: Son of an Aramean man, as they cast aspersions on the validity of his father’s conversion. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Didn’t he immerse for the sake of purifying himself from his seminal emission? That intention is sufficient to consider the immersion an immersion for the sake of conversion.
עַל בְּנֵיהֶן שֶׁהֵם מַמְזֵרִים — רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן לְטַעְמֵיהּ. דְּאָמַר רַבִּי חִיָּיא בַּר אַבָּא אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן: לְעוֹלָם אֵין גֵּר עַד שֶׁיָּמוּל וְיִטְבּוֹל. וְכֵיוָן דְּלָא טָבֵיל, גּוֹי הוּא. וְאָמַר רַבָּה בַּר בַּר חָנָה אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן: גּוֹי וְעֶבֶד הַבָּא עַל בַּת יִשְׂרָאֵל — הַוָּלָד מַמְזֵר.
The Gemara explains: With regard to the declaration concerning their children that they are mamzerim, Rabbi Yoḥanan conforms to his standard line of reasoning in two halakhot: The first is as Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said: One is never considered to be a convert until he has been circumcised and has immersed. And since the convert in the case in Gavla had not immersed, he is still considered a gentile. And the second halakha is as Rabba bar bar Ḥana said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said: With regard to a gentile or a slave who engaged in intercourse with a Jewish woman, the offspring of that union is a mamzer.
אָמַר רַבִּי חִיָּיא בַּר אַבָּא אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן: גֵּר צָרִיךְ שְׁלֹשָׁה, ״מִשְׁפָּט״ כְּתִיב בֵּיהּ.
Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said: A convert requires a court of three to preside over conversion, because “judgment,” is written with regard to him, as the verse states: “And one judgment shall be both for you and for the convert that sojourns with you” (Numbers 15:16), and legal judgments require a court of three judges.

Tucker wrote: “contemporary intermarriages are best described as an​ act of ‘ethnic apostasy.’”