Earlier this week, we ran a story about a reform cantor and rabbi whose father was Jewish but her mother was not, and who is serving in her two very Jewish sounding roles without the benefit of a proper—or even a Reform—conversion (It’s Official: You Can Be a Non-Jewish Rabbi). To me, it seemed like the ultimate, end-of-the-line kind of illustration of how far the Reform movement has strayed outside the rabbinical tent, although over the heated discussion that ensued by our readers it was mentioned that the lady in question is not the first non-Jewish Reform rabbi since the Reform movement enacted the doctrine of patrilineal descent to determine who is a Reform Jew.
We now received a response letter from David Ellenson, President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, protesting our article. I was conflicted over whether we should run the article as is, and expect our readers to debate it, or add my own running commentary. The reason I decided to do the latter, which, I admit, is taking advantage of my position as editor, at the expense of the author, is that the letter is rife with misleading information.
I debated this with our editor in chief, and we decided that, in the name of fairness, we’ll run only complete paragraphs of the Ellenson letter, in sequential order, and add comments only between paragraphs, much the way some people do when they respond to a long email. So, here we go:
To the Editor:
I recognize that the editors and authors of The Jewish Press have a different stance towards Judaism than we at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and in the Reform Movement do. Indeed, I do not question your right to approach Judaism and the issue of conversion as you deem proper even as our own principled position is distinct from yours. However, no less a rabbinic personage than Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer of Posen, the famed author of Drishat Tsiyon, referred to children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers – even without conversion – as zera kodesh. He asserted that “gdolei yisrael” could well spring from among these children.
The citation from Rabbi Kalischer of Posen (who vehemently rejected the Reform movement of his day, see Hertzberg, Arthur, The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader) is misleading, and a little bit offensive.
It suggests that Rabbi Kalischer—a student of Rabbi Akiva Eger and one of the most noted Zionist Rabbis of the early 1800s (he called for the redeeming of all of Eretz Israel and for the renewal of the Temple sacrifices, both values that I would love to see adopted by the Reform movement) supported the recognition of the offspring of Jewish men and their non-Jewish wives as Jews, without a halachic conversion.
Throwing such a ludicrous claim without proper citation does not befit the president of an academic institute, mostly because it forced yours truly to spend hours online in search of the cite. But I did. Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, affiliated with the RCA beit din in Montreal, told Paul Lungen of CJN (New standards possible for Orthodox conversions) about an 1864 case when two German rabbis, Zvi Hirsch Kalischer and Azriel Hildesheimer debated the standards to be applied to child conversion:
“Responding to a query from a rabbi in New Orleans, Rabbi Kalischer argued that if the child was brought up in a home where there was potential for him to grow in observance – even where the mother was gentile – the conversion should be approved. Rabbi Hildesheimer believed conversions should not be approved unless the parents were observant.”
In other words, the honorable president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is trying to pull off a dishonest shmear, suggesting that by his sweet comment that those children of Jewish fathers and gentile mothers are “holy seed” (zera kodesh) – he meant they could become rabbis without a proper conversion.
No, no, no. The debate was over whether a guy who marries a non-Jew can ask for a halachic conversion of their children, even though he is so outside the Jewish fold that he went and married a Jew.
In our own time, Rabbi Haim Amsalem of Israel, in his Zera Yisrael, has offered a broad survey of halakhic writing on this question and has made the same point as Rabbi Kalischer concerning the offspring of intermarried Russian families who have made aliyah to Israel. Rabbi Amsalem has written that such children, who share in the fate and destiny of our people, should be embraced.
This one is not merely a lie, but a stupid lie, because the rabbi in question is alive and well, and can speak for himself, which he did. Here, for the record, is rabbi Chaim Ansalem’s view on the conversion of children of intermarried Russian families (the text was shortened, the full version is available here):