Over the past two days, while the army was shooting into the crowds in Egypt and half of Beirut was lifted by a huge car bomb, and many other awful things were happening, The Jewish Press readership has been dealing with mostly the question of the possibility that a Reform Rabbi named Angela Buchdahl could have attained her high position without the benefit of a Jewish conversion.
It started with an article in The Forward (Angela Buchdahl, First Asian-American Rabbi, Vies for Role at Central Synagogue), that basically suggested Buchdahl was not Jewish according to Jewish law:
But she also engaged Judaism at a time when the Reform movement itself was undergoing dramatic change. Eleven years after Buchdahl’s birth, in a move still hotly debated in all streams of Judaism, including within Reform Judaism itself, the Reform movement overturned more than 2,000 years of tradition that recognized only those whose mother was Jewish as Jews from birth. Others, including those with just a Jewish father, were required to undergo a process of conversion, though this process varied among Judaism’s different streams.
Starting in 1983, as intermarriage advanced steadily among its members, Reform Judaism conferred a “presumption of Jewish descent” on those with one Jewish parent, whether it was a father or a mother. The one condition to this recognition was that it be established “through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith,” according to the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
In many ways, Buchdahl represents the flowering of this revolution in Judaism, and symbolizes a kind of coming of age of its children.
This was coupled with an article in Hadassah Magazine:
Profile: Angela Buchdahl
Though Buchdahl’s mother did not convert, she wanted her children to find a home in the Jewish community. Her father instilled Jewish pride in his children and gave them a Jewish vocabulary, says Buchdahl, but it was her mother who imparted a sense of spiritual yearning and wonder. Her mother’s Buddhism informs her Judaism, she says, noting that Jewish and Korean cultures overlap in their approach to life, their emphasis on giving back and their drive to succeed and to be educated.
So yours truly, enchanted by the concept of the non-Jewish Rabbi, charged ahead. I still believe all the points I was making were right, namely that the Reform doctrine of patrilineal descent and the “presumption of Judaism” in the case of a the offspring of a non-Jewish woman married to a Jew were on the money.
Except that it turns out Buchdahl may have converted to Judaism after all.
Thanks, first, to our reader Vicky Glikin of Deerfield, Illinois, who wrote:
It is highly unfortunate that your facts and the very premise for this article are plain wrong. Rabbi/Cantor Buchdahl underwent an Orthodox conversion, a fact that you would have easily discovered had you actually been trying to write an intelligent work of journalism.
So I went looking for the misrepresented conversion, and found the following line in the Times (Defining Judaism, a Rabbi of Many Firsts), hidden among long, familiar paragraphs like this one:
Her first reaction was to think about a formal conversion to Judaism, but a second impulse quickly followed: Why should she convert to prove something, when she had been a Jew her entire life? In traditional Jewish law, a Jew is defined through the mother’s line. But over roughly the last 40 years, the Reform movement in Judaism accepted descent through the father’s line as legitimate for Jewish identification, so if a child has a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother who affiliates as a Jew (the mother need not convert if she is involved in synagogue life), the child does not need to undergo a conversion to become a Jew.
But then, the Times revealed: “Eventually, at 21, she did undergo a conversion ceremony, but she prefers to think of it as a reaffirmation ceremony.”
Another clue was in something David Ellenson, President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, wrote in his letter today (Hebrew Union Pres. Pulls Fast One in Non-Jewish Rabbi Debate): ”you assume an article that was written in another newspaper and upon which your author draws for his piece reveals all the facts about her life. ”
Meaning, Ellenson may have known Buchdahl had converted in an Orthodox ceremony, but to concede this would mean that he agrees that it takes an Orthodox conversion to turn even the child of a Jewish father into a real Jew — as shown by the very poster child of patrilineal descent, the subject of our attention these past two days.
I still find the entire affair more than a little bizarre: why should someone who did convert in an Orthodox ceremony be sending out all the signals that they didn’t and that they’re proud they didn’t. Perhaps we’ll find out in the next chapter of this very strange story.