Gabrielle Giffords’ Jewishness


Q – I am a traditional Jew who subscribes to the traditional definition of Jewish identity (you are Jewish if your mother is Jewish or if you’ve converted). By this definition, Gabrielle Giffords is not Jewish. But by other definitions, including her own, she is. Given all she has done and what she has gone through, and given the strong possibility that her assailant attacked her in part because of her self-declared Jewish identity, what is the proper ethical response to all this?

A- Rep. Giffords should be embraced by all Jews as one of our own. And I say this as a rabbi who has long disagreed with the Reform Movement’s 1983 decision to accept a patrilineal definition of Jewish identity. At the time many feared that it would create an irreversible split among Jews. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg wrote a seminal essay , "Will there be one Jewish People by the year 2000?" Well, it’s 2011, and the question has more validity than ever. That split has in fact occurred.

Now we have a full generation of Jews who had Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, as Giffords does, and who grew up within a Jewish context, who now have cast their lot fully with the Jewish people – and who have been willing to risk their lives for that. There is no evidence that she was attacked because she was Jewish, but she was never afraid to wear her Jewish identity on her sleeve.

The situation is perplexing but hardly unprecedented. In fact, the State of Israel was way ahead of the curve on this one, instituting the Law of Return, which extends the rights of automatic citizenship in the Jewish state not only to those considered Jewish by traditional standards, but also to "a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew." Ironically, this definition was based on Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws, but even though we shouldn’t let history’s worst anti-Semite define who we are, it makes perfect sense to let our enemies define whom we need to protect and embrace as one of our own.

So the choice is either to be a nation of inverted Groucho Marxists, refusing to allow anyone to join a club who would accept people like us as a member – or, conversely, we can open the gates of the club wider, not by changing the letter of Jewish law, but by adhering to its inclusive spirit.

Were Giffords my congregant and if we had a strong relationship of trust, I’d suggest, sensitively, a casual dip in the mikva to dot the "I’s" and make her Jewish identity official. But even then, a number of rabbis would not accept her as Jewish. And, in any case, no one is going to dip in a mikva while lying in intensive care. So a bigger solution is called for.

Here’s a chance for Jewish leaders of all denominations to come together and create a class of Jewish citizenship and peoplehood that would enable us to circumvent the halachic issues. In the Bible that person was called the Ger Toshav (Resident Alien), a concept that Rabbi Steve Greenberg has updated. Others have too. I’ve spoken about the need to recognize even some non-Jews as being "Jew-ish."

I think the notion of Giffords being in any sense "alien" is abhorrent, so a new category is called for, something along the lines of Israeli citizenship. Even in Israel, people are recognizing the need to embrace Giffords. In an editorial, the Jerusalem Post stated, "We can’t ignore reality that many "non-Jews" are more Jewish than their "Jewish" fellows."

So a category of Jewish citizenship is called for, one that affirms peoplehood while protecting tradition. While we may never come to full agreement on the thorniest halachic issues regarding identity, at least we’ll be able to say, with great pride and a full heart, that Rep. Giffords’ extended Jewish family opens its arms to her in love and appreciation.

That is an ethical imperative.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Read his blog here, and follow him