When the bomb was thrown 22 years ago, many were aghast: Surely, it would lead to an irreparable schism in the Jewish people. Even within the Reform Jewish movement, from which the explosive decision known as "patrilineal descent" had emanated, there were cautionary voices.
The Reform rabbinate in Israel was either ruggedly opposed or, at the least, very skeptical of the wisdom of the movement's new policy. They shared the fear insistently voiced by Orthodox officials, the fear that the policy would fracture Jewish unity.
Traditionally, Jews have believed that a Jew is the offspring of a Jewish mother. In 1983, as the number of mixed marriages mushroomed, the Reform movement chose to expand that definition. It simply would not do, not any longer, to hold that the child of a Jewish woman and a non-Jewish man was automatically Jewish while the child of a Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman was not.
Henceforward, said Reform, the offspring of a Jewish father would qualify as a Jew, if and as the child participated in "appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people."
This policy led in at least one case to a curious result. A young couple in which the man was Jewish, and the woman the child of a non-Jewish father and a Jewish mother, presented themselves to his rabbi and asked that he marry them. But she had never participated in "formal acts of identification." The rabbi reluctantly declined, since the policy applied to mothers as well. The couple then went to an Orthodox rabbi, who had no problem at all, since the young woman was halachically Jewish.
In any event, the results of the new Reform policy were considerably less drastic than had been predicted. People of "questionable" lineage who want to marry an Orthodox Jew can convert, just as they could before 1983.
Still, there's reason to believe that the dramatic drop in the number of conversions, which were much more frequently between a non-Jewish woman and a Jewish man, owes to the policy of accepting the children of mixed unions as Jews. There's also evidence that the children of such couples (a mixed marriage without a conversion) are less likely to be raised as or to think of themselves as Jews.
Many non-Jews in a relationship with Jews are reluctant to consider converting because they cannot honestly say that they accept the religious principles that conversion requires them to accept. Some eventually convert anyway; others marry their beloved, but remain distant from Judaism and the Jewish people.
There is some confusion of terms here. "Judaism" typically refers to the Jewish religious system, whereas "the Jewish people" means a Judaism that is principally cultural, or perhaps just sociological; ethnic, we usually call it.
One can, of course, convert to Judaism, but there's no way really to convert to Jewish peoplehood. Is there not something awry in insisting that the only door through which one can enter Judaism is a door marked "religion," especially since those born Jewish may be agnostics, atheists, even Buddhists, yet still be counted – and count themselves – as Jews?
So why not think through what a secular conversion might entail? It would have to require more than "I want to be Jewish," and it would for sure not involve developing a taste for pastrami or learning a valise-full of Yiddish expressions.
Although it would not demand belief in the texts, it might require familiarity with them. De facto, this seems to be what the Reform movement is doing, as it welcomes the nonconverted spouses of Jewish members, seeks to embrace them, and in some synagogues is agreeable to their serving on committees, even the board.
But much as the American synagogue is the central institution of our community, it is not the exclusive address. We need other communal institutions and venues, such as Jewish Community Centers, havurot and grass-roots efforts not yet imagined, let alone realized. Nor need our efforts be restricted to prospective spouses of Jewish men and women.
Outside the framework that romantic involvement provides, there are people who have converted out of respect for what the Jews have said and done – for what Jews still say and do. Ought we not search for ways to welcome them?
Leonard Fein is a Boston-based columnist.