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Is Gabby Giffords Jewish Enough?

January 20, 2011 By:
Jason Miller
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Jason Miller

As a Conservative rabbi and member of the movement's Rabbinical Assembly, I cannot officially consider Jewish descent to be determined patrilineally -- from the father. In its Code of Professional Conduct, the section detailing the responsibilities for membership in the R.A. currently lists four standards of religious practice. The first: "Matrilineality determines Jewish status."

Yet like many Jews who regard Jewish status to require a Jewish mother or proper conversion, I admit to feeling pride when a Jewish athlete or celebrity is successful, even if their "Jewishness" isn't technically defined by halachic standards.

For example, when Major League Baseball player Ryan Braun won the National League Rookie of the Year award in 2007, should the Jewish community have refused to claim the "Hebrew Hammer" as one of our own since only his father is a member of the tribe? Braun considers himself to be Jewish, and his Israeli-born father lost most of his family in the Holocaust.

The 1983 decision by the Reform movement to recognize Jewish status by either the mother or father continues to raise questions for the other streams.

The debate over "Who is a Jew" is back in the headlines following the Tucson, Ariz., shooting that critically injured U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Giffords, the daughter of a Christian Scientist mother and a Jewish father who is the grandson of a rabbi, has made her Jewishness quite clear. She is a proud Jew who is an active member of her Reform congregation. She co-chaired the Jewish Outreach Institute's 2007 conference. She was married under a chupah by a rabbi, albeit to a non-Jewish man.

As Giffords lays in a hospital, her Hebrew name has circulated the world to be used in the traditional Misheberach prayer for healing. Some rabbis have questioned whether her non-Jewish mother's name should be part of her Hebrew nomenclature for the prayer, while others have referred to her as Jewish, but added the caveat "not halachically speaking."

Since the Jan. 8 shooting, we have learned quite a bit about Giffords and her Jewish pride. Her paternal grandfather, the son of a Lithuanian rabbi, changed his name to Giffords for reasons of anti-Semitism.

On her campaign website, Giffords wrote that "growing up, my family's Jewish roots and tradition played an important role in shaping my values," and that like her grandmother, she is a lifetime member of Hadassah.

She talked of her visit to Israel while she was in the Arizona state Senate as "one of the most memorable experiences of my life."

The Jerusalem Post was the first publication to state emphatically that Giffords' Jewishness should not be questioned. "With all our desire for a universally accepted definition of 'Who is a Jew?' that would unify the Jewish people, we cannot ignore the complicated reality that many 'non-Jews' are much more Jewish than their 'Jewish' fellows. Congresswoman Giffords is one of them," the Post wrote in its editorial, "Learning Judaism From Giffords."

In her In the Mix blog at The New York Jewish Week, Julie Wiener wrote of how Giffords' Jewishness is shining a spotlight on the "Who is a Jew?" debate. In an article titled "Plight of the Patrilineals," Weiner cited blogger Kung Fu Jew, who posted his angry rant on the JewSchool blog about how Giffords is "Jewish enough for the Jewish community to own a side-show of the media circus. Jewish enough to be our martyr, it seems, but not Jewish enough to be treated equally in life."

Kung Fu Jew has a point here.

I'm sure many synagogues will offer prayers of healing for Giffords on Shabbat and recognize her as a Jewish member of Congress, yet they would be violating their own religious policy if they ever called her to the Torah for an aliyah honor.

I wish we had a consensus on what determines Jewish status through lineage, even if only in the non-Orthodox Jewish community. Certainly, we cannot continue to make an exception for athletes, celebrities and politicians of Jewish patrilineal descent. I'm in agreement with The Jerusalem Post on this matter. If Giffords considers herself Jewish because her father is Jewish and she lives a Jewish life, then she's Jewish.

May Rep. Gabrielle Giffords -- Gavriela bat Gloria v'Spencer -- be granted a speedy and complete recovery.

Rabbi Jason Miller is a "Rabbi Without Borders" who serves as the year-round rabbi of Tamarack Camps. He is the founder and director of Kosher Michigan, a kosher-certification agency. This article first appeared on The Huffington Post.

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