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When and How Does an Individual's Sense of Identity Take Root?
This week's portion opens with an agricultural-calendrical reference that seems out of place as we come close to Rosh Hashanah.
The portion describes the ancient offering of the first fruits (with its echo of Shavuot) and an obligatory accompanying recitation ("My father was a wandering Aramean ... ") that is included in the Pesach Haggadah. Traditional interpreters hold that the wandering Aramean was the patriarch Jacob and, by extension, progenitor of the Jewish people.
A halachic question raised in medieval sources is whether someone who comes to Jewish identity through conversion is obligated to say "My father ... " -- since her or his biological father was not "a wandering Aramean" (i.e., a descendant of Jacob).
To some people, the question may sound peculiar, even offensive. The received wisdom is that "converts are equal to born Jews in every way" and to raise a question about the first fruits declaration may suggest otherwise.
Where is Jewish identity located? It is helpful to make a distinction between the terms "identity" and "status." "Identity" primarily means the ways in which individuals identify themselves ("I am Jewish"). In the case of a new child, it is the way in which parent/s identify the child, as in "my/our child is Jewish." In the case of a convert, it is what he or she acquires through study, ritual and affirmation.
"Status" denotes or denies affirmation of someone's "identity" by a community or people or some other form of collectivity. For example: "In our congregation, we recognize you as being Jewish," or, "In our movement, your child is recognized as being Jewish." Conversely, "in our community" (or "according to halachah"), "we do not accept your claim of Jewish identity," or "your conversion did not include certain required rituals and so is incomplete."
Communities define themselves in part by determining who is or is not a member. Communities cannot exist in a meaningful way without such determinations. Even when boundaries are particularly permeable, communities seek self-understanding through self-definition.
Contemporary Jews often differ as they try to establish definitions of what comprises Jewish identity and status. This is not meant as a way of judging people or of "keeping the gates closed." It is, rather, an attempt to understand identity as both substantial and significant by defining -- as well as a community can in a time of transition -- what it sees as the core symbols of identity and the basic content of that identity.
Jewish identity and status are not determined on a purely individual or autonomous basis. Each of the contemporary Jewish religious movements strives to establish basic positions and policies regarding Jewish identity that are consistent.
Leaving aside the rituals of conversion, how does one actually come to join the Jewish people, if one cannot claim a wandering Aramean as an ancestor?
When someone accepts and internalizes the story of the Jewish people as one's own story, identity takes root. Because Jewish identity is framed collectively and not just individually, conversion to Judaism is less an individual's "declaration of faith," as conversion to Christianity may be, and more an act of taking on "citizenship."
Thus, the medieval sage Maimonides taught that a convert was entitled to offer the declaration at the first fruits, because in joining the Jewish people and accepting the narrative, she or he acquires the patriarchs and matriarchs as spiritual ancestors. Thus, someone who comes to Jewish identity through conversion -- as well as her or his children -- becomes the descendant of a wandering Aramean.
Rabbi Richard Hirsh is the executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.