Will Chelsea convert?

So Chelsea Clinton is marrying a Jewish fellow up the road in Rhinebeck this weekend.

There’s a lot of speculation in the Jewish world about whether she will convert.

The Jerusalem Post notes:

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Whatever Clinton eventually decides, already her choice of a Jewish mate and the ho-hum response from the masses indicates how accepted Jews have become in US society.

“In the mid-20th century, Jews were the least prestigious white ethnic group in America,” according to Steven Cohen, an expert on American Jewry. “Half a century later, they are among the most prestigious, most desirable and most sought-after family members for Americans of all backgrounds.”

He pointed out that Clinton has been participating in Jewish rituals such as Shabbat meals and at least one Yom Kippur service, so that whether she formally converts or not, she is already part of a significant trend in American Jewish life.

“Many non-Jewish spouses are going through sociological conversions rather than rabbinical conversions.

They’re becoming in effect members of the Jewish community without official rabbinical instruction or authorization,” he noted. “Sociological conversions may be the biggest denomination of converts today.”

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The Forward wrote up a nice introduction to the groom, Marc Mezvinsky, and his family.

It starts with this:

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With her choice of a mate, Clinton, daughter of a former president and the current secretary of state, is marrying into a family that includes a former U.S. congressman convicted of fraud; another member of Congress who fell on her sword for a future in-law in a vote that ended her political career; no fewer than 10 brothers- and sisters-in-law, and a fervently anti-Zionist uncle.

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Sounds like quite a family.

That’s where the wedding will take place, by the way: Astor Courts in Rhinebeck.

JewishJournal.com raises a bunch of questions about why Clinton should convert — if she’s even remotely interested.

Columnist Danielle Berrin writes:

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We’re dealing with a Clinton here. Not a stupid woman, a dependent woman or a desperate woman. Clinton is well educated, comes from a good family, is independently successful and has ambition in the world. And we’re raising debate over her spiritual future by lobbing facts and figures about the declining Jewish populace and the fact that Conservative rabbis are forbidden from officiating at intermarriages? We’re going to have to come up with a more compelling argument than that. What we should be talking about is what Judaism might bring to her life, to her marriage, to her raising children, to her sense of purpose in the world.

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(AP Photo/Evan Agostini, File)

Is the Vatican/Anglican story that big a deal?

I would imagine that a lot of people are confused today by the Big News that the Vatican is taking steps to make it easier for conservative Anglicans to become Catholics while retaining Anglican traditions.

The fact that the NYTimes made it the Lead Story today will by itself tell many people that this is a major step for Rome.

I’m not so sure, although the whole thing is certainly quite interesting.

As you know, many traditional Anglicans — including Episcopalians in the U.S. — are unhappy with the liberal drift in parts of the Anglican Communion (meaning Europe and the U.S). They do not want to see gay bishops or female bishops. Some still do not want to see female priests. They don’t like the idea of some Anglican priests blessing same-sex couples.

Just last year, conservative Episcopalians in the U.S. left the church to form their own Anglican community, the Anglican Church in North America.

Now, some Anglicans have petitioned the Vatican to let them become Roman Catholics, while holding on to their Anglican liturgy.

But not that many.

Vatican AnglicansThe Times itself reports today that Cardinal William Levada (that’s him), the American boss of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “said that 20 to 30 bishops and hundreds of other people had petitioned the Vatican on the matter in recent years.”

We’re talking HUNDREDS of people out of 80 million Anglicans. Maybe a couple of thousand will think about making the change.

Most Anglicans live in parts of the world where their church communities are already quite traditional. So they’re good, more or less.

And disaffected Americans already have their own community that allows them to remain Anglicans.

So what’s the big deal?

Father Thomas Reese, the Jesuit scholar, writes that the most significant aspects of the whole story may be that the Catholic Church will recognize the Anglican liturgy — possibly opening the doors to other liturgical adventures — and that an uptick in married Anglican priests who become Catholic will raise new questions about the need for the celibate priesthood.

He writes:

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Despite all the Vatican attempts to downplay the acceptance of married Anglican priests, many people will ask why not married priests for other Catholics? Cardinal Levada said that not only married Anglican priests will be ordained but also married Anglican seminarians who join the Catholic Church. The Vatican has made clear that married Catholic priests will not be welcomed back to the priesthood, but could a married Catholic man join the Anglicans, enter an Anglican seminary and then return to the Catholic Church? If so, this could become a rich source of priests for the Catholic Church.

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This is interesting stuff. But I haven’t heard or read anything to make me think that we’re going to be see any major changes here in the Catholic or Anglican worlds.

Britain Vatican AnglicansMaybe that’s why two Anglican archbishops, including Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (that’s him), endorsed the whole thing, saying that it’s all good for conservative Anglicans who want out.

If they expected to lose significant numbers of Anglicans, I doubt they would have that reaction.

The funny thing to me is that I’ve long joked that the Episcopal Church in the U.S. could triple in size by actively seeking out lapsed Catholics. Come up with a fancy name for a “Try us, you’ll like us” program. Promote several easy steps toward becoming an Episcopalian. Explain how familiar the Episcopal liturgy would be for ex-Catholics.

Sort of like what the Vatican is doing, but in reverse.

But the Episcopal Church will never do it. It would be un-P.C.

Archbishop Dolan, JTS’s Eisen to talk Catholic-Jewish stuff

Archbishop Dolan will share the stage with a prominent Jewish leader next month to speak about an always interesting subject (and one that’s surprisingly sensitive at the moment): the state of Catholic-Jewish relations.

He’ll discuss the subject with Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC, on Nov. 5. The occasion will be the seventeenth annual Nostra Aetate Dialogue at Fordham U.

tjndc5-5qxce77ojdg11ntdqa9f_layoutThe event will take place at the McNally Amphitheatre at Fordham University Law School, 140 West 62nd Street.

Edward Bristow, professor of History at Fordham University, will moderate.

Catholic-Jewish relations have generally been bright in recent years, improving by the decade since Vatican II. But there has been some…strain…the past few years.

Mel Gibson’s movie made a lot of people uncomfortable a while back.

Then Pope B16 urged wider use of the Latin Mass, raising concerns about a once-a-year Good Friday prayer urging conversion of the Jews.

Early this year, B16 lifted the excommunication of a traditionalist bishop who happened to be a Holocaust-denier.

tjndc5-5bqpzs3t3fts6xgf2g9_layoutAnd most recently, Jewish leaders have been peeved about a legalistic statement from the Catholic bishops of the U.S. that said that even though the Catholic Church recognizes the covenant between God and the Jewish people, Catholics must affirm their belief that Jesus Christ “fulfills God’s revelation begun with Abraham.”

The statement includes:

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With St. Paul, we acknowledge that God does not regret, repent of, or change his mind about the “gifts and the call” that he has given to the Jewish people (Rom 11:29). At the same time, we also believe that the fulfillment of the covenants, indeed, of all God’s promises to Israel, is found only in Jesus Christ. By God’s grace, the right to hear this Good News belongs to every generation.

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When one considers the near-miraculous improvements in Catholic-Jewish relations over the past 40 years — and we’re talking about a deep and meaningful relationship — one could make the case that the events of recent years are minor and somewhat inevitable, given the real differences between the religions.

Still, it will be quite interesting to see how Dolan and Eisen, two personable and articulate men, frame these issues and concerns.

Eisen (that’s him, below), who came to JTS in 2007, has expressed a great interest in interreligious work. This is a good opportunity for him to make a significant contribution on issues of interest to many people.

Archbishops of New York are remembered, in part, by how well they get along with New York’s large and influential Jewish community. Cardinal O’Connor, of course, was the Archbishop of Catholic-Jewish Relations, beloved by New York’s Jewish community.

Cardinal Egan got along well with the JC, but he was more reticent (as he was with all things).

Dolan got rave reviews from Milwaukee’s Jewish community, and got off to a good start here, as well.

You have to figure that when he gets to Fordham, he’ll be well-versed on the issues and concerns out there and ready to soothe them.

Clarifying Conservative Judaism’s position on intermarriage and conversion

I mentioned yesterday a Jewish Week article about strains within Conservative Judaism over whether to seek the conversion of non-Jews married to Jews.

Today, the leaders of the Conservative rabbinate issued a statement saying that they are quite united on the issue.

The statement says: “…it is understandable that this misunderstanding exists because the Rabbinical Assembly has boldly selected to embrace two seemingly contradictory points of view – the unconditional welcome of interfaith families and non-Jews within the community alongside the prospect of conversion to those who sincerely feel moved to join the Jewish people.”

In other words, Conservative rabbis want to welcome non-Jewish spouses without any strings or pressures — but will happily work with anyone who is thinking about the whole Jewish thing.

The statement is signed by Rabbi Jeffrey A. Wohlberg, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld (that’s her), the new chief executive of the RA. I recently profiled Schonfeld (whose official title is executive VP) and noted that she wants the Conservative movement to have a higher profile and be more “vigorous” in its response to public debates and media coverage.

This would be an example of being vigorous.

The statement goes on to say:

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We honor the committed relationships non-Jews have forged with their Jewish partners in our communities. At the same time, we also adhere to the integrity of Jewish tradition and hope, wherever possible, to motivate people to become Jewish. Our first priority is always that the non-Jew experiencing our way of life do so at a pace and in an environment where he or she feels comfortable. Moreover, the unconditional welcome we extend to non-Jews is heartfelt and enthusiastic wherever they are on their journey.

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Here is the entire statement, if you’re interested: Continue reading

Conservative Judaism takes new tack on intermarriage (again)

Conservative Jews have been split for some time over how to reach out to intermarried couples and their children.

It’s one of the most sensitive subjects facing Judaism’s “moderate” movement.

Reform Judaism has had a much easier time, particularly since deciding in 1983 to recognize the children of Jewish fathers as Jewish. Traditionally, Judaism has recognized only matrilineal descent.

In the Orthodox world, intermarriage is rare.

Most Conservative congregations see some members — or the children of members — marry “out,” creating all kinds of potential tensions. How welcoming do you want to be of intermarried couples? How do you serve the spiritual needs of the non-Jewish spouse? What if the mother is not Jewish and their children are not recognized as Jewish by the Conservative world?

In 2005, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism — which represents Conservative congregations — took the position that its synagogues should aggressively promote conversion for non-Jewish spouses.

Now, the Jewish Week reports, the Conservative movement is taking a somewhat softer approach. The JW says that the movement is about to produce a pamphlet on intermarriage that says:

All are welcome.
There is a commitment to fostering Jewish marriage and family life.
Interfaith couples are welcome.
There is “nurturing and support for the spiritual journey of non-Jewish partners who join us, to deepen their connections to the synagogue, the Jewish community and to the Jewish people, and to inspire them to consider conversion.”

Rabbi Joel Meyers of White Plains, who retired last week as executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents Conservative rabbis, told the JW: “The movement is still very much in favor of Jewish family life, and so the question was how does one approach American Jewish communal life today without changing religious standards.”

Conversion popular — but not always easy

Americans love to switch faiths.

The new Pew Forum study shows that 28% have left the faith of their childhood (and if you count switching brands of Protestantism, the percentage soars to 44).

But for the small numbers who convert to Judaism, well, things sure get complicated.

The different branches of Judaism — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist — have their own standards for conversion. Who acknowledges whose conversions has long been a tricky question.

The question periodically becomes quite serious because of the reluctance of the Jewish establishment in Israel — which is uniformly Orthodox — to recognize non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism.

But even within the world of Orthodoxy, where there are multiple religious gradations between “ultra Orthodox” and “modern Orthodox,” there are disagreements over the standards for conversion (and who can oversee conversions).

In recent years, the Israeli rabbinic establishment has sometimes looked askew at conversions overseen by Orthodox rabbis in the U.S.

A few days ago, the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbis group in the U.S., announced that it was establishing a network of rabbinical courts to oversee conversions. The statement said:

The network, established with the enthusiastic agreement of the RCA membership at large, creates uniform standards of Orthodox conversion. The network will benefit genuine converts and their offspring, by facilitating their acceptance in Jewish communities around the world.

In other words, in Israel.

The new Jewish Week reports that there is a bit of discord of whether the RCA capitulated to the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate in Israel by adopting conversion standards that require ultra-Orthodox observance on the part of would-be converts.

The report says:

basil-herring-pic_medium.jpgThe newly unified conversion standards may be most demanding for those who are adopting a child and want him or her converted under Orthodox auspices. They will be required to have their family be completely observant of the commandments — for example, living within walking distance of an Orthodox synagogue so that they can attend on the Sabbath without driving, and must commit to having their child educated for 12 years in an Orthodox Jewish day school.

But what if the child needs to leave the day school because it is not meeting his educational needs or because the family can no longer afford tuition?

“If there was clear indication that the commitment was a real one, not just posturing to fool the court, but that subsequently they were unable to follow through for whatever reason, that does not undo the conversion,� said (RCA Executive Vice President) Rabbi (Basil) Herring. “Everything here is in the details.�

The overall goal, said Rabbi Herring (pictured), “is to give converts a measure of assurance that when they go beyond the system they will not be doubted, alienated and hurt� by questions about their legitimacy as Jews.

(Picture: RCA)