Millions of people around the world are connecting to Judaism in a historically unprecedented way which could greatly benefit Israel, but the movement is encountering challenges from within Israel and Judaism over the definition of ‘what is a Jew’. One prominent rabbi believes the rabbinic authorities are failing in what he believes is this generation’s most important prophetic imperative.
In their recent book, Becoming Jewish: New Jews and Emerging Jewish Communities in a Globalized World, Dr. Netanel Fisher, of the Open University of Israel, and Professor Tudor Parfitt, from Florida International University, revealed that millions of people around the world are discovering their ancestral roots in the Jewish People. This includes the Igbo and Lemba of Africa, Bnei Menashe from India, Chinese Jews of Khaifeng, and millions of descendants of Anousim, Jews forcibly converted to Catholicism during the Iberian Inquisition.
According to Rabbi Chaim Amsalem, a prominent Sephardi rabbi, recognized authority on halacha (Torah law), and former Knesset member, connecting to these people is the most important mission for the Jewish People today.
“We have to go out and do everything in our power to return them. It is commanded to us in prophecy,” Rabbi Amsalem told Breaking Israel News, quoting Ezekiel.
The weak have ye not strengthened neither have ye healed that which was sick neither have ye bound up that which was broken neither have ye brought back that which was driven away neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force have ye ruled over them and with rigour. Ezekiel 34:4
“That is our mission in this generation,” Rabbi Amsalem said. “We are blessed with new tools, genetic and academic, to investigate this and to determine who has Jewish roots.”
The rabbi noted that as important as the mission is, rabbinic authorities are struggling to respond. “The rabbinic authorities are not even coping with the hundreds of thousands of descendants of Jews in Israel right now, and their problems with their Jewish status,” he said.
The study by Fisher and Parfitt confirm the rabbi’s claim against the rabbinic authorities. According to the study, there are today 300,000 residents of Israel who made aliyah – immigrated to Israel – under the Law of Return but are not considered Jewish according to Jewish law. Only 25,000 of those residents have converted, meaning 250,000 Israelis are not considered Jewish, though they are now a part of the Jewish State.
Dr. Fisher described an even more surprising phenomenon revealed by his study: millions of people outside of Israel with no genealogical connection are connecting to Judaism for spiritual reasons. This movement, he believes, creates an even greater conflict within the Orthodox Jewish world.
“There is a big fight inside the Jewish world as to whether to accept this new movement,” explained Dr. Fisher. “The traditional Orthodox point of view is to reject this movement, because these people may not intend to keep a traditional Jewish lifestyle. The Orthodox see this as fake, diluting Judaism. They see it even as a threat, because it lures away the borderline Jews. As a result, discouraging conversion has grown in recent years.”
Dr. Fisher noted that this global religious phenomenon of connecting to the Jewish People is very recent, and he credits it to the creation of the modern State of Israel.
“The US president’s daughter can marry a Jew, and you won’t have a single person viewing it as degradation,” Fisher notes. “Fifty years ago, it would never have happened that prominent people openly married Jews. It is a new phenomenon that so many people in America now want to connect to Judaism. If you connect the dots , Ivanka, Russians in Israel, and all the people in Africa and around the world, all this is happening in the last decade. People want to be part of the Jewish story. It is an enormous change.”