September 19, 2019

Creating Pariahs in the Jewish Community

Pity the children. Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai declared “Throw yourself into a blazing furnace rather than shame a neighbor in public.” (Talmud Berachoth 43b)

Now consider Camp Ramah's “Statement of Religious Qualifications for Children.” The recently floated statement (“Ramah's Policy in Black and White,” Feb. 25), declares that Ramah, the Conservative movement's nationwide network of camps, has decided to admit only halachically Jewish children; that is, children whose mothers are Jewish. How disturbing. This is the first such public written proclamation of policy in Camp Ramah's 53 year history of extraordinarily successful summer camping.

Why now? Avowedly because of the fear of intermarriage and the Reform movement's adoption of patrilineal descent.

I am troubled by that decision. Consider Lucy Cohen (not her real name), who attends a Hebrew school, became a bat mitzvah, is involved in her Jewish youth movement and has planned a summer of learning and fellowship at Camp Ramah with her synagogue friends. Her decision itself is significant. Lucy's father is Jewish and the home clearly has encouraged her Jewishness. But her mother is not Jewish. Lucy therefore will be barred from the Camp Ramah experience.

Leaving the issue of patriliniality aside, and the wisdom of turning such children into outcasts, what of the shame experienced by Lucy and her family of that rejection? What is the ethical implication of such a ruling? How do we as a community stand on visiting the alleged transgressions of parents upon children?

We have an important precedent. In one of our major rabbinic sources (Numbers Rabbah, chapter 33) Moses challenged God: “Terach worshiped idols, but [his son] Abraham was a righteous man; Ahaz was a wicked king, but his son Hezekiah was a righteous man; King Amon was wicked but his son King Josiah was righteous. Is it proper that the righteous should be punished for the iniquity of the fathers?”

God does not chastise Moses for his dissent. To the contrary. The Holy One responds “I shall correct My own words and confirm yours.” Therefore it is written in Deuteronomy 24:16 “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers.” Here a Biblical law promulgated by God is superseded on the grounds of moral justice. Such is the way of compassionate halacha.

From one halachic point of view, Lucy's father has transgressed. He has married out of his faith. But the question before us as well is what has this to do with Lucy? Why should she be shamed, penalized and made an outcast? Why should the child Lucy be publicly delegitimized for the action of her parents?

Is her lot not reminiscent of a rabbinic discussion of law concerning “illegitimate” children in Deuteronomy 23:3 “No one misbegotten, no mamzer, shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord. None of his descendants, either in the tenth generation shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord.” The rabbis did not let this ruling go unchallenged. In a remarkable passage in Leviticus Rabbah, chapter 32 they cite the protest of Daniel, the tailor. “If the parents of these poor misbegotten committed transgression, what concern is it of these poor suffering children?” So powerful is Daniel's protest that the Midrash records that the Holy One is moved to declare “It is upon Me to comfort them.” Some interpret this to mean that in the time of the Messiah the “illegitimate” who are wronged will be seated on the throne made of pure gold. Do we have to wait for the Messiah?