The first major league baseball game I attended (I was 11 at the time) was so boring I spent most of the nine innings trying to get the crowd to do “the wave;” the only sports I do enjoy watching on TV are the girly ones (gymnastics and figure skating); and up until recently, I was quite convinced that Lebron James was actually called “James LeBron.”
Needless to say, when I started seeing posts online about a guy named Amare Stoudemire who was discovering his “Jewish roots,” I had no idea who he was or what he did. When I found out that this Amare Stoudemire is a famous basketball player who recently took a trip Israel and had wonderful things to say about the Jewish people, land, and religion, I was instantly a fan.
After some extensive research (I read a couple articles and watched a video), it seems that Mr. Stoudemire is not “technically” Jewish but rather has developed an interest in Judaism due to his mother’s studying of it. Several times Mr. Stoudemire was asked during the interviews if he found a Jewish link in his family tree, and he responded with things like “we’re all Jewish” or “I’m a history lover, and it’s the original culture.”
Now in my personal opinion, any time anyone in the public eye has something good to say about Jews, Judaism, or Israel, we should be grateful for the positive PR, but positive PR or not, a love of Judaism alone does not a Jew make. At least not according to Orthodox Judaism.
Which brings me to the Orthodox definition of a Jew: a person born to a Jewish mother or someone who underwent an Orthodox conversion. This definition, unfortunately, leaves some people feeling excluded, and I remember very clearly, back in my pre-Orthodox days, how offended I was when I learned that Orthodox Jews don’t consider non-Orthodox conversions kosher. It meant that some of my friends weren’t Jewish in the eyes of the Orthodox.
After learning more, though, I decided that the Orthodox approach to converting is actually pretty reasonable. Orthodox Jews don’t look at the Jewish people an “exclusive club,” with a closed membership. On the contrary, we make conversion available to anyone and everyone who’s willing to undergo the process.
At the same time, we don’t go around proselytizing to non-Jews in an effort to “save” them since we believe that every righteous gentile has a share in the World to Come. A “righteous gentile” is someone who lives by 7 basic moral laws (the Sheva Mitzvos B’nei Noach) which include things like: don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t torture animals, etc.
A Jew, on the other hand, is obligated in 613 commandments. So the most basic way to explain the concept of conversion (according to Orthodox belief) is that a person, who was formerly responsible for only 7 commandments, makes himself responsible for 613.
Now we come to the difference between an Orthodox and non-Orthodox conversions. Orthodoxy expects that if a person obligates himself in 606 new laws he will spend his life trying to fulfill that obligation. The non-Orthodox movements don’t require such a commitment from their converts since they don’t require such a commitment from their members who were born Jewish!
Perspective converts have complained to me that expecting so much of a convert seems unfair since someone who’s born Jewish gets to stay Jewish even if he doesn’t do a single mitzvah his entire life. And it’s true, once someone is born into the tribe, he remains a member no matter what he does or doesn’t do.
It should be noted, though, that while a lack of mitzvah observance is not enough to make a Jew lose his Jewish status it’s certainly not something that Orthodoxy encourages. Also, just to be fair, a non-observant Jew who was born Jewish didn’t exactly ask for the responsibility – it’s something that happened to him without his say in the matter. A convert, on the other hand, has the choice to become a Jew or remain a gentile.
And speaking of a gentile, although Mr. Stoudemire may have started calling himself a Jew – something he’s free to do, as it is a free country – for the record, it’s not just the Orthodox that don’t consider him one. According to Reform and Conservative law, without Jewish lineage or a formal conversion, a non-Jew remains a non-Jew.
Reform and Conservatives Jews don’t mean to offend people like Amare any more than Orthodox Jews mean to offend Reform and Conservative converts. Every major branch of Judaism simply agrees that there are certain standards as to what defines a Jew, and those who do not meet that criteria are not Jewish. Orthodox standards are of course stricter and therefore less inclusive than the other denominations, but the reasons behind the laws are not arbitrary and have been around for millenia.
Although the different denominations don’t always see eye to eye, I’m sure we could all agree that if Mr. Stoudemire ever did decide to officially join the team it’d be a slam dunk for the Jewish people.