The recent death of Cardinal Lustiger, the “Jewish” French cleric, provides a postscript to my earlier posting about Jewishness, “Why be Jewish? If you have to ask. …” A convert to Catholicism who was born Jewish and all his life continued to proclaim his Jewishness, Lustiger reminds us of the complexity of Jewish identity. He was a child Holocaust survivor, a native Yiddish speaker and insisted on regarding himself as a Jew, even as a leading prince of the Roman Catholic Church. Until tapped for promotion to archbishop and then cardinal by Pope John Paul II (a personal friend), Lustiger considered retiring and making Aliya.
But if Israel and its supreme court stuck to precedent, Lustiger would not have been granted immediate citizenship under the Law of Return. The precedent was the famous case of a Catholic monk, Jewish by blood like Lustiger, who sued for rights under the Law of Return that were denied by virtue of his obvious Catholic faith. (If I remember correctly, the monk was eventually granted citizenship under the naturalization process that is available to non-Jewish immigrants.)
As a left Zionist with a humanistic religious bent, I would be gratified with the success of Zionism in radically transforming Jewish identity into an ethnic or cultural classification, rather than the mainly religious association that it continues to project to most Jews and non-Jews alike. Pioneering Zionism was primarily a non-religious, largely even an anti-religious movement; alas, the religious right has ascended to a powerful influence in Zionist institutions and ideology. And, in this light, my notion of Jewish identity divorced from religious attachment seems very radical. If someone like Lustiger, with unmistakable Jewish roots but of non-Jewish faith, continues to regard himself as a Jew, I am loath to deny his self definition.
The Jewish people is one of the oldest on earth, with origins going back as much as 3500 years. In the current era, similarly ancient peoples – such as Chinese, Indians and Greeks – (with the exception of extremists) do not cast out people who have embraced a non-native individual creed. Even though the lack of strong religious conviction among most of world Jewry is a well-known fact, we alone among the world’s peoples continue to maintain an unnaturally rigid linkage between our aboriginal religious faith and our identity as a people.