Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Who is a Jew, Who is a Muslim, and According to Whom?

In Uncategorized on August 26, 2010 at 8:46 am

Jonathan Mark, in a recent Jewish week column, wrote a gratuitously nasty screed regarding President Obama’s alleged allegiances and its possible connection to his Muslim roots. Because of the surly tone, one might have missed the interesting issue that he raises.  According to Islam, just like according to halachic Judaism, it is the religion that defines who one is,  not the individual’s commitment, or lack thereof.  It’s kind of like the Hotel California, “you can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave.” The Muslims certainly would see Obama as a Muslim, an apostate, but nevertheless, a Muslim.  He is certainly not a practicing Muslim, and, by all accounts, is a practicing Christian.

Liberals seem to be suspect of organized structures that would define a person unequivocally, irrespective of what or how one chooses to define oneself.  Not only should a person’s commitment and proclivity count, but the rules of the religion should have nothing to say in the matter. What happens when one’s heresy is not enough to allow a person to disassociate completely from his parental legacy? Both Christianity and Islam have a claim on Obama even though he has chosen the Christian path. Even (Reform) Rabbi Alexander Shindler gave power to the other when lobbying against the “Who is a Jew” bill back in the day. With passion and rhetorical flourish, he said, “If a Jewish father made one Jewish enough for Hitler, it should be good enough for us!”  According to this reasoning, Jewish law should take a backseat to Nazi ideology when it comes to defining membership.  In Israel, the irony was that in order to enact the commonly referred to “Who is a Jew” law, the Knesset had to rely on its Arab parties for the required majority.

The murkiness of how one claims  membership in a group is generally a matter for that group to decide.  The status of that membership will generally be reflected in one’s allegiance and commitment.  Obama is an apostate to Islam, but he is nevertheless connected through his non-practicing Muslim father.  The correct statement of who Obama is should be: He was born a Muslim to a non-religious family, and he chose to be a practicing Christian, and thus defines himself.

The bigotry that puts Obama under scrutiny should be upsetting to anyone. Is anyone holding Bobby Jindal under a microscope.  Didn’t he see the “light”, in what seemed to be an expedient move, rather late in life? If Hindus produced suicide bombers, would we be viewing him differently?

Rules, standards and structures are not applied in a vacuum, but personal commitment doesn’t operate in a vacuum either. This lack of nuance in the discussion is troubling because this inaccuracy serves the paranoid fantasies of those who seem to always control the discussion. If 18% of Americans think Obama is a Muslim, some of them may just be saying that according to Islam, he would still be considered a Muslim, albeit a bad one. We will never know if that’s the case because the very question doesn’t allow one to qualify one’s opinion.

The fact that the question is asked at all should be profoundly disturbing to all minority cultures, including and especially, ours.


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