General Topics

Who Is A Jew?


How come the High Courts of England are now deciding who is and who is not a Jew? The simple answer is that the rabbinic authority of the United Synagogues of London arrogantly believed that everyone else had to fit in with them, rather than that they should accommodate others. Most power and bureaucracy makes this mistake.

In the West, religion is associated almost exclusively with faith, belief. But nowadays all religions have members or associates who do not believe what the religion demands. Can you have your cake and eat it? In England now it seems that unless you actually do believe what the religion prescribes you cannot justify membership. Therefore if you have a school for Jews only religious ones can attend. If, on the other hand, you define Jews by birth you are being racist.

King Herod, who dominated life in the Roman provinces of Judea thousands of years ago, was of Idumean descent, a local non-Jewish, pre-Arab tribe. Yet everyone, including the Romans, called him a Jewish king, and he rebuilt the Temple. He certainly was not what we would call religious. Throughout its history, Judaism has always absorbed converts from all parts and races of the world.

Since Talmudic times Jews were defined religiously. Passion for the Land of Israel and Jerusalem were core values enshrined in liturgy, poetry, and academic study. So much so that in 13th Century Spain Ramban could argue that the laws of the Bible were originally only intended to be in force in the Land of Israel and nowhere else.

In the West, since the 18th century “Enlightenment“, Jews have lost their all-encompassing, unitary identity that had been defined religiously ever since Constantine made Christianity the religion and citizenship criterion of the Roman Empire. Under Islam, religion remained the definition and Jews were Dhimmis, inferior believers. In those days, all the world was made of communities with specific religions, worshipping specific gods. Political power and religious identity went hand in hand. Judaism, then, was defined as a community of common worship and shared texts and constitution based on Divine authority.

But then came the separation of Church and State, and then the rise of modern nationalism as a secular phenomenon, albeit with a strong religious element. Some people wanted to abandon religion altogether and others wanted to join religious groups for social rather than religious reasons. Most religions reacted by turning in on themselves and becoming more exclusive. It is the modern phenomenon of people wanting to lay claim to Jewish identity without its religious encumbrances that makes it is so difficult to categorize or define Jews.

In Israel, which is a nationalist phenomenon, they like to think of Jews as a nation, which is why so many have difficulty with the idea of a Jewish state as opposed to an Israeli nation. Just as it is now politically correct for some Arabs to argue there never, ever were Jews in the Middle East before Zionism, so secular Jews have liked to attack the connection between Judaism and its roots in the Middle East.

Arthur Koestler in The Thirteenth Tribe said that all Eastern European Jews were descended from the Khazars, who converted to Judaism in the 9th Century. As if Yiddish emerged from the Caucasus Mountains! An Israeli academic argues in Haaretz this week that all Jews are descended from converts and not a drop of the original bloodline remains.

His conclusion is that Jews today have no genetic claim to the lands of ancient Israel because most Jews nowadays are descendants of converts of one sort or another. Even if he is right genetically (which a lot of experts dispute), if a body of people have a literary and historical link does it matter if it has absorbed others from the outside? Did no Muslims ever migrate into Palestine from other parts of the Ottoman Empire? As if any English today are still pure descendents of Angles. The Queen is more German! Thanks to massive Muslim immigration most Englishmen will soon be of Muslim descent. Does this mean they are not English too? Will England then cease to be English? You might argue that previous migrations abandoned their countries of origin and few nineteenth century Jewish emigres from Russia ever looked back with yearning or a sense of belonging. But German immigrants did and most Israeli emigrants today still do.

So peoples, cultures, and religion are intertwined. Attempting to rigidly divorce them or categorize is silly and wrong. States can define citizens. Ethnicity or culture cannot.

The Bible and the Mishna, regardless of when you think they were written or by whom, originated in the rough area of the Land of Israel. We possess documents and archaeological evidence confirming this, dating back at least two thousand years. And the Judaism practiced around the world today, to a greater or lesser extent, is based on these documents and their contents. Does it matter therefore if the original adherents have been diluted by conquest, rape, conversion, and intermarriage so that the original species is no longer pure? Of course not. Does it matter if every part of my body has now been so transformed over the past sixty years that not one original cell remains? Am I therefore not me?

If Yehuda HaLevy, living in Spain 800 years ago, wrote that he longed to return to Jerusalem, does it matter if he was born a Chinaman? What matters is the yearning of a group of people, reflected in their literature, to return to their land. If some of those people were not religious or were not born Jewish, does it matter? Must Welsh culture only be supported by people living beyond the River Severn and descended from Llewellyn? Can one only support Scottish nationalism if one is a born member of the Church of Scotland or a Highland clan? What matters is the survival of a culture and/or its religious system.

Both Israel and England have got themselves into all sorts of messes because lawyers and politicians like to define and categorize (and so, sadly, do rabbis).I know Muslims in England who bitterly resent being defined as a race instead of a religion, just as much as there are Jews who object to be classified as a religion!

When England introduced laws against one group hating or attacking another, they called them laws against racial discrimination and so they categorized different groups such as Jews and Muslims as races. The fact that Jews meet no biological definition of race, and neither do most Muslims, escaped them. So Jews and Muslims, protected under the laws of Racial Discrimination now have to fit into the straightjacket of a definition arrived at by Anglican lawyers. Interestingly, the only laws still on the books to do with defending religion are the ancient heresy laws that anyway only apply to the Anglican religion and are virtually dead letters!

Over time we Jews have changed from tribal to national to nation-less to religious to religion-less as the sweep of history has taken us in and out of divers peoples and societies. Had we remained a tribe, definition would not have been an issue. Had we remained a nation, definition would not have been an issue. But we have been these and more. The term “Jew” covers a very broad spectrum and range, and religion is only one part, albeit in my opinion the most significant.

If one wants to work within English law or any other legal system, then inevitably one has to accept compromises, however silly they may be (or try to make changes, which is of course the right of anyone living in a democracy). This is why the great Babylonian Rabbi Shmuel established the principal that “The Law of the Land is the Law”.

Israel needs to make up its mind if it is Jewish state or an Israeli nation. Muslims need to decide if they want to be protected as a race or as a religion. And Anglo-Jewry needs to decide if it wants to continue fudging issues and pretending there is just one Jewish religious system, one religious authority. Something that only states that refuse to separate Church and State permit.

If a school’s entrance is based on religious criteria, then so be it. Ultra-Orthodox schools make no bones about their standards, which are exclusively Orthodox. But if, as in other major Jewish communities around the world, there are Jewish communal schools serving the wider Jewish community, and the majority of the pupils and their parents are actually not observant, then the religious authorities should either think out of the religious box and leave religion to those who choose to be observant, or relinquish their hold on such schools.

Now ironically the JFS has been forced into insisting that applicants prove their religious commitment by bringing proof of synagogue attendance and degrees of obedience. So families with no interest, no desire to lead religious lives, are flooding the synagogues just to get their kids into a school. Is not that making a laughingstock out of religion and teaching hypocrisy instead of morality?

If you want to get into bed with the State you will have to compromise. If you don’t want to compromise don’t team up with the State. And if you pretend to be the religious leader of all Jews then practice what you preach.

That the English High Court should define who is a Jew is as ridiculous as Jews denying other Jews a Jewish education just because they decide on their definitions. They have only themselves to blame for this mess.

22 thoughts on “Who Is A Jew?

  1. Once again you, like Yael, have hit the nail very firmly on the head. It seems to me that the Jewish UK is the only place in the world that works by such stupid, ignorant laws.

    Jews are inbred enough and it's time to let others in if they want to be Jewish – there are enough Jews, born Jewish, who would like to be excluded from their heritage.

    One can only assume that Rabbi Akiba would not have passed the tests of the Beth Din and United Synagogue of London. What a fiasco.

  2. The court has not defined what it is to be a Jew. It has simply concluded that discriminating on the basis of "being a Jew" is discriminatory! In fact the court is actually highlighting how absurd it is to tie something as complex as Jewishness rigidly to simple words like "Jew". When someone calls me a bloody Jew or when someone tells me Jews are excluded OR included – exclusively, they are doing something this country's laws do not allow.

    This is a call to arms, a call for some more soul searching by a deeply divided collection of communities and individuals. Defining what "being a Jew" means is being thrown back to us to define and as the rest of your post indicates very well, that ain't easy!

    Well that's great, and it's about time too that the heat has been turned up (intellectually speaking) under the great melting pot of Jewishness so that some deep honest and open debate arises to break the Orthodox crust that has formed on the top of our pot. We should be stirred by this, not shaken! Bring it on!

    JerryK – a once and future pupil!

  3. Brilliant piece – the best comments I've seen on the JFS affair. But just one correction; Muslims are not protected under the race laws in the UK. Only Sikhs and Jews. Muslims are protected under later legislation re religious hatred.


  4. JerryK:

    Very interesting point, but doesn't deciding what discriminates against a Jew a way of defining?

    Delighted to hear you're a previous victim. Why not let me know privately who you are?


  5. A learned Rabbi is the Headmaster of an prestigious school for young children. There is room for just one more student in the coming school year. The fathers of the last three applicants are in the Rabbi's office to hear his decision.

    "Each of your children is wonderful and would make a great scholar but I'm afraid we only have room for one more student," said the Rabbi. "Everything else being equal we would like to make sure that we accept a child who is truly Jewish. So I have a couple questions."

    The Rabbi addressed the first parent. "Mr. Cohen, what makes your son Aaron Jewish?"

    Mr. Cohen answered, "Well, his mother is Jewish and so is her mother. Our family lived for hundreds of years in a small shtetl in Poland. After we fled Poland we lived in a kibbutz where my son was born and circumcised…"

    "Yes, yes, yes," interrupted the Rabbi. "That's very interesting."

    He turned to the next parent. "Mr. Goldberg, what makes your daughter Deborah, Jewish?"

    Mr. Goldberg replied, "She attends synagogue every week. She keeps Kosher and strictly observes Shabbat. Her Bat Mitzvah will be…"

    The Rabbi cut him off. "Very nice, very nice."

    He looked at the last parent. "Mr. Williams, what makes your son Benedict Jewish?"

    Mr Williams looked back at the Rabbi and spoke. "What kind of question is this?" He turned to the other two parents. "Who asks such a question? Can you believe such nerve? Who does he think he is?"

    The Rabbi stood up and extended his hand. "Congratulations, Mr. Williams! Little Bennie will make a fine addition to our school."

  6. 0dysseus:
    Nice try! But, as with any such decision, any headmaster worth his salt and free from interference should look for the child he or she thinks will add most to the school and benefit most from the education it offers. I can think of situations where I took in pupils not acceptable to current London Rabbinic criteria who added far more to the Jewish and academic life of the school than technically kosher ones who frankly didnt give a damn and were applying for all the wrong reasoins. Go home, Benedict!

  7. Yes, I agree that deciding what discriminates against Jews is a way of defining. There are other ways though. A Jew simply cannot be defined once and for all. A Jew is clearly more than just the sum of his/her parts.

    Perhaps we should think broadly relativity and the uncertainty principle – that definitions in some circumstances (prob always) depend on the frame of reference, and b) the harder we try to define something's position, the wronger (sic) will be our perception of how fast the position is changing. I am being a little facile philosophically here, but defining a Jew is a bit like defining good or evil – the definition of such terms only really applies within the debate in which they are defined. As Odysseus illustrates and you seem to agree, Headmasters will take a view which reflects their best analysis in the circumstances.

    I reckon things start to go wrong if the Heradmaster explains to parents that a decision is based on one pupil being more Jewish than another.

    The consequence of the legal precedent we are all discussing is that Headmasters will stop defining Jewishness quite so bluntly and schools and synagogues will continue as you did to cope with parents/members who choose them for the "wrong" reasons. I believe Judaism will survive not through inflexibility but through wise and sensitive adaptation and being real…

    Hang on, how should we define wise…? 😉

  8. Thank you very much, ss.

    I thought it interesting that the crux of the legal challenge in Britain appears to hinge on piety vs. ethnicity. Even more interesting (aka "odd") is that the state is willing to consider inserting itself into the church (temple, mosque, drum circle, whatever) to declare religious criteria legitimate.

    Sensible admission policies aside, I can't think of anyone who judges "Jewishness" by "ethnic-ness" or "kosher-ness." Neither seems very relevant in today's world of "modern-ness."

    Jewishness equals culture, to the extent that either can be measured. To that point I think the chances are slimmer that I will stumble upon a family named Williams that keeps Kosher than a Williams family that is Jewish.

    To attend or be accepted by a school based upon either genetic purity or spiritual piety would, I think, be a lifeless thing. It would be seeking sanctuary in dusty desolation.

    I would admit Benedict. After all: Why not?

  9. Some of you from outside the UK have missed the point in the British political context.

    So called "faith schools" like the one involved in the current case are state-funded provided that they fit certain criteria. As a result, there is enormous pressure on places from parents who may or may not be interested in the Jewish content of the syllabus.

    There is no provision for "cultural schools" to be state-funded. The state is entitled to monitor the admission practices of state-funded schools.

    The previous admission criteria of the school in question arise from the determination of the Orthodox establishment to pursue 2 irreconcilable aims. The first is to hold out the Chief Rabbi and his entourage as being the voice of all Anglo-Jewry. The second is to insist that only Jews attached to the Orthodox stream are kosher Jews. If they want to have their kugel and to eat it, they should not be surprised that they get indigestion.

    The claimant in the present case used (successfully) the fact that Jews had claimed the protection of the race relations law by declaring that Jews are a race. As a result the indigestion has really become painful, and the child in question (who is not halachically Jewish by the Chief's standards) has now been admitted to the school. If the school wins its appeal to the Supreme Court, they have already said that he will remain a pupil at the school, and the kugel will morph into a tsimmes.

    Kol tuv


  10. So the JFS is prohibited from using a racial (ethnic, genetic) standard for admissions. This will continue if the school loses its appeal.

    Assuming that the JFS continues to take public monies and kugel what would be their alternative standards? What items on the menu has the government/courts left them?

    As far as I can tell the menu is now limited to religion, culture and, for the Chief Rabbi, just desserts.

    If you wanna brisket you can challah back girl or tsimmes later…

  11. 0dysseus:
    Thank you for that and agree! Except for the fact that there used to be a very prominent Orthodox Anglo-Jewish family, head of Mizrahi and founders if the Anglo Palestine/Israel Bank called WILLIAMS!!! Knew them personally (like Shaun Fegusson?) and in the USA, Pratt!!!

  12. 0dysseus:
    I can see your journey across the Mediterranean has left you justifiably cynical. What was Odysseus? Ethnic Greek, religiously Pantheistic, genetically probably Phoenician and intellectually confused! Pity Penelope when you get home!

  13. One man's "intellectually confused" is another man's "wily."

    Aside from a bit of Post-Troy Stress Disorder I'll be fine. Nothing that a cruise on the Calypso or a ride on the Circe line won't cure.

    Besides, there is no one I am better suited for than Penelope. She's the one mortal more cunning and devious than I.

    As for those Poseidon-loving humps, the Phoenicians. They can all go ph**k themselves and the horse-god they rode in on.

  14. Hmm as tempting as it may be to dive in, I think I shall just keep my ears and eyes covered as I sail on. Nor will I be tied to the mast…

    However, I am slightly surprised that no-one has commented on the relevance of public funding of faith schools raised in Elkan's earlier comment. That really does seem to be an Abyssinian (cat) in the fuel supply. Once the holy taxpayer has (involuntarily as usual) shelled out for something these days it seems to be considered a public entitlement for all…

  15. JerryK: Allow myself to quote myself-

    "Even more interesting (aka "odd") is that the state is willing to consider inserting itself into the church (temple, mosque, drum circle, whatever)…"


    "Assuming that the JFS continues to take public monies and kugel what would be their alternative standards?"

    Abyssinian you in all the old familiar places…

  16. JerryK:

    Wisely put yourself, according to my usage of course.

    Systems are by nature rigid and inflexible. They require sensitive human intervention to smooth the edges and guide around obstacles. There are far too few people in any religion, in any human organization, to match up to this task–hence the inordinate damage humans inflict on each other!


  17. Ben Nathan:
    Being Jewish is a way of life. Some live it better than others, and apparently ne'er the twain shall meet!! Come on in Moshiach.

  18. Anonymous:

    Yes that's one definition, one of many. Now, which one will the Moshiach choose??????

    If you take the Mishna in Eduyot, Eliyahu will only bring people in, not exclude them!!

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