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Who isn’t a Jew?


The definition of “Jew” is as unresolved now as it has been for the past 200 years. When Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman, was shot in the head by a maniac, the press in the US made much of her being Jewish. Her rabbi in Tucson said she was a committed Jewish member of her Reform congregation. But to many other Jews she is not. Although she has a Jewish father, her mother is Christian. Giffords is married to a non-Jew. She has not converted, and thus she is not Jewish by the standards of Orthodox and Conservative Judaism. Does it matter? Esther married a non-Jew too!

For thousands of years until the Enlightenment, everyone was defined by religion. The Jewish religious definition–a Jewish mother or conversion out of conviction–was the only criterion for Jews . There was no secular option. There were different periods in which things were either less rigid or more flexible, but that depended as much on external conditions as internal ones. Then new developments changed the picture.

As discrimination against Jews slowly began to thaw, more and more Jews and Christians wanted to marry each other, either for love or money. The only way to do that was for one partner to convert to the religion of the other. In most cases it was the Jew who married out, but in some cases the Christian wanted in, and in others the Jewish parents insisted on it. The problem was that conversion now became less a matter of conviction and more one of convenience or compulsion.

At the same time there were others born Jewish, like Spinoza, who despised Judaism and religion altogether. He was technically Jewish, by birth, but that was an accident he wanted nothing to do with.

Reform Judaism in the nineteenth century, developed a set of religious criteria of its own which made “conversion” a bone of contention. Zionism added another factor. The State of Israel decided to grant automatic citizenship to Jews through the Law of Return. “Never Again” would anyone be persecuted as a Jew without having a refuge. This purely secular, political decision defined Jews in the way Hitler did for the purposes of extermination. Anyone with a single Jewish grandparent qualified as a Jew.

At the same time, the State of Israel gave matters of personal religious status to the rabbinate, which imposed a purely religious definition. Young men and women given Israeli citizenship as “Jews” could fight and die for the Jewish state, yet neither marry nor be buried as Jews. Chaos.

The final nail in the coffin of a single religious definition came when American Reform Judaism accepted the patrilineal criterion in 1983 and thus cut itself off from the rest of religious Jewry. So that now there were Jews who were self-identified as Jews, but the Reform and Orthodox versions of religion became as different and as antagonistic to each other as Catholics were to Protestants.

Add this to the refusal of Orthodoxy to accept conversions it doesn’t approve of (even Orthodox ones) and then setting the bar for conversion higher than ever before. Even more chaos. And amongst the Orthodox themselves there are factions and sects that recognize no one but themselves and a select few others on a good day.

And then there are secular Jews who worship at the altar of Woody Allen, Philip Roth, and Noam Chomsky. Some fund courses at American universities given by people who have nothing in common, know what they don’t want but haven’t yet worked out what they do and whose identity seems to be a whimsical mélange of birth and history, anger and dislocation.

The Jewish people now are more fragmented than they have ever been. There is no one definition that covers every variety. It is in practice true to say that anyone is a Jew who says he or she is. And why not? We are so few, we are under such constant assault all over the place, we should be grateful for anyone who wants to join our club and grateful for any friends and supporters we can get. Even the Megillah specifically includes and praises those who identified with the Jews (Esther 8:17).

But the fact is no one should be under any illusion that there is a master pass membership card. Many Charedi communities are only too delighted to take charitable donations from any kind of Jew even if they would not for moment entertain the possibility of marrying off a son or daughter to them. Your money will do, but not your body (or your soul). And ironically many Jews who have little to do with Judaism seem to feel that giving money to the very Orthodox is some kind of insurance policy.

This only becomes an issue if you want to change your Jewish subspecies. Each has its own ideology, standards of membership, rules and regulations, language and taboos, dress and head covering. It’s the same with any club you want to join; to do so, you have to obey its rules. But thankfully in a free society no one is going to compel you. Denominations that do not honestly tell their members the reality of the situation are guilty of deception but that’s their issue. Otherwise it’s a free world. We need all the support and all the friends we can get. You want to be a Jew? Be my guest.

Here’s an analogy. Soccer. You have professionals and amateurs, managers and trainers, goundsmen and administrators, casual spectators, travelling supporters and season ticket holders, agents and reporters. Those who make a living televising games, making sports equipment and clothes, promoting, designing and selling, all involved in one way or another with the sport. Yet the fact is that without the professionals, soccer would be little different from ping pong. Still soccer wants as many players as possible to be encouraged to play or watch the game. If anyone wants to train harder or play more often it is up to her or him. And if some want to switch to baseball, that’s their business too. My only problem is with people who hate all soccer players for no good reason and rabbis who are too busy saying “no”.

8 thoughts on “Who isn’t a Jew?

  1. As a "rabbi" one would think you'd cite a bit more Torah in a piece with such serious subject matter. Torah Law is very clear: anyone who has not had a valid conversion or who was not born to a Jewish mother, is not a Jew.

    A shame you complain about the Jewish world being as fragmented as ever, and then seem to push open door policy ideas which will only make that problem much, much, worse.

  2. Thank you for adding so pleasantly to my existing "whimsical mélange of birth and history, anger and dislocation".

    You may find this post interesting, "Is Israel actually a nation?"

    The blog post that "the edge of where" links to is which discusses the question of Israeli nationality and Jewish identity in more detail.

  3. JIDF:
    I dont understand your problem. I said very clearly that for those who are bound by halacha, as I am, the only definition that counts is the halachic one. But how one chooses to live ones life, whether as a Jew or not, and within Judaism what specific denomination one chooses to belong to is indeed a matter of personal choice.
    You seem to imply there is only one Torah Law. Even if in theory that is right, in practise the way Satmar interpret the Torah and the way Lubavitch do differ radically on lots of issues, so too Rav Ovadia Yosef and Rav Eliyashiv. Have you never heard of the concept of Eylu VEylu Divrei Elokim Chayim? Now in all these cases the way they define Giyur KeHalacha differs and that's only one example.

  4. dk:
    Indeed this raises a very relevant issue. I am Jewish and I support a Jewish State simply in so far as it stands for Jewish values ( which is not necessarily the case in Israel today). I am not a Nationalist and frankly the trappings of nationalism I find very unattractive. The logic of my position is that as I am not an Israeli ( and some Christians and Muslims are ) I would have no problem in ceding authority to a Pan Middle Eastern Common Market that allowed me as a Jew to live in our traditional homeland the sort of life I wanted to. It is only because I know most of the Middle East would not allow me to live as an equal ( OK we'll give you Dhimmi status, big deal it didnt work too well in the past ) and that most of the world doesnt give a fig for Jews, that I support Israel on the pragmatic basis of needing a State that supports Jewish interests and that in practise actually encourages and supports Jewish institutions. But yes I agree. A nation is not what best describes the Jews today.

  5. It is a great sadness to me that some Jews are considered better than others and some conversions better than others. There is nothing surer than "divided we fall". The way it seems to pan out now is that half of Israeli "Jews" are not halachically Jewish and their children would not be accepted as Jews if they came to the UK and wanted to go to Jewish school, and a great many of the other half are narrow-minded bigots.

    At some stage or another, most European Jews must have been tied to non-Jews else why would so many of us have blue/green/grey eyes and blonde hair. I think we should be grateful for any poor soul mad enough to want to convert and extend the gene pool.
    I await the notice of excommunication.

  6. If anyone considers himself or herself better simply on the basis of birth I think that person is not only stupid but there is nothing in halkacha that supports such an assertion. What you can say is 'different.' But we are all different one way or another.

  7. {Sigh} I think that the only appropriate thing to say here is "Baruch Dayan Emes"…because we as a Jewish people are just self-destructing. Going back to the very first comment…the core of the issue is what exactly is a "valid conversion"? I have been "converting to Judaism" for many years, and I still don't have a clear picture of it. I had a Reform conversion and an Orthodox conversion (I'm American). But I have a real shocker to reveal…my Orthodox conversion (in 2011) was not such a big deal with me. Now perhaps there was some kabbalistic transformation of my neshamah before vs. after the mikvah immersion. I don't know. What was a very moving and pivotal moment for me came 14 years ago…years before my Reform conversion (in 2004) at least; when I chose to stop observing Xtian holidays; the first time I fasted on Yom Kippur; sitting down at my first seder. These are the things that linger in my mind as signifying my change from "goy" to Jew. Yes, the mikvah dip did something…it "ratified" me as kosher for the rest of the Jewish world. But I feel that between myself and Hashem…the transformation happened a long time ago.

    Now that I am in shiddichum…the "Who is a Jew" question is really hitting home. I've been frum for 5 years, but since I am Black, I get the weird questions posed. Ok, so how did you get into this…was there a Jewish guy at one time? However some of it is just a thin veil over the fact that they just don't see me as Jewish at all. Perhaps if I became charedi and relocated to Meah Shaerim….maybe. But even then, there would be folks who had their doubts…or would just die of shock if any of their sons wanted to have me as a wife.

    Since when did Judaism become a religion of judging people…even though we are told in the Torah time and time again to not do this. I am not condoning non-Orthodox conversions, G-d forbid. But I think such people are misguided as to what Judaism is about and that is that. No need to shun them, or criticize them. In fact reach out to them…make them feel welcome. We should do that to all people anyway…Jew, non-Jew, beast, whatever.

    When I converted Orthodox, it wasn't to meet anyone's definition of being a Jew. I believe that the Torah was given at Har Sinai from Hashem, and a Jew is obligated to embrace it. So there was no other way. In spite of this, the majority of the Jewish world look at me and say (or think) "Really? How are you Jewish? I don't get it!" Well in the end, that makes two of us, because I don't get it either why you even have your doubts about it!

  8. BR:

    I am so sorry you are going through this ghastly experience of feeling rejected. You ought not to be. Spiritually you sound to me as though your relationship with God and Torah is beyond reproach and anyone who either criticises or doesn't understand you is only betraying how poor his or her spiritual life is. If it is any comfort there are plenty of Othodox FFB jews who also feel dislocated, alienated and uncomfortable with the Orthodox Jewish life they experience and the people they come into contact with. Humans are often weird and insecure and this makes them both judgmental and inconsiderate. I too feel ill at ease in much of Jewish company but the truth is that I feel just as ill at ease in other societies and value systems.

    As the great psychiatrist Jung wrote, people who act differently to those around them are often lonely in the sense of being loners. I know several men and women in Israel who are in an identical position to you. You are not alone and I only hope you manage to find your soul mate as soon as possible.


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