Religion Wiki

"Who is a Jew?" (Hebrew: מיהו יהודי?pronounced [ˈmihu jehuˈdi]) is a basic question about Jewish identity and considerations of Jewish self-identification. The question has gained particular prominence in connection with several high-profile legal cases in Israel since 1962,[1][2] and in 2009 there was a prominent and controversial court case, in the United Kingdom, about the question.[3][4][5][6][7][8]

The definition of who is a Jew varies according to whether it is being considered by Jews based on normative religious statutes, self-identification or by non-Jews for other reasons. Because Jewish identity can include characteristics of an ethnicity, a religion,[9] and citizenship, the definition of who is a Jew has varied, depending on whether a religious, sociological, or ethnic aspect was being considered, particularly since the early 19th century schism.[10][clarification needed]

According to halakha, the oldest normative definition used by Jews for self-identification, a person is matrilineally a Jew by birth, or becomes one through conversion to Judaism. Adherence to this definition has been challenged since the emergence of the Karaite sect, emergence of modern groups in Judaism since the 19th century, and the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Issues that have been raised reflect:

  • Child's non-Jewish mother: i.e. whether a child born of a non-Jewish mother should be considered Jewish through the father's Jewish identity.
  • Conversion: i.e. what process of conversion other than the normative orthodox procedure should be considered valid.
  • Historical loss of Jewish identity: i.e. whether a person's or group's actions (such as conversion to a different religion) or circumstances in his, her or community's life (such as being unaware of Jewish parents) should affect his or her Jewish status.
  • Diaspora identity: identity of Jews among themselves, and by non-Jews throughout the Jewish diaspora.
  • Claim to Israeli citizenship: the examination of the three previous issues in the context of the Basic Laws of Israel.

Israelite religion

An Israelite's ancestry was considered very important in biblical times due to the blessing given to, and a covenant made with Abraham (Bereishit, Lech-Lecha, 17:2) as is evidenced in references in the Hebrew Bible, as well as such mentions as Num 1:2, 18, Ezra 2:59-63, and 8:1.

Tannaitic Judaism

According to the Mishnah, the first written source for halakha, the status of the offspring of mixed marriages was determined matrilineally.

According to historian Shaye J. D. Cohen, in the Bible, the status of the offspring of mixed marriages was determined patrilineally. He brings two likely explanations for the change in Mishnaic times: first, the Mishnah may have been applying the same logic to mixed marriages as it had applied to other mixtures (kilayim). Thus, a mixed marriage is forbidden as is the union of a horse and a donkey, and in both unions the offspring are judged matrilineally. Second, the Tanaim may have been influenced by Roman law, which dictated that when a parent could not contract a legal marriage, offspring would follow the mother.[11]

Contemporary Judaism

All religious denominations of Judaism agree that a person may be a Jew either by birth or through conversion. The halakhic definition based on Leviticus 24:10 is that a Jew is a person born to a Jewish mother, or who is a convert to Judaism. No other way to recognition is allowed for.

The halakhic ruling is that the mere acceptance of the principles and practices of Judaism does not make a person a Jew. However, those born halakhicly Jewish do not lose that status because they cease to be observant Jews, even if they adopt the practices of another religion. As the various denominations of Judaism differ on their conversion processes, often, conversions performed by more liberal denominations are not accepted by those who are stricter in their adherence to halakha.

In halakha, to determine a person's Jewish status (Hebrew: yuhasin) one needs to consider the status of both parents. If both parents are Jewish then their child will also be considered Jewish, and the child takes the status of the father (e.g., as a kohen). If either parent is subject to a genealogical disability (e.g., is a mamzer) then the child is also subject to that disability. If one of the parents is not Jewish, the rule is that the child takes the status of the mother (Kodashim 66b, Shulchan Aruch, EH 4:19). Accordingly, if the mother is Jewish, so is her child, and if she is not Jewish, neither is her child considered Jewish. The child can be considered Jewish only by a process of conversion to Judaism, and the child is also freed from any disabilities and special status to which the father may have been subject (e.g., being a mamzer or kohen) under Jewish law.[12]

Jewish by birth

According to halakha a child is not Jewish if the child's mother is not Jewish.[13] The ruling is derived from various sources including Deuteronomy 7:1-5, Leviticus 24:10, Ezra 10:2-3.[13]

All branches of Orthodox Judaism and Conservative Judaism today, maintain that the halakhic rules (i.e. matrilineal descent) are valid and binding.

Reform and Liberal Judaism do not accept the halakhic rules as binding, and accept a child of one Jewish parent, whether father or mother, as Jewish if the parents raise the child as a Jew and the child fosters a Jewish identity, noting "that in the Bible the line always followed the father, including the cases of Joseph and Moses, who married into non-Israelite priestly families".[14] Reform rabbis in North America have set standards by which a person with one Jewish parent is considered a Jew if there have been "appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people," such as a Jewish naming ceremony, brit milah, or a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony. Because the Reform Movement uses a guidelines approach and its standards are not considered binding, they are understood and applied in different ways by different Reform rabbis and individual Reform Jews. The principle, in general, is understood to require a Jewish upbringing. The Reform movement's standard states that "for those beyond childhood claiming Jewish identity, other public acts or declarations may be added or substituted after consultation with their rabbi".[15] Advocates of patrilineal descent point to Genesis 48:15-20 and Deuteronomy 10:15.[16]

This policy is commonly known as patrilineal descent, though "bilineal" would be more accurate. The Reconstructionist position, and that of Liberal Judaism in the United Kingdom, is similar to that of American Reform Judaism.

There are historical Jewish communities that dispute the matrilineal tradition. Karaite Judaism, for example, traces Jewishness by patrilineal descent, basing this practice "on the fact that, in the Bible, tribes are given male names and that biblical characters are always referenced by their fathers' names."[17]

The divergence of views has become an issue because Orthodox and Conservative communities do not recognize the Jewishness of a person if only the father is Jewish, even though accepted as Jewish by a Reform or Liberal community. For the person to be accepted as Jewish by an Orthodox or Conservative community (for example, on an occasion of their bar/bat mitzvah or marriage), they may require a formal conversion (in accordance with halakhic standards). Orthodox Judaism has a predominant position in Israel. Although Orthodox and Conservative Judaism do not recognize Jewishness through patrilineal descent, "it should also be noted, however, that in the case of a child born to a Jewish father but to a non-Jewish mother, most Orthodox rabbis will relax the stringent demands normally made of would-be converts",[18] and the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement "agreed that 'sincere Jews by choice' should be warmly welcomed into the community".[19]

Converts to Judaism

All mainstream forms of Judaism today are open to sincere converts, with most subgroups accepting converts by the process accepted within the group, or through normative orthodox procedure. Conversely the orthodox groups do not accept conversions performed by other groups within the spectrum of Jewish identity due to variance in the conversion rules.[20][21]

For Rabbinical Judaism, the laws of conversion are based on codes of law and texts, including discussions in the Talmud, through the Shulkhan Arukh,[22] and subsequent interpretations that are held as authoritative by Orthodox Judaism and Conservative Judaism. Orthodox Judaism recognises only those conversions in which a convert accepts and undertakes to observe halakha as interpreted by the teachings of Orthodox Judaism. Because some non-Orthodox rabbis and some non-Orthodox denominations do not require that converts make this commitment, Orthodox Judaism does not accept as valid conversions performed by those non-Orthodox denominations.

Conservative Judaism takes a more lenient approach in application of the halakhic rules than Modern Orthodox Judaism. Its approach to the validity of conversions is based on whether the conversion procedure followed rabbinic norms, rather than the reliability of those performing it or the nature of the obligations the convert undertook.[23] Accordingly, it may accept the validity of some Reform and Reconstructionist conversions, but only if they include immersion in a ritual bath (mikvah), appearance before a rabbinical court (beit din) and, for men, circumcision (brit milah) or a symbolic circumcision for those already circumcised (hatafat dam brit).[24]

The requirements of Reform Judaism for conversions often vary from Conservadox Judaism ones. The denomination, the largest branch of Judaism in North America, states that "people considering conversion are expected to study Jewish theology, rituals, history, culture and customs, and to begin incorporating Jewish practices into their lives. The length and format of the course of study will vary from rabbi to rabbi and community to community, though most now require a course in basic Judaism and individual study with a rabbi, as well as attendance at services and participation in home practice and synagogue life."[25] Reform also note that "Reform, Reconstructionist and under certain circumstances, Conservative rabbis recognize the validity of conversions performed by rabbis of all branches of Judaism. Many Orthodox Jews, however, do not recognize non-Orthodox conversions since they generally do not adhere to Halakha".[26]

Although an infant conversion might be accepted in some circumstances (such as in the case of adopted children or children whose parents convert), children who convert would typically be asked if they want to remain Jewish after reaching religious adulthood - which is 12 years of age for a girl and 13 for a boy. This standard is applied by Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, which accept halakha as binding.[27][28]

Karaite Judaism does not accept Rabbinic Judaism, and has different requirements for conversion, refraining from accepting any until recently.[29] Traditionally non-proselytizing, on 1 August 2007, the Karaites reportedly converted their first new members in 500 years. At a ceremony in their Northern California synagogue, ten adults and four minors swore fealty to Judaism after completing a year of study. This conversion comes 15 years after the Karaite Council of Sages reversed its centuries-old ban on accepting converts.[30]

Jews who have practised another faith

In general, Orthodox Judaism considers a person born of a Jewish mother to be Jewish, even if they convert to another religion.[31] Reform Judaism views Jews who convert to another faith as non-Jews in all respects. For example, "...anyone who claims that Jesus is their savior is no longer a Jew..." [Contemporary American Reform Responsa, #68].[32][33][34]

Historically, a Jew who has been declared to be a heretic (Hebrew: Minim מינים or notzrim נוצרים) may have had a cherem (similar to excommunication) placed on him or her; but the practice of communal and religious exclusion does not affect their status of Jewish birth.[35] (See, for example, the case of Spinoza, a seventeenth century philosopher.)

Judaism also views as Jewish those who involuntarily convert from Judaism to another religion (Hebrew: anusim (אנוסים), meaning "forced ones"); and their matrilineal descendants are likewise considered to be Jewish.

Judaism has a category for those who are Jewish but who do not practice or who do not accept the tenets of Judaism, whether or not they have converted to another religion. The traditional view regarding these individuals, known as Meshumadim (Hebrew: משומדים), is that they are Jewish; however, there is much debate in the rabbinic literature regarding their status vis-a-vis the application of Jewish law and their participation in Jewish ritual;[35] but not to their status as Jews.

A Jew who leaves Judaism is free to return to the faith at any time. In general, no formal ceremony or declaration is required to return to Jewish practices. All movements of Judaism welcome the return to Judaism of those who have left, or been raised in another faith. When returning to Judaism, these individuals would be expected to abandon their previous practices and adopt Jewish customs.

The same rules in principle apply to the matrilineal descendants of such persons, though some rabbinical authorities may require stricter proof of Jewish descent than others. Whether such persons are required to undergo a full formal conversion depends on the community and their individual circumstances. For example, a male who has had a brit milah, who has a general understanding of Judaism, but who has been raised in a secular home might not be required to undergo ritual conversion. However, a male who has not had a brit milah, a male or female who has converted to or been brought up in another religion, or an individual raised in a completely secular home without any Jewish education, in most communities, may be required to undergo a full ritual conversion. For full participation in the community (for example, to marry with the participation of a rabbi), they may be required to display sincerity, such as a declaration of commitment to Judaism.[36]

Another example of the issues involved is the case of converts to Judaism who cease to practice Judaism (whether or not they still regard themselves as Jewish), do not accept or follow halakha, or now adhere to another religion. Technically, such a person remains Jewish, like all Jews, provided that the original conversion is valid. However, in some recent cases, Haredi rabbinical authorities, as well as the current Religious Zionist Israeli Chief Rabbinate, have taken the view that a given convert's lapse from Orthodox Jewish observance is evidence that he or she cannot, even at the time of the conversion, have had the full intention to observe the commandments, and that the conversion must therefore have been invalid.

Ethnic and cultural perspectives

Ethnic Jew is a term generally used to describe a person of Jewish parentage and background who does not necessarily actively practice Judaism but still identifies with Judaism and/or other Jews culturally and fraternally. The term "ethnic Jew" does not specifically exclude practicing Jews, but they are usually simply referred to as "Jews" without the qualifying adjective "ethnic". See: Ethnic group.

The term can refer to people of diverse beliefs and backgrounds due to the fact that genealogy largely defines who is "Jewish". "Ethnic Jew" is sometimes used to distinguish non-practicing from practicing (religious) Jews. Other terms include "non-observant Jew," "non-religious Jew," "non-practicing Jew," and "secular Jew".

The term sometimes can refer exclusively to Jews who, for whatever reasons, do not practice the religion of Judaism, or who are so casual in their connection to that religion as to be effectively not Jews in the religious sense of adherent to Judaism. Typically, ethnic Jews are cognizant of their Jewish background, and may feel strong cultural (even if not religious) ties to Jewish traditions and to the Jewish people or nation. Like people of any other ethnicity, non-religious ethnic Jews often assimilate into a surrounding non-Jewish culture, but, especially in areas where there is a strong local Jewish culture, they may remain largely part of that culture instead.

"Ethnic Jews" include atheists, agnostics, non-denominational deists, Jews with only casual connections to Jewish denominations or converts to other religions, such as Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam. Religious Jews of all denominations sometimes engage in outreach to non-religious ethnic Jews, and ask them to rediscover Judaism. In the case of some Hasidic denominations (e.g. Chabad-Lubavitch) this outreach extends to active proselytizing.[37][38][39][40]

Israeli immigration laws will accept an application for Israeli citizenship if there is proven documentation that any grandparent—not just the maternal grandmother—was Jewish. This does not mean that person is an "ethnic Jew", but Israeli immigration will accept that person because he or she has an ethnically Jewish connection, and because this same degree of connection was sufficient to be persecuted as a Jew by the Nazis. See Jewish ethnic divisions.

The traditional European definition of Jewishness (although it was not uniform across Europe) differs markedly from the definition used by the American progressive movement. In the former USSR, "Jew" was a nationality or ethnicity by law.

The European definition is traditional in many respects, and reflects not only how the Europeans saw Jews, but also how Jews saw themselves. It has been argued that the Israeli law draws on external definitions of Jewishness (such as the Nazi and Soviet definitions), rather than traditional halakhic criteria.

Members of most secular societies accept a person as a Jew if they say that they are, unless there is reason to believe that the person is misrepresenting themselves for some reason. Some members of Reform Judaism have also adopted this viewpoint.

Religious definitions

Halakhic perspective

According to the traditional Rabbinic view, which is maintained by all branches of Orthodox Judaism and Conservative Judaism today, only halakha can define who is or is not a Jew when a question of Jewish identity, lineage, or parentage arises about any person seeking to define themselves or claim that they are Jewish.

As a result, mere belief in the principles of Judaism does not make one a Jew. Similarly, non-adherence by a Jew to the 613 Mitzvot, or even formal conversion to another faith, does not make one lose one's Jewish status. Thus the immediate descendants of all female Jews (even apostates) are still considered to be Jews, as are those of all her female descendants. Even those descendants who are not aware they are Jews, or practice a faith other than Judaism, are technically still Jews, as long as they come from an unbroken female line of descent. As a corollary, the children of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother are not considered to be Jews by halakha unless they formally convert, even if raised fully observant in the mitzvot.[41]

Those not born to a Jewish mother may become accepted as Jews by the Orthodox and Conservative communities through a formal process of conversion to Judaism in order to become "righteous converts" (Geirei tzedekHebrew: גירי צדק‎). In addition, halakha requires that the new convert commits himself to observance of its tenets; this is called Kabbalat Ol Mitzvot (Hebrew: קבלת עול מצוות‎), "Acceptance [of the] Yoke [of the] Commandments".

In the last two decades Haredi rabbis have tended to look at a convert's current personal observance and to regard deficiencies or lack of strictness in current observance as evidence that the convert never fully intended to convert for the sake of their faith. In addition, the contemporary situation is further complicated by the fact that some Haredi rabbis no longer regard some Modern Orthodox rabbis as sufficiently strict in adherence to Orthodox observance.[42]

Both Haredi Judaism and Modern Orthodox Judaism accept a similar set of rules regarding Jewish status based on classical rabbinic Judaism, including both matrilineal descent and requirements that conversions be performed by Orthodox rabbis and that converts promise to strictly observe elements of traditional Judaism such as Shabbat and Niddah. However, their application of these rules have been different, and the difference has been increasing in recent years. Modern Orthodox authorities have been more inclined to rule in favor of Jewish status and to accept non-Orthodox Jews' word in doubtful cases involving people claiming to be Jews, while Haredi authorities have in recent years tended to presume non-Jewish status and require more stringent rules and standards of evidence in order for Jewish status to be proven, and have tended to distrust the evidence of Jews who are not personally Orthodox. Haredi rabbis have tended to look at a convert's current personal observance and to regard deficiencies or lack of Orthodoxy in current observance as evidence that the convert never intended to validly convert. In addition, the contemporary situation is further complicated by the fact that some Haredi rabbis no longer regard some Modern Orthodox rabbis as reliably Orthodox.[42][43][44]

Karaite Judaism

Unlike the denominations of Rabbinical Judaism, Karaite Judaism maintains that it is the responsibility of each Jew to study the Tanakh for themselves. The Talmud / Oral Law are not canonized, neither are rabbinical opinions considered authoritative, but every interpretation is held up to the same scrutiny, regardless of its source. Karaite Judaism relies on the Tanakh to indicate that Jewishness is passed through the paternal line, not the maternal line, as is maintained by Orthodox Judaism (though a minority hold that both parents need to be Jewish). Karaite Jews are eligible for Aliyah under the Law of Return. The eligibility of non-Jewish converts to Karaite Judaism to make Aliyah under the Law of Return has not yet been addressed in Israeli courts.

Reform Judaism

Modern Progressive Jewish denominations have a conversion process based on their liberal philosophies. In the US, an official Reform resolution in 1893 abolished circumcision as a requirement for converts,[45] and Reform does not require converts to have tevilah (ritual immersion). A "prospective convert declares, orally and in writing, in the presence of a rabbi and no less than two lay leaders of the congregation and community, acceptance of the Jewish faith and the intention to live in accordance with its mitzvot".[46]


The controversy in determining "who is a Jew" by conversion concerns four basic disputes:

The first controversial issue is that the North American Reform and UK Liberal movements have changed some of the halakhic requirements for a Jewish identity in two ways:

A. Children born of just one Jewish parent — regardless of whether the father or mother is Jewish — can claim a Jewish identity. A child of only one Jewish parent who does not claim this identity has, in the eyes of the Reform movement, forfeited his/her Jewish identity. By contrast, the halakhic view is that any child born to a Jewish mother is Jewish, whether or not he/she is raised Jewish, or even whether the mother considers herself Jewish. As an example, the children of Madeleine Albright (who was raised Catholic and was unaware of her Jewish ancestry) would all be Jews according to halakha, since their mother's traceable female ancestors were all Jewish and all three of her children were female. However, this is not the belief of progressive Judaism.
B. The requirement of brit milah has been relaxed, as has the requirement of ritual immersion. (While the Conservative movement permits conversion without circumcision in some cases, notably hemophiliacs, most Orthodox Jews do not, except in cases specifically exempted by the Talmud, such as one who has had three brothers die as a result of circumcision.)

Secondly, Orthodox Judaism asserts that non-Orthodox rabbis are not qualified to form a beit din.[44] This has led to non-Orthodox conversions generally being unaccepted in Orthodox communities. Since Orthodox Judaism maintains the traditional standards for conversion — in which the commitment to observe halakha is required — non-Orthodox conversions are generally not accepted in Orthodox communities because the non-Orthodox movements perform conversions in which the new convert does not undertake to observe halakha as understood by Orthodox Judaism.

A third controversy concerns persons (whether born Jews or converts to Judaism) who have converted to another religion. The traditional view is such persons remain Jewish.[47][48] However, Reform Judaism and Liberal Judaism regard such people as non-Jewish, and they do not count as Jewish for the purposes of the Israeli citizenship laws.

A fourth controversy stems from the manner in which the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has been handling marriage and conversion decisions in recent years. Conversions and marriages within Israel are legally controlled by the Orthodox Israeli Chief Rabbinate; therefore, a person not proven to be a Jew to the Rabbinate's satisfaction is not legally permitted to marry a Jew in Israel today. Although the Rabbinate has always refused to accept non-Orthodox conversions, until recent years it was more willing to accept the Jewish parentage of applicants based on personal testimony, and the validity of conversions based on the testimony of Orthodox Rabbis. However, in recent years the rabbinate, whose rabbis historically had a more Modern Orthodox orientation, has increasingly been filled by the more stringent Haredi camp. It has increasingly been inclined to presume that applicants are not Jewish until proven otherwise, and require more stringent standards of proof than in the past. It has implemented a policy of refusing to accept the testimony of non-Orthodox Jews in matters of Jewish status, on grounds that such testimony is not reliable. It also has been increasingly skeptical of the reliability of Orthodox rabbis ordained by institutions not subject to its accreditation, particularly in matters of conversion. Accordingly, non-Orthodox Jews born to Jewish parents, and some Jews converted by Orthodox rabbis, have been increasingly unable to prove their Jewishness to the Rabbinate's satisfaction, because they are unable to find an Orthodox rabbi who is both acceptable to the Rabbinate, and familiar with and willing to vouch for the Jewishness of their maternal lineage or the validity of their conversion.[42][43][44]

There have been several attempts to convene representatives of the three major movements to formulate a practical solution to this issue. To date, these have failed, though all parties concede the importance of the issue is greater than any sense of rivalry among them.

Constitutional law in Israel

The definition of "who is a Jew" has become an important issue in Israeli politics due to the involvement of religious parties in the Knesset.

Law of Return

Following the independence of the modern State of Israel in 1948, the Law of Return was enacted to give any "Jew" the right to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen.[49] However, due to an inability on the lawmakers to agree, the Law did not define who was a Jew, relying instead on the issue to resolve itself over time. As a result, the Law relied in form on the traditional halakhic definition. But, the absence of a definition of who is a Jew, for the purpose of the Law, has resulted in the divergent views of the various streams of Judaism competing for recognition.

Besides the generally accepted halakhic definition of who is a Jew, the Law extended the categories of person who are entitled to immigration and citizenship to the children and grandchildren of Jews, regardless of their present religious affiliation, and their spouses.[50] Also, converts to Judaism whose conversion was performed outside of the State of Israel, regardless of who performed it, were entitled to immigration under the Law. Once again, issues arose as to whether a conversion performed outside of Israel was valid. The variation of the definition in the Law and the definition used by various branches of Judaism has resulted in practical difficulties for many people.

It has been estimated that in the past twenty years about 300,000 avowed non-Jews and even practicing Christians have entered Israel from the former Soviet Union on the basis of being a grandchild of a Jew or by being married to a Jew.[51]

However, there was an exception in the case of a person who had formally converted to another religion derived from the Rufeisen Case in 1962.[1] Such a person, no matter what their halakhic position, was not entitled to immigration under the Law. This created a divergence between political Zionist interpretation of Jewishness and that of halakha. In the 1970 Shalit case the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in favour of a family which sought to register children born in Israel from a Scottish mother as Jewish by nationality,[1] but the 1972 amendment to the Population Registry Law prevented their third child being registered as Jewish.[52]

Current Israeli definitions specifically exclude Jews who have openly and knowingly converted to a faith other than Judaism, including Messianic Judaism. This definition is not the same as that in traditional Jewish law; in some respects it is deliberately wider, so as to include those non-Jewish relatives of Jews who may have been perceived to be Jewish, and thus faced anti-Semitism.

The Law of Return does not, of itself, define the Jewish status of a person; it only deals with those who have a right of immigration to Israel.

In the early 1950s, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate originally objected to the immigration of Karaite Jews to Israel, and unsuccessfully tried to obstruct it. In 2007 Rabbi David Chayim Chelouche, the chief rabbi of Netayana, was quoted in the Jerusalem Post as saying: "A Karaite is a Jew. We accept them as Jews and every one of them who wishes to come back [to mainstream Judaism] we accept back. There was once a question about whether Karaites needed to undergo a token circumcision in order to switch to rabbinic Judaism, but the rabbinate agrees that today that is not necessary." [53]

Israeli laws governing marriage and divorce

In relation to marriage, divorce, and burial, which are under the jurisdiction of the Israeli Interior Ministry, the halakhic definition of who is a Jew is applied. When there is any doubt, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate generally determines the issue.

In terms of social relations, most secular Jews view their Jewish identity as a matter of culture, heritage, nationality, or ethnicity.[54] Ancestral aspects can be explained by the many Jews who view themselves as atheist and are defined by matrilineal descent[31][55] or a Cohen (Kohen) or Levi, which is connected by ancestry.[56] The question of “who is a Jew” is a question that is under debate.[57] Issues related to ancestral or ethnic Jews are dealt with by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.[58][59][60][61]

Orthodox halachic rules apply to converts who want to marry in Israel. Under these rules, a conversion to Judaism must strictly follow halachic standards to be recognised as valid. The rabbinate even scrutinizes Orthodox conversions, with some who have converted by orthodox authorities outside of Israel not being permitted to marry in Israel. For example, an American man who underwent an Orthodox conversion in Metairie, Louisiana, was denied an official marriage in Israel on the grounds that his conversion may not have been legitimate and that the Orthodox rabbi who converted him in Louisiana is not recognized in Israel.[61][62]

If one's ancestral line of Jewishness is in doubt, then a proper conversion would be required in order to be allowed to marry in the Orthodox community, or in Israel, where such rules govern all marriages.

Israeli definition of nationality

The Jewish status of a person in Israel is considered a matter of "nationality".

In the registering of "nationality" on Israeli Teudat Zehut ("identity card"), which is controlled by the Ministry of the Interior, a person had to meet the halakhic definition to be registered as a "Jew". However, in a small number of cases the Supreme Court of Israel has ordered the Interior Ministry to register as Jews individuals who did not meet that definition.

Until recently, Israeli identity cards had an indication of nationality, and the field was left empty for those who immigrated not solely on the basis of being Jewish (i.e. as a child, grandchild or spouse of a Jew only) to indicate that the person may not be a Jew. Also, many Israeli citizens who are not recognised by the Rabbinate as Jewish (or have not provided sufficient proof of this) have been issued with Israeli identity cards that do not include their Hebrew calendar birth date.

Other definitions

There have been other attempts to determine Jewish identity beside the traditional Jewish approaches. These range from genetic population studies (see Y-chromosomal Aaron) to controversial evolutionary perspectives including those espoused by Kevin B. MacDonald and Yuri Slezkine.

Anti-Semitic definitions

The question "who is a Jew?" is also sometimes of importance to non-Jews. It has had exceptional significance historically when considered by anti-Jewish groups for the purpose of targeting Jews for persecution or discrimination. The definition can impact on whether a person may have a certain job, live in certain locations, receive a free education, live or continue to live in the country, be imprisoned or even subjected to genocide.

The Inquisition

During the time of the Inquisition, conversion to Roman Catholicism did not result in total termination of the person's Jewish status. Legally, the converts were no longer regarded as Jews. During the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, however, Jews were forced to convert, but thereafter were regarded by many people, though not in a legal form, as New Christians, distinguishing them as separate from the Old Christians of non-Jewish lineage. Since legal, political, religious and social pressure pushed many people to untrue conversions (public behaviour as Christians while retaining Jewish practices privately, a kind of crypto-Judaism, also see Marrano and Anusim), they were still treated with suspicion, a stigma sometimes carried for several generations by their identifiable descendants.


The Nazi regime instituted laws discriminating against Jews and thus needed a working definition of who is a Jew.

In Germany itself, the Ahnenpass and Nuremberg Laws classified people as Jews if they descended from three or four Jewish grandparents. A person with one or two Jewish grandparents was a Mischling, a crossbreed, of "mixed blood". One could not become a non-Jew in the eyes of the government by becoming non-practicing, marrying outside the religion, or converting to Christianity. Only people with at least two of their grandparents of "German blood" could be German citizens.[63]

There were very few Karaites in Europe during the Nazi era; most lived in the region of Turkey, Greece, and the Crimea. Karaites were not considered Jewish for the purpose of the Holocaust extermination policy.;[64] according to SS Obergruppenfuhrer Gottlob Berger, writing on 24 November 1944, discrimination against the Karaites had been prohibited due to their proximity to the Crimean Tatars, to whom Berger views the Karaites as being related. Nazis still retained hostility towards the Karaites, on grounds of their religion; and there were a number of small scale massacres of Karaites.

In German-occupied France an ordinance defined a Jew as an individual who belonged to the Jewish religion or who had more than two Jewish grandparents.[65]

The Vichy régime, a Nazi puppet state in southern France, defined a Jew as an individual with three Jewish grandparents or two grandparents if his/her spouse were Jewish. Richard Weisberg points out that this was a potentially broader classification than the one used in Occupied France, for example, a half-Jew not practising Judaism could not be a Jew under the Nazi dictate, but would be deemed one under the Vichy act if he/she had married a Jew.[65]


In the United States, because of intermarriage, the population of "half-Jews" is beginning to rival that of Jews with two Jewish parents. Self-identified "half-Jews" consider the term a familial category, which reflects multiple heritages and possible Jewish cultural or spiritual practices.[66][67][68] Other similar terms that have been used include: "part-Jewish" and "partial-Jews". The term "Gershom", "Gershomi" or "Beta Gershom" has also been used as an alternative to "half-Jewish" and "part-Jewish" in connection with descendants of intermarriage, Gershom being the son of Moses and his Midianite wife Zipporah.[69] The term typically has no religious meaning, as terms like Jewish Christian do, but rather describes ethnic Jewry.

Secular philosophy

Jean-Paul Sartre, who was not Jewish, suggested in Anti-Semite and Jew (1948) that Jewish identity "is neither national nor international, neither religious nor ethnic, nor political: it is a quasi-historical community." While Jews as individuals may be in danger from the anti-Semite who sees only "Jews" and not "people", Sartre argues that the Jewish experience of anti-Semitism preserves—even creates—the sense of Jewish community. In his most extreme statement of this view he wrote, "It is the anti-Semite who creates the Jew." Conversely, that sense of specific Jewish community may be threatened by the democrat who sees only "the person" and not "the Jew".

Hannah Arendt repeatedly asserted a principle of claiming Jewish identity in the face of anti-Semitism. "If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew. Not as a German, not as a world-citizen, not as an upholder of the Rights of Man, or whatever"; "A man attacked as a Jew cannot defend himself as an Englishman or a Frenchman. The world can only conclude from this that he is simply not defending himself at all."

Wade Clark Roof (1976), a sociologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, proposed that social sectors in modern life, in which traditional symbols and rituals are meaningful, provide an alternative approach for explaining the social basis of religion in a secular order, in doing so, he turned to the local community as a sphere in modern society that still persists "as a complex system of friendship and kinship networks, formal and informal associations, as well as symbolic attachments, very much rooted in family life and ongoing socialization processes"[70]

Sociology and anthropology

As with any other ethnic identity, Jewish identity is, in some degree a matter of claiming that identity and/or being perceived by others (both inside and outside the ethnic group) as belonging to that group. Returning again to the example of Madeleine Albright, during her Catholic childhood her being in some sense Jewish was presumably irrelevant. It was only after she was nominated to be Secretary of State that she, and the public, discovered her Jewish ancestry.

Ido Abram claims that there are five aspects to contemporary Jewish identity:

  1. Religion, culture, and tradition.
  2. The tie with Israel and Zionism.
  3. Dealings with anti-Semitism, including issues of persecution and survival.
  4. Personal history and life-experience.
  5. Relationship with non-Jewish culture and people.[71][72]

The relative importance of these factors may vary enormously from place to place. For example, a typical Dutch Jew might describe his or her Jewish identity simply as "I was born Jewish," while a Jew in Romania, where levels of anti-Semitism are higher, might say, "I consider any form of denying as a proof of cowardice."[73]

Israelite identity loss claims

Besides Jews themselves, there are various groups that have claimed descent from the biblical Israelites. The question nowadays arises in relation to Israel's Law of Return, with various groups seeking to migrate there. Some of the claims have been accepted, some are under consideration, while others have been rejected by Israel's rabbinate.

These groups have been cut off from mainstream Judaism since before the common era, so that most of the developments in Judaism since their separation, including Rabbinic Judaism, would be seen as innovations to them. As a result, their claims to "Jewishness" must be tested on different bases to those that would normally be applied.

Cochin Jews (Indian Jews)

Some sources say that the earliest Jews of Cochin, India were those who settled in the Malabar coast during the times of King Solomon of Israel, and after the Kingdom of Israel split into two.[74]

Today most of Cochin's Jews have emigrated (principally to Israel).

Bene Israel

The Bene Israel in India claim to be descended from Jews who escaped persecution in Galilee in the 2nd century B.C.E. The Bene Israel resemble the non-Jewish Maratha people in appearance and customs, which indicates some intermarriage between Jews and Indians. The Bene Israel, however, maintained the practices of Jewish dietary laws, circumcision and observation of Sabbath as a day of rest.

In 1964 the Israeli Rabbinate declared that the Bene Israel are "full Jews in every respect."

The Bene Israel claim a lineage to the Kohanim, the Israelite priestly class, which claims descent from Aaron, the brother of Moses. In 2002, a DNA test confirmed that the Bene Israel share the same heredity as the Kohanim.[75][76]

Beta Israel

The Beta Israel or Falasha is a group formerly living in Ethiopia that has a tradition of descent from the lost tribe of Dan. They have a long history of practicing such Jewish traditions as kashrut, Sabbath and Passover, and for this reason their claim of Jewishness was accepted by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Israeli government, in 1975. They emigrated to Israel en masse during the 1980s and 1990s, as Jews, under the Law of Return. Some who claim to be Beta Israel still live in Ethiopia.

Bnei Menashe

The Bnei Menashe is a group in India claiming to be descendants of the half-tribe of Menashe. Members who have studied Hebrew and who observe the Sabbath and other Jewish laws received in 2005 the support of the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel in arranging formal conversion to Judaism. Some have converted and emigrated to Israel under the Law of Return.

The Juhurim

The Juhurim, a Tat-speaking group of people from the North-Eastern Caucasus, who have been living in that area since at least 722 BCE, and consider themselves Jewish by patrilineal descent. There has been recent speculation about their identity but recent DNA tests have shown that the Juhurim's DNA is consistent with the majority of the world's Jewish populations which have been shown to be genetically related to one another.

The Kaifeng Jews

The Kaifeng Jews, a Hanyu-speaking group from Henan Province, China, were first discovered in 1605 by the religious scholar Matteo Ricci. Modern researchers believe these Jews were descended from Persian merchants who settled in China during the early Song Dynasty. They prospered during the Ming Dynasty as Confucian civil servants, soldiers, and merchants, but they quickly assimilated and lost much of their Jewish heritage. By the beginning of the 19th century, the last rabbi with knowledge of Hebrew died, leaving no successor. The community was for all intents and purposes religiously extinct by the late Qing Dynasty due to anti-foreign persecutions brought on by the Taiping Rebellion and Boxer Rebellion. There are a small number of Chinese people today who consider themselves to be descendants of these Jews.[77] To date, there is only one scholar, Zhou Xu, who doubts the Kaifeng community's Jewishness and claims them to have been a western construct.[78]

The Lemba

The Lemba, a Bantu-speaking group of people from southern Africa, consider themselves Jewish. The Lemba follow a patrilineal tradition. See also: Jews and Judaism in Africa

Other claims

Other claims of lost tribe status or other Jewish origin, however, have not yet been accepted.

  • A tribe of Siberian Asian origin based in Central Russia connects their claims of Jewish rather than pantheistic practices with the Khazars. The latter, an invading tribe from either Mongolia or Kazakhstan that conquered and ruled Russia in the 12th century, is said to have adopted Judaism instead of Christianity or Islam, by their leaders' preference.
  • A tribe in western Myanmar (Burma) near the Indian and Bangladeshi borders has sought genetic research to vindicate that their ancestors were Syrian and Iranian Jews. Judaism has not become a major theological force in Southeast Asia, although some introduced religions such as Hinduism and Islam, which converted several tribal groups, have existed in Indochina (Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam) for hundreds or thousands of years.
  • A small Hispanic Jewish group in New Mexico has claimed to be the oldest group of practicing Jews in North America, dating back to the first settlers of Jewish descent that left Mexico in 1550 to flee the Spanish Inquisition. As they adapted local Native American Pueblo customs over the centuries, they could fit the description of "Native American Jews".

Notes and references

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  9. Sharot, Stephen, Judaism and Jewish Ethnicity: Changing Interrelationships and Differentiations in the Diaspora and Israel, in Ernest Krausz, Gitta Tulea, (eds.) Jewish survival: the identity problem at the close of the twentieth century, pp.87-104
  10. Will Herberg, David G. Dalin, From Marxism to Judaism: the collected essays of Will Herberg, p.240
  11. Shaye J.D. Cohen (1999). The Beginnings of Jewishness. U. California Press. p. 305-306. 
  12. The Principles of Jewish Law, Ed. Menachem Elon, p. 429m ISBN 0-7065-1415-7.
  13. 13.0 13.1 "In-Laws and Shabbat Law". Ohr Somayach. 2009. 
  14. Patrilineal Descent, Jewish Virtual Library, (accessed September 2, 2008)
  15. Reform Movement's Resolution on Patrilineal Descent, The Status of Children of Mixed Marriages from the final text of the Report of the Committee on Patrilineal Descent adopted on 15 March 1983, Central Conference of American Rabbis
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  17. p.154, Levinson, David (Ed.), Encyclopedia of World Cultures Vol 9 : Africa and the Middle East, G. K. Hall & Co., Boston, 1995
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See also

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Who is a Jew?. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.