Who Is A Jew?
by Rebecca Weiner
considered to be both a religion as well as a nation and culture. Approximately 13
million people worldwide indentify as Jewish, with the vast majority living in either the United States or Israel.
Jews come in all shapes, sizes, ethnicities and nationalities. There
are black Jews from Ethiopia,
Chinese Jews from Shanghai and Indian Jews. Ther are Jews from Morocco and Iran, Jews from South America and Oceania. The practices and
beliefs held by Jews range from those who openly identify as Orthodox and strictly observe ancient precepts to those that have
nothing to do with the religion or culture.
Today, Judaism is comprised of four major
movements: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist.
Most Israelis are
often described as "secular," but the majority observe Jewish
holidays and are
very knowledgeable about Jewish history and culture, which is taught
in public school. The Conservative and Reform movements are particularly strong in
the United States, but have yet to make significant inroads in Israel.
Reconstructionism is a small and relatively new movement. Orthodoxy has grown in
recent years in the United States and remains the strongest movement
in Israel. The Orthodox, more so than the other movements, are also
divided among different sects.
The Jewish movements have different
interpretations of the Torah,
which lead to different rituals,
spiritual practices and beliefs. The diversity of beliefs and
practices has led to different definitions of "Who is a
Jew." This question is not just philosophical, it has political
and legal ramifications. In Israel, questions of Jewishness have
implications for immigration, conversion, marriage, divorce and the
allocation of government money.
Origins of the Words "Jew" & "Judaism"
The original name for the people we now call Jews was Hebrews. The word "Hebrew" (in Hebrew, "Ivri")
is first used in the Torah to
describe Abraham (Gen. 14:13). The word is
apparently derived from the name Eber, one of Abraham's ancestors.
Another tradition teaches that the word comes from the word "eyver,"
which means "the other side," referring to the fact that
Abraham came from the other side of the Euphrates, or referring to
the fact Abraham was separated from the other nations morally and
Another name used for the people is Children of
Israel or Israelites, which refers to the fact that the people are
descendants of Jacob,
who was also called Israel.
The word "Jew" (in Hebrew, "Yehudi")
is derived from the name Judah, which was the name of one of Jacob's
twelve sons. Judah was the ancestor of one of the tribes
of Israel, which was named after him. Likewise, the word Judaism literally means "Judah-ism," that is, the religion of the
Originally, the term Yehudi referred specifically
to members of the tribe of Judah, as distinguished from the other
tribes of Israel. However, after the death of King
Solomon, the nation of Israel was split into two
kingdoms: the kingdom of Judah and the kingdom of Israel (I
Kings 12; II Chronicles 10).
After that time, the word Yehudi could properly be used to describe
anyone from the kingdom of Judah, which included the tribes of Judah,
Benjamin and Levi, as well as scattered settlements from other
tribes. The most obvious biblical example of this usage is in Esther
2:5, where Mordecai is referred to as both a Yehudi and a member
of the tribe of Benjamin.
In the 6th century B.C.E.,
the kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria and the ten tribes
were exiled from the land (II Kings
17), leaving only the tribes in the kingdom of Judah remaining to
carry on Abraham's heritage. These people of the kingdom of Judah
were generally known to themselves and to other nations as Yehudim
(Jews), and that name continues to be used today.
In common speech, the word "Jew" is used
to refer to all of the physical and spiritual descendants of
Jacob/Israel, as well as to the patriarchs Abraham and Isaac and their wives, and the word "Judaism" is used to refer to
their beliefs. Technically, this usage is inaccurate, just as it is
technically inaccurate to use the word "Indian" to refer to
the original inhabitants of the Americas. However, this technically
inaccurate usage is common both within the Jewish community and
outside of it, and is therefore used throughout this site.
Who is a Jew According to Halacha (Jewish Religious Law)?
According to Jewish
law, a child born to a Jewish mother or an adult who has converted to Judaism is considered a Jew; one does not have to reaffirm their
Jewishness or practice any of the laws of the Torah to be Jewish.
According to Reform Judaism,
a person is a Jew if they were born to either a Jewish mother or a Jewish
father. Also, Reform Judaism stresses the importance of being
raised Jewish; if a child is born to Jewish parents and was not
raised Jewish then the child is not considered Jewish. According to
the Orthodox movement, the
fathers religion and whether the person practices is immaterial.
No affirmation or upbringing is needed, as long as the mother was
Besides for differing opinions on patrilineal
descent, the various streams also have different conversion practices. Conversion done under the auspices of an Orthodox rabbi,
entails Jewish study, brit
milah (for men), mikvah (for both men and women) and a stated
commitment to follow the laws of the Torah. Conservative conversions use the same requirements as the Orthodox do; however,
conversions by the Reform movement
and other streams do not have the same requirements. Since the
conversion practices are not uniform, many Orthodox Jews do not recognize Reform or Conservative conversions as valid
and, hence, do not consider the converts Jews. Once a person has converted to Judaism, he is not referred to by any special term; he is as much
a Jew as anyone born Jewish.
About Matrilineal Descent
Many people have asked why traditional Judaism
uses matrilineal descent to determine Jewish status, when in all
other things (tribal affiliation, priestly status, royalty, etc.) patrilineal
descent is used.
The Torah does
not specifically state anywhere that matrilineal descent should be
used; however, there are several passages in the Torah where it is understood that the child of a Jewish woman and a
non-Jewish man is a Jew, and several other passages where it is
understood that the child of a non-Jewish woman and a Jewish man is
not a Jew.
7:1-5, in expressing the prohibition against intermarriage, G-d
says "he [ie, the non-Jewish male spouse] will cause your child
to turn away from Me and they will worship the gods of others."
No such concern is expressed about the child of a non-Jewish female
spouse. From this, we infer that the child of a non-Jewish male
spouse is Jewish (and can therefore be turned away from Judaism), but
the child of a non-Jewish female spouse is not Jewish (and therefore
turning away is not an issue).
24:10 speaks of the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man
as being "among the community of Israel" (i.e., a Jew).
On the other hand, in Ezra
10:2-3, the Jews returning to Israel vowed to put aside their
non-Jewish wives and the children born to those wives. They could not
have put aside those children if those children were Jews.
Several people have asked how King David could be
a Jew given that one of his female ancestors, Ruth, was not a Jew.
This conclusion is based on two faulty premises: first of all, Ruth
was a Jew, and even if she wasn't, that would not affect David's
status as a Jew. Ruth converted to Judaism before marrying Boaz and
bearing Obed. See Ruth 1:16, where
Ruth states her intention to convert. After Ruth converted, she was a
Jew, and all of her children born after the conversion were Jewish as
well. But even if Ruth were not Jewish at the time Obed was born,
that would not affect King David's status as a Jew, because Ruth is
an ancestor of David's father, not of David's mother, and David's
Jewish status is determined by his mother.
Implications on Israeli Society
In 1950, the Law
of Return was passed in Israel stating that every Jew has the
right to immigrate to Israel, and granting automatic citizenship and
benefits to any Jew who makes aliyah. Jewish immigrants receive
better benefits than non-Jewish immigrants, including guaranteed
housing, ulpan (Hebrew language study), full tuition for graduate
degrees, and other benefits including discounts on major purchases,
such as cars and appliances. The absorption process is more arduous
for non-Jews and may take many years, during which they might not
have health insurance and other government services.
Three famous cases tested the Law of Return and a
Jews right to immediate citizenship. The first example involved
Brother Daniel (born Oswald Rufeisen), a Jew who converted to
Christianity during the Holocaust and
had become a Carmelite Monk. During his youth, Rufeisen was active in
a Zionist youth movement and fled to Vilna, Lithuania at the start of
World War II. There he worked as a slave laborer and escaped to Mir
where he worked for the police as a translator. Rufeisen took
advantage of his position and smuggled arms to his Jewish friends and
helped drive the police out from Mir before it was liquidated, saving
nearly 300 Jews. Rufeisen hid in the forest and later a convent,
where he decided to convert to Christianity. In 1962, Rufeisen, now
Brother Daniel, applied to immigrate to Israel and, after being
denied, he appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled
that despite the fact he was born to a Jewish mother, he had since
converted and should not be recognized as a Jew by the State of
Following the Brother Daniel case, a new
regulation was adopted stating that individuals registered as Jews for the "nationality" and ‘religion" section of
their identity cards must be Jews according to halacha and they must not practice another religion. The Shalit case
challenged this new ruling. Benjamin Shalit married a non-Jewish
Scottish woman. Since he was an Israeli, she and their children
automatically received Israeli citizenship. The two considered
themselves atheists, but part of a Jewish nation and wanted their
childrens identity cards to state Jewish for the nationality
designation and to remain blank for religion. The Ministry of
Interior wanted to keep both designations blank, so the case was
appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled in the Shalits
The decision sparked controversy and, in 1970, an
amendment to the Law
of Return passed stating that only persons born to a Jewish
mother or who had converted to Judaism were allowed to
immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. This amendment did not
specify what type of conversion is needed, thereby allowing different
interpretations. Since the amendment was passed, religious parties in
the Knesset have tried to
change it to apply only to Orthodox conversions, a move that angered the Reform and Conservative movements in the United States, which felt that it was an attempt to
delegitimize their movements.
The Shoshanna Miller Case in 1980 tested the new
amendment. She applied for citizenship under the Law of Return as a
Reform convert. Initially her petition was refused and she appealed
to the Supreme Court, which ruled that she should be granted
citizenship, in what became known as the Miller precedent.
Non-orthodox conversions done outside Israel are allowed; however, in Israel, only Orthodox
conversions are accepted by the government and the Rabbinate. While
the issue of conversion had sparked controversy in Israel for many
years, the need for a comprehensive conversion policy was heightened
after the arrival of 800,000 Russian
immigrants in the late 1980's. They immigrated under the Law of
Return, however, about 200,000 -300,000 were not Jewish according to
halacha. To find a solution acceptable to Orthodox and non-Orthodox
streams, the Neeman
Committee was formed. In February 1998, Finance Minister Yaakov
Neeman recommended that conversions should be done according to
halacha through a special Conversion Court, and that a special
institute would be created to prepare applicants for conversion, in
which they could take courses offered by all streams of Judaism. The Neeman
Committees proposal was endorsed by the Cabinet and the Knesset,
however it was not accepted by the Chief Rabbinate. Lacking the
support of the Rabbinate, the Neeman Committees proposals were
In December 1998, Jerusalem District Court Judge
Vardi Zeiler ruled that Conservative and Reform converts are allowed
to be registered at the Interior Ministry as Jews, regardless of
where the conversion took place. Following this case, appeals were
expected and legislation has been proposed to allow only Orthodox
conversions. The conversion issue has yet to be resolved.
The issue of conversion also became controversial
after the arrival of thousands of Jews from Ethiopia. Ethiopian Jews did not practice any rituals or laws pertaining to the Oral Torah
and, instead, practice a purer form of Biblical Judaism, which is
different than mainstream Ashkenazic and Sephardic Judaism.
Because of these differences and for other ritual purposes, the
Rabbinate proposed a symbolic conversion of all Ethiopian Jews to be
done before they married. The Ethiopians refused stating that it
delegitimized them as Jews. Eventually the issue was circumvented as
a rabbi sympathetic to their cause was able to register their
marriages. Ethiopian rabbis still have difficulty gaining legitimacy
for their marriages and divorces performed in Israel.
Marriage and Divorce:
Marriage ceremonies and divorce proceedings are not allowed to be performed or issued by Conservative or Reform rabbis in Israel.
In fact, only Orthodox rabbis
are allowed to marry Jews and many secular Israelis travel to Cyprus
and other foreign countries to have a civil ceremony, which they can
not receive in Israel. Israel does recognize marriages performed
abroad by the Conservative and Reform movements; however, divorces
issued abroad by rabbis from these movements are not recognized by
the Rabbinate in Israel.
One of the reasons why issues of conversion,
marriage and divorce are so important to religious Jews is because of
the possibility of mamzerim (illegitimates). In a Jewish
divorce, a get must be signed by the husband. If he does not
sign, then the divorce is not official and the couple is still
legally married according to Jewish law. If the get is not
issued, the woman is not free to remarry and have children, and if
she does remarry and have children, then those children are
considered to be bastards according to Jewish law. (There is no
biblical injunction against multiple wives, however, it has been
ruled illegal according to the Rabbis.) The bastard child cannot be
issued a Jewish identity card and will not be permitted to marry
another Jew in Israel. The illegitimate child is only permitted to
marry other illegitimate children. Hence, many Orthodox Rabbis claim
the reason they want to retain control over conversions, marriage and
divorce is to avoid the problem of mamzerim.
Allocation of Funding:
In Israel, another political implication for the
"Who is a Jew" question is the allocation of government
funds. The government of Israel sets aside part of their annual
budget for religious purposes, much of these funds are then
distributed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. In 1994, the High
Court of Justice ordered the allocation of funds to non-Orthodox
institutions in Israel. The Ministry of Religious Affairs agreed to
abide by the ruling of the court, however, officials decided that
they would not earmark funds for non-Orthodox supplementary religious
education or for non-Orthodox Torah culture funds.
In 1995, the Ministry of Religious Affairs gave
less than a half of a percent of the available funds to Hebrew Union
College (HUC), the Reform Rabbinical Institute in Israel. Angered by
the poor funding, petitions were sent to High Court to request
increased funding for HUC and other Reform institutions.
Funding is also determined by local religious
councils. Until recently, non-Orthodox rabbis were unable to sit in
religious councils, which control funds to local institutions.
Alternative sources of funding have been found by
the Conservative and Reform movements for their schools and programs.
Funding for non-Orthodox schools, such as the Tali schools (run by
the Masorti movement in Israel) has received funds from foundations,
non-governmental organizations and the Jewish Agency.
Sources: *The sections on the origins of
the word "Jew" and matrilineal descent were written by
Tracey Rich on her Judaism
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"Conversion Law Update IV." Bnai
Brith World Center. June 05, 1998.
"Jewish Identity." Encyclopedia Judaica. CD-ROM edition
Landau, David and Hugh Orgel."1998: ‘Who is a Jew
"Law of Return." Israeli
Meirorich, Harvey. The Shaping of the Masorti Judaism in Israel. American
"News from the Courts and the Knesset, Nov. 1st." The Masorti Movement
"Religion, Courts and Elections." Jerusalem
Journal. January 27, 1999
Report of the Neeman Committee on Conversion Proposals, Israeli
Foreign Ministry. February 11, 1998.
Schneider, Alan. "Conversion Law: Update III." Bnai
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Tabory, Efraim. Reform Judaism in Israel: Progress and
Twersky, David. "The strange case of ‘Brother
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Who is a Jew? Judaism