I would begin by first noting that you say you hear this question asked but, if you pause for a moment, you will recognize that, in the actual way you framed the question, it is generally not asked. What you usually hear asked is the question of ‘who is a Jew’ but the question, as you framed it, ‘what is a Jew’, is actually rarely asked. This is really most unfortunate, in my opinion, and may be the first problem that must be faced in approaching this subject. This may also explain your disappointment in the answers you have heard.
Asking the question of ‘who’ before the question of ‘what’ is like asking how one becomes a member of a certain group before describing the exact nature of this group. Of course, how one answers the ‘who’ question may inherently indicate how this person would also answer the ‘what’ question, but it does so with a lack of clarity and in a roundabout way. The question of ‘what’ is clearly not tackled head on. It may just be that people think the answer is so obvious and shared by everyone – when in reality it is not. It may, however, also be that people are wary of facing this question because they are not sure of where a subsequent discussion will take them. There may be a concern that the result may be a clear recognition of the extent of the difference in viewpoints that exist on this fundamental question – and that such a clear enunciation of the differing views would have strongly negative consequences. It is my belief, though, that the opposite is actually the truth. For us to meet this challenge – the challenge of Jewish identity and unity – it is actually important to confront this issue, rather than avoid it. We must ask the question ‘what’.
To fully approach this question, though, we must recognize that it really has two parts. First, it asks of the individual to present his/her answer to the question. This would demand of me to present my theoretical understanding of the nature of the group termed ‘the Jews’ pursuant to my belief in the principles of Orthodox Judaism. In a certain way, with this answer I would be explaining what I think this term should mean. Second, though, in that this definition is not shared by all Jews but, rather, in that there are other definitions of this group termed ‘the Jews’, there would be an additional demand to consider whether it is possible to arrive at a further definition that could combine these other definitions into one whole. On a certain level, this would represent a more practical issue with an answer attempting to formulate if these variant definitions can connect – and if yes, how.
As a starting point, we must recognize the challenge that is before us. Jewishness seems to combine religion and nationhood (or ethnic identity) but what we often do not recognize is the difficulty presented by this combination. How can religion and nationhood combine: they refer to different constructs? Nationhood refers to some shared genetic or social construct. Religion reflects a different type of bonding based upon an ideological position, a certain view of life and reality. Some may contend that such a combination is not really so strange, after all many national entities would seem to combine the two. For example, when we think of Italians, we think of Roman Catholics. There are, however, many differences between this combination of nationhood and religion and that expressed by the term Jew. There are Roman Catholics who are not Italians and there are Italians who are not Roman Catholics. They are two different types of groupings that happen to converge, to a large extent, in a certain population. The term Jew, though, would seem to inherently reflect these two types of groupings in themselves – Jew defines religion, Jew defines ethnic grouping. How can this one term ‘Jew’ mean both?
What this universal religion of Judaism then does is distinguish between two different groupings of humanity, Jews and non-Jews, presenting different directives (Codes) to each. The specific term Jew, as such, refers to a specific grouping, specifically nation, within this religious perspective that has a specific code of conduct that is different from the rest of humanity. This nation is formed out of the religion and is identified to further serve the goals of this religion in a special significant way. The term Jew thus identifies an individual as a member of this unique nation to which God has given a special code of conduct.
This recognition is necessary to fully understand the two different standards that are applied in defining members of the Jewish group. According to Halacha, the first definition of a Jew is one born to a Jewish mother (T.B. Kiddushin 66b). This would seem to point to Jewishness as an ethnic identity. In that being born to a Jewish mother would not seem to reflect any ideology, this definition would actually seem to challenge a perception of Jewishness as reflecting a religious perspective. What the Halacha is really stating is that, within this universal religious perspective, one way we can identify members of the Jewish nation who are bound to the unique Code of Torah is that they include those who are born to a Jewish mother. What of someone born to a Jewish mother who does not believe in this religion? That person is still Jewish, i.e. an individual who is Divinely commanded to meet the standards expected of members of the Jewish nation.
This leads us to the second definition of a Jew, according to Halacha: one who has gone through a process of gerut, generally translated as conversion. If we understand Halacha as perceiving Jewishness as defining those who are bound to a special code of conduct, gerut would thus be the process by which one outside this group, not so commanded, can become a member of this group and become commanded. It could thus be expected that the essence of the process would be the verification that this person wishing to enter this group indeed will meet these standards of this group. This brings the matter back to the realm of religion and may explain why this process is described as conversion, a process by which one joins a different religion. As mentioned above, it is actually expected of non-Jews that they should also accept the tenets of universal Judaism so gerut is not a process, really, by which one changes his/her faith. Gerut, though, still demands the acceptance of this theological perspective for, to be part of this process -- whereby one, not within this nation with this special Code, can join this special nation -- there, first, has to be an acceptance that this nation has this special Code. As such, Halacha perceives as the first necessity of one wishing to become Jewish a commitment to meet such obligations. It is kabbalat mitzvoth, acceptance of the commandments, which is the prime focus of conversion for within the purview of Halacha, this is what it means to be part of the Jewish nation.
So what is a Jew according to Halacha? A Jew is a member of the Jewish nation, a nation that was distinguished by God and given unique tasks in His service as defined in the Halacha. One born Jewish is one born with these responsibilities even if he/she does not recognize it. To become Jewish, though, someone must recognize what it really means to be Jewish – bound to these responsibilities – and accept this obligation.
Now we can go on to the second part of this answer. It is clear that not every person who calls himself/herself a Jew would accept this definition. There is a reality of differing definitions even as people may not be able to articulate them. Indeed, over the past few centuries since the beginning of the Haskalah, we have seen extremes in both directions: some even declaring Jewishness to be solely a religion and rejecting any element of nationhood (early adherents to Reform Judaism); others declaring it to be solely a nation with religious practice simply being this nation’s cultural expression (secular Zionism and, to some extent, Reconstructionist Judaism).
Further diversity in theological principles also emerged. This is an essential issue in the controversy over conversion. If one converts pursuant to Reform Judaism, for example, that person would be declaring an acceptance of the theological principles of Reform Judaism, principles that are in disagreement with, let us say, Orthodox Judaism. As Orthodox Judaism would demand as a prelude to gerut the acceptance of its theological principles, by definition it cannot accept a conversion based upon acceptance of principles with which it disagrees. The challenge is further complicated by the attempt to avoid a recognition of such differences and their consequences. (In "Adjective and Non-Adjective Jews”, available at http://www.nishma.org/articles/introspection/introspection5761-2-adjective_jew.htm, I maintain that it is actually necessary for us to confront these differences and consequences if we are to have any chance for unity.) Essentially what this all represents are different understandings of the nature of the Jewish group, leaving us with a further challenge of seeing if there is any way of devising a feasible, pragmatic definition that could integrate all those (or most of them) who define themselves as Jewish into one working, understanding of this grouping.
To this part of the question, I really can’t give an answer. It is a challenge – a challenge that we must face and solve. This is the real issue in Israel regarding Jewish identity. There is value in accepting Orthodox standards for they are the most restrictive and, as such, almost anyone defined as Jewish within these standards would also be accepted as such by those maintaining other definitions. Maybe, though, there is a need for new terminology reflecting, for example, one who would be accepted as part of the Jewish group by certain definitions but not so accepted by others. Such an approach may be very relevant for Israel. Perhaps the reason you have not heard a good answer to the question of ‘what is a Jew’ is because the question is actually more of a maze than one may think.
Your question is an essential one and one which could be a touchstone for much more discussion than this format allows. So I will attempt to answer the question from a traditional Jewish legal perspective first and make a few comments at the end. According to the official website of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, all Jews are eligible for Israeli citizenship under the “Law of Return”. As the website states, “For the purposes of this Law, ‘Jew’ means a person who was born of a Jewish mother, or has converted to Judaism and is not a member of another religion”. On a basic level this is essentially the traditional religious legal definition of who is a Jew, as well. With some specific exceptions, according to Israeli law and Jewish law, if you are born of a Jewish mother, you are considered Jewish.
Still, many factors can and have complicated this definition over time. For instance, the Reform Movement, in relatively recent times, have recognized “Patrilineal Descent” as a legally legitimate criterion for Jewish identity, meaning that if you are born of a Jewish mother, or father, you are considered de facto to be a Jew. Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, as well as the State of Israel, have not followed suit in that regard. The question of what is a legitimate conversion and who is eligible to effect conversion is a controversial topic right now as well. While the traditional minimum standards are somewhat clear, there are rabbis and institutions who do not feel these standards are binding and still others who question conversions because of who performs them regardless of whether the conversion was carried out according to Jewish law. Further, in regard to inclusion, the policies adopted by synagogues and other Jewish institutions relating to what level of inclusion to grant to someone who is not legally Jewish (by that institution’s own standards) varies as well from institution to institution. Finally I will note that the issue of Jewish identity can be viewed from not only the legal and political aspects but also the emotional and psychological aspects, which I did not deal with in this response but which deserves attention. I hope this was helpful.
Your question represents a set of complex issues, as you may imagine. Questions about personal status and the Israeli “Law of Return” are not easily answered; anyone looking for an solution to one’s particular status or about any particular situation should personally consult a Rabbi. Therefore, my answer below should only be read for general information and discussion purposes.
If we were to take a look at Jewish identity only through the eyes of Torah, we would see that membership in the nation of Israel was usually defined as someone from one of the twelve tribes of Israel, an situation that suggests male lineage. Foreign women would be taken in battle and, if they were virgins, were brought under tribal protection, made wives, and presumably raised children that were part of that particular tribe or nation of Israel.
When Israel was in exile (that is, after the fall of the Second Temple), there was a change, and Jewish identity (a better word may be “identification”) was seen as something passed down through the mother. This was because foreign conquerors would take Israelite women, impregnate them forcibly, and imprison or kill the males. Any children from those forced liaisons would be called Israelites or Jews because, as the old saying goes, ‘we know who the mother is, but we don’t know who the father is.” In later years, husbands became merchants and may disappear on long voyages after their wives became pregnant. Here, too, we know the identity of the mother, but the missing father’s identity could be in doubt.
Conversion to Judaism has always been a fact of Jewish life, and Jewish identity can also be acquired through this set of religious education, orientation, and rituals.
These later guidelines (Jewish mother or halachic conversion) became, for the Rabbis of our tradition, the sine qua non of Jewish identity, and remained so up until 1983. In that year, following many years of discussion about Jewish identity in an era of growing intermarriage, the Central Conference of American Rabbis – the organization of the Rabbis of the American Reform movement – debated and decided that Jewish identity could come through either the mother or the father.
The wording of that particular decision concludes in this way: “The Central Conference of American Rabbis declares that the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption of the Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people. The performance of these mitzvot serves to commit those who participate in them, both parent and child, to Jewish life.
“Depending on circumstances, mitzvot leading toward a positive and exclusive Jewish identity will include entry into the covenant, acquisition of a Hebrew name, Torah study, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and Kabbalat Torah (Confirmation). For those beyond childhood claiming Jewish identity, other public acts or declarations may be added or substituted after consultation with their rabbi.”
As far as Jews are concerned, Israel grants citizenship to any Jewish person immediately upon entry to the country, if so desired. There was a period of time in the late 80’s and 90’s when Jews converted in the Diaspora were refused automatic citizenship. Much of the rationale for these refusals were based on the fact that conversions were presided over by non-Orthodox Rabbis. Since then, Israeli authorities have granted citizenship to Jews who were converted outside of Israel, but insist on stiff guidelines for conversions that occur inside the country. These latter conversions need to be halachically supervised and approved.
Another wrinkle in Israeli procedure is that the authorities make a distinction between “citizenship” for purposes under the Law of Return, and Jewish identity. Any Jew can become a citizen, but since Israeli identity documents list the religion of the person, those who convert in other-than-Orthodox manners are not granted the title “Jew,” but rather (and I could be wrong here, and I did not find an authority on this question) “Israeli.” I believe that the title “Jew” is conferred only by those involved with halachic conversions and conversion procedures.
These matters are quite fluid, with Israeli religious and civil courts ruling from year to year. But again, from the standpoint of the question – which asked about “Israeli citizenship” – any Jew is entitled to be a citizen under the Law of Return.
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