A Jew, or Not a Jew?

A rabbi tells a story of his days in rabbinical school. As part of his curriculum, the professor asked his students to list the names of the ten greatest Jews of the 20th century. The students wrote such names as Einstein, Freud, and Herzl. Upon completing their lists, the professor asked them to name the synagogue each of these great Jews attended. In most cases, the students could not place a synagogue with the people they had listed. Yet, in the minds of the students, there was no question of the Jewishness of the people they had named. The point being made was that practice had little to do with identity. According to the professor, Jewishness should be determined by devotion to the Jewish people and the community, not by practice.

A young Jewish boy conducted his own survey—nothing official and by no means scientific. It was merely a point of interest to him, but his standards were high as he quizzed his friends. “Did you eat anything before coming to synagogue?” He then posed the question to other Jewish young men as they took their seats in the synagogue. The time and setting were of utmost importance—it was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, regarded by many Jewish people as the most holy day of the year. When his friends answered positively, the young boy immediately pronounced the harshest of judgments: “Goy!” (Gentile). In that young man’s mind, breaking the command to fast on that day disqualified a person from being a Jew.

In 1968, the Israeli Ministry of Interior refused to identify Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Shalit’s two children as Jewish because their mother was a Gentile. Shalit argued that the government of Israel had no right to use religion in judging nationality. He felt that religious observance is not part of the concept of Jewishness. After much debate and argument, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in his favor. That decision lasted for only one day because of incredible opposition by one of the prominent although small religious political parties. The party threatened to topple the government by pulling out of the coalition unless the court reversed itself. It did.

The question of Jewish identity is a hotly contested topic. It is a virtual tug of war involving Jewish theologians, rabbis, lawyers, judges, and government officials. Is a person Jewish because he or she identifies with a Jewish community? Is a person a Jew because he or she follows a certain code of behavior or practice? Can a Jew still be a Jew and live outside of Israel? Does it matter what he or she believes or does to be classified as a Jew? What about children born into a home where one parent is Jewish and the other is Gentile? So, who is a Jew? Is it a religion or a race? Is it a nationality or an ethnicity?

If Judaism is defined by practice, the question must be asked, Whose practice? Consider that the structure of Judaism has seldom been stagnant. Today, for instance, there are no animal sacrifices, which means no priestly functions. The reason is, of course, that the Temple has been but a memory since its destruction in 70 A.D. In addition, the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots have been replaced by the Hassidim, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionists. Each group differs in practice, yet each strongly believes itself to be Jewish. Also, consider that intermarriage is at an all time high, resulting in scores of children who identify with the Jewish people. In which category should they be placed?

Today Israel recognizes only the Orthodox view as binding….if the mother is Jewish, the children will be Jewish. If the mother is a Gentile, the children are regarded as Gentiles

Today Israel recognizes only the Orthodox view as binding. The views of the other groups are deemed illegitimate. The Orthodox view states that if the mother is Jewish, the children will be Jewish. If the mother is a Gentile, the children are regarded as Gentiles. There are two reasons for this position. First, the mother has a tremendous impact on her children, presumably because she spends the bulk of family time with them. Second, we can be absolutely certain of the maternity of a child but not as certain of the paternity. Thus, the child of a Gentile mother who resides in Israel, serves in the Israeli army, and lives in an atmosphere of Jewishness, is not considered Jewish. However, a child of two Jewish parents who has no desire to participate in or practice Judaism, who might not even believe in God, is considered Jewish.

Also considered part of the identity debate are the several thousand people who have two Jewish parents but have committed themselves to follow the Jew from Nazareth—Jesus—whom they know to be the Messiah of Israel. According to rabbinic law, they are still Jews—albeit meshumed (traitors). According to the Israeli Supreme Court, however, Jews forfeit their “right of return” to the land of Israel as citizens if they make known their belief in Jesus. This position has been challenged in Israeli court on more than one occasion, but each time the ruling has been against the believer.

The biblical standard seems to agree with the rabbis and contradict the Israeli Supreme Court. First, being a Jew is a matter of blood. In light of the Holocaust, that statement may frighten some people. But a thorough understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant makes it clear that all people who are descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are Jewish. In the Jewish Scriptures there are numerous examples of disobedient Jews. That truth does not annul the fact that they are still Jews. The logic should follow that practice—or even lack of it—does not remove Jewishness.

Further, when a child is born into a mixed marriage, that child should be considered Jewish. There is biblical precedent with David, who is generally recognized as Israel’s greatest Jewish king. He had two Gentile women in his genealogy: Ruth, his great-grandmother, and Rahab, his grandmother.

To be a Jew is a good thing. To be a believing Jew is the best. The first brings an identification to the Chosen People of God. The second brings a person to the eternal place of God.

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