Who Is a Jew?
In the Bible, Jews were called Hebrews or Children of Israel
The terms "Jew" and "Judaism" come from the tribe or kingdom of Judah
"Jew" now refers to all physical and spiritual descendants of Jacob
A person can be Jewish by birth or by conversion
Traditionally, Jewish status passes through the mother, not the father
Origins of the Words "Jew" and "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 spiritually.
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 Yehudim. Other
sources, however, say that the word "Yehudim" means "People of
G-d," because the first three letters of "Yehudah"
are the same as the first three letters of G-d's four-letter
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?
A Jew is any person whose mother was a Jew or any person who has gone through
the formal process of conversion to Judaism.
It is important to note that being a Jew has nothing to do with what you
believe or what you do. A person born to non-Jewish parents who has not
undergone the formal process of conversion but who believes everything that
Orthodox Jews believe and observes every law
and custom of Judaism is still a non-Jew, even in the eyes of the most liberal
movements of Judaism, and a person born to a
Jewish mother who is an atheist and never practices the Jewish religion is
still a Jew, even in the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox. In this sense, Judaism is
more like a nationality than like other religions, and being Jewish is like a
citizenship. See What Is Judaism?
This has been established since the earliest days of Judaism. In the Torah, you
will see many references to "the strangers who dwell among you" or "righteous
proselytes" or "righteous strangers." These are various classifications of
non-Jews who lived among Jews, adopting some or all of the beliefs and
practices of Judaism without going through the formal process of conversion and
becoming 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.
Although all Jewish movements agree on these
general principles, there are occasional disputes as to whether a particular
individual is a Jew. Most of these disputes fall into one of two categories.
First, traditional Judaism maintains that a person is a Jew if his mother is a
Jew, regardless of who his father is. The liberal movements, on the other hand,
allow Jewish status to pass through the mother or the father if the child
identifies as Jewish. For example, according to the Reform movement, former
Phillies catcher Mike Lieberthal, who had a Jewish father but chooses not to be
identified as Jewish, would not be Jewish according to the Reform movement, but
former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who had a Jewish father and adopted a
Jewish identity as an adult, would be considered Jewish. See their position
here). On the other hand,
the child of a a Christian father and a Jewish mother who does not publicly
identify himself as Jewish would be considered Jewish according to the Orthodox
movement, but not according to the Reform movement. The matter becomes even
more complicated, because the status of that interfaith child's children also
comes into question.
Second, the more traditional movements do not always acknowledge the validity
of conversions by the more liberal movements. A more liberal movement might not
follow the procedures required by the more traditional movement, thereby
invalidating the conversion. For example, Orthodoxy requires acceptance of the
yoke of Torah (observance of Jewish law as Orthodoxy understands it), while
other movements would not teach the same laws that Orthodoxy does and might not
require observance. The Conservative movement requires circumcision and
immersion in a mikvah, which is not always required in Reform conversions.
About Matrilineal Descent
Many people have asked me why traditional Judaism uses matrilineal descent to
determine Jewish status, when in all other things (tribal affiliation, priestly
status, royalty, etc.) we use patrilineal descent.
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.
In Deuteronomy 7:1-5, in expressing the prohibition against
intermarriage, G-d says "he [i.e., 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).
Leviticus 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 written to me asking about King David: was he 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.
About the Agudath Ha-Rabonim Statement
In March, 1997, the Agudath Ha-Rabonim issued a statement declaring that the
Reform movements are "outside of
Torah and outside of Judaism." This statement was
widely publicized and widely misunderstood, and requires some response. Three
points are particularly worth discussing: 1) the statement does not challenge
the Jewish status of Reform and Conservative Jews; 2) the statement is not an
official statement of a unified Orthodox
opinion; 3) the statement was made with the intent of bringing people into
Jewish belief, not with the intention of excluding them from it.
First of all, the Agudath Ha-Rabonim statement does not say that
Reform and Conservative Jews are not Jews. Their statement does not say
anything about Jewish status. As the discussion above explains, status as a Jew
has nothing to do with what you believe; it is simply a matter of who your
parents are. Reform and Conservative Jews are Jews, as they have
always been, and even the Agudath Ha-Rabonim would agree on that point. The
debate over who is a Jew is the same as it has always been, the same as was
discussed above: the Reform recognition of patrilineal decent, and the validity
of conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis.
Second, the Agudath Ha-Rabonim is not the official voice of mainstream
Orthodoxy. Their statement does not represent the unified position of Orthodox
Judaism in America. In fact, the Rabbinical Council of America (the rabbinic
arm of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America) immediately
issued a strong statement disassociating themselves from this "hurtful public
pronouncement [which] flies in the face of Jewish
Finally, before one can denounce a statement like this, one should make an
attempt to understand the position of those making the statement. According to
Orthodoxy, the Torah is the heart of Judaism. All of what our people are
revolves around the unchanging, eternal, mutually binding covenant between
G-d and our people. That is the definition of Jewish
belief, according to Orthodoxy, and all Jewish belief is measured against that
yardstick. You may dispute the validity of the yardstick, but you can't deny
that Conservative and Reform Judaism don't measure up on that yardstick. Reform
Judaism does not believe in the binding nature of Torah, and Conservative
Judaism believes that the law can change.
The Agudath Ha-Rabonim did not intend to cut Reform and Conservative Jews off
from their heritage. On the contrary, their intention was to bring Reform and
Conservative Jews back to what they consider to be the only true Judaism. The
statement encouraged Reform and Conservative Jews to leave their synagogues and
"join an Orthodox synagogue, where they will be warmly welcomed." I believe the
Agudath Ha-Rabonim were sincere, albeit misguided, in this intention. I have
known several Orthodox and Chasidic Jews who believed that if there were no
Reform or Conservative synagogues, everyone would be Orthodox. However, my own
personal experience with Reform and Conservative Jews indicates that if there
were no such movements, most of these people would be lost to Judaism entirely,
and that would be a great tragedy.
The opinion of mainstream Orthodoxy seems to be that it is better for a Jew to
be Reform or Conservative than not to be Jewish at all. While we would
certainly prefer that all of our people acknowledged the obligation to observe
the unchanging law (just as Conservative Jews would prefer that all of our
people acknowledged the right to change the law, and Reform Jews would prefer
that all of our people acknowledged the right to pick and choose what to
observe), we recognize that, as Rabbi Kook said, "That which unites us is far
greater than that which divides us."
There once was a site called Jewhoo, that had an extensive list of Jewish
actors, athletes, and other celebrities. The site disappeared in 2005. I gather
that the site owners got tired of doing a lot of work researching the Jewish
background of celebrities only to find their efforts copied all over the
Internet without even the slightest acknowledgement. The site exists no more,
and the information is lost. Think about that the next time you copy someone
else's work and insist that you're doing no harm.
In the absence of Jewhoo...
JINFO has an outstanding collection of Jews
who have won the nobel prize in various areas or have excelled in various
Heebz! seems to be trying to fill the
vacuum left by the disappearance of Jewhoo in a Web 2.0, member-editable
format, similar to IMDB. I'm a bit underwhelmed by it, probably because when I
first discovered it, four of their ten "Latest Famous Jews Added/Updated" are
not Jews at all. You have to click through to the full entry to find out that
these four are in the categories "People Mistaken for Jews" and "Honorary Jews
and Allies." And the information they include on the site is rather limited.
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