Who is a Jew

"Who is a Jew?" (Hebrew: ?מיהו יהודי‎) is a commonly considered question that addresses the question of Jewish identity. The Hebrew phrase Mihu Yehudi (Hebrew: "?מיהו יהודי"‎, "Who is a Jew?") came into widespread use when several high profile legal cases in Israel grappled with this subject after the founding of the Jewish state in 1948. As the Jewish identity shares some of the characteristics of an ethnicity and a religion, the definitions of a Jew may vary, depending on whether a religious, sociological, or ethnic approach to identity is used. Throughout Jewish history, Jews have been characterized in many different lights. According to most definitions, a Jew is either born into the Jewish people, or becomes one through religious conversion. The debate centers around some of the following questions:
  • Mixed parentage debate: tries to identify when people with mixed parentage should be considered Jewish, and when they should not be.
  • Conversion debate: centers around the process of religious conversion in an attempt to specify which conversions to Judaism should be considered valid, and which should not.
  • Life circumstances debate: focuses on whether people's actions (such as conversion to a different religion) or circumstances in their lives (such as being unaware of Jewish parentage) affect their status as a Jew.
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Within mainstream Jewish religious communities

According to Jewish law (Halakha), only a convert or a child born to a Jewish mother is counted as Jewish. Although an infant conversion might be contemplated 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 old for a girl, 13 for a boy. This standard is applied within Orthodox Judaism, which accepts Halakha as normative, and Conservative, who determine Halakha based on alternate interpretation.[1]

Other Jewish denominations, which do not accept Halakha, have adopted different standards. North American Reform Judaism and British Liberal Judaism accept the child of one Jewish parent (father or mother) as Jewish if the parents raise the child as a Jew.

All mainstream forms of Judaism today are open to sincere converts; all denominations accept converts converted by their denominations.

In modern Israel

The phrase Mihu Yehudi (transliterated from Hebrew: ?מיהו יהודי "Who is a Jew?") came into widespread use when several high profile legal cases in Israel grappled with this subject after the founding of the Jewish state in 1948. Such issues arise due to religious laws. A Jew is either born a Jew or converts to Judaism. Orthodox authorities hold that a valid Jewish marriage can only exist between two Jews.

All Jewish denominations and groups within the Jewish community agree that it is possible for anyone to become a Jew.

The controversy

The traditional definition of a Jew is "someone born to a Jewish mother or who has converted to Judaism." The requirement for a valid conversion is that the candidate for conversion understand the obligations of being a Jew, show commitment to fulfilling these obligations, (for a male) to undergo Brit milah (ritual circumcision) or one of its exceptions, perform immersion in a mikvah, and satisfy the scrutiny of a Beit din, or rabbinical court. The beit din act not only as judges but as witnesses in the course of conversion, and it follows that its members must be kosher, i.e. suitable and qualified for these purposes.

Three basic disputes

The controversy of "who is a Jew" concerns three basic disputes:
  1. The North American Reform and British Liberal movements have changed some of the traditional requirements for a Jewish identity in two ways: (1) 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 traditional 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 grandchildren of Madeleine Albright (who was raised Catholic and was unaware of her Jewish heritage) would all be Jews according to halakha (traditional Jewish law), since their mother's traceable female ancestors were all Jewish. (2) 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 siblings die as a result of circumcision.)
  2. Orthodoxy asserts that non-Orthodox rabbis are not qualified to form a beit din. This has led to the fact that non-Orthodox conversions are generally not accepted 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.
  3. 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. 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.

The definition issue has also become an important issue in Israeli politics. The Law of Return partly relies on the traditional interpretation of who is a Jew, albeit with the added stringency that the person wishing to make aliyah to Israel — that is, to immigrate under the Law of Return — should not have formally converted to another religion. However, the Law of Return also includes the children and grandchildren of Jews, regardless of their religious affiliation, and by law includes any conversion performed outside of the State of Israel, regardless of who performed it, against the protest of Orthodox Jews. Conversions within Israel are legally controlled by the Orthodox Israeli Chief Rabbinate, as are marriages; therefore, a non-Orthodox convert is not able to marry a Jew in Israel today. It should be noted that there have been several cases of the Rabbinate rejecting conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis in the United States, when the presiding Beit Din decided that the conversion was not performed properly.

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.

Religious definitions

For the most part, a Jewish identity has been seen as a religious question stemming specifically from the Torah and Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) as a whole. As a result, religious authorities, namely scholarly rabbis, have traditionally taken the responsibility of determining the criteria for being a Jew.

Traditional (Halakhic) perspective

According to the traditional Rabbinic view, which is maintained by all branches of Orthodox Judaism and Conservative Judaism today, only Halakha ("Jewish law") 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.

Therefore, Halakha defines a "Jew" as someone, male or female, who is:

(1) The child of a Jewish mother, known in English as "matrilineal descent". This law is derived from Deuteronomy 7:4.[2][3]


(2) A person who converts, meaning, formally converted to Judaism under the auspices of a halakhically constituted and recognized Beth Din ("Court [of Jewish-Torah Law]") consisting preferably of three learned rabbis acting as Dayanim ("judges"), but also possibly two learned and respected lay members of the community along with a rabbi who then issue a Shtar geirut ("Certificate of Conversion").

This standard for conversion is mandated by a long series of codes of law and texts, including the Talmud, through the Shulkhan Arukh, and subsequent interpretations that are held as authoritative by Orthodox Judaism and Conservative Judaism.

As a result, mere belief in the principles of Judaism does not make one a Jew. Similarly, non-adherence by a Jew to the Jewish principles of faith, 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 Orthodoxy or Conservatism unless they formally convert, even if raised practicing Judaism.

Those not born to a Jewish mother may become accepted as Jews by the Orthodox and Conservative movements through a formal process of conversion to Judaism in order to become "true converts" (Geirei tzedek in Hebrew), and they are then accepted as Jews by the movement doing the conversion. In addition, Halakha requires that the new convert commits himself to observance of its tenets; this is called Kabbalat Ol Mitzvot, "Acceptance [of the] Yoke [of the] Commandments", including but not limited to the observance of Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath), Kashrut (the dietary laws), Niddah (husband and wife abstaining from sexual contact during menstruation).

Conversion is still relatively rare, and typically discouraged. Orthodoxy does not accept the validity of non-Orthodox conversions; it recognises only those conversions in which the new convert accepts and undertakes to observe Halakha as interpreted by the teachings of Orthodox Judaism. Non-Orthodox rabbis do not require that converts make this commitment, and therefore the conversions they perform are not accepted under Orthodoxy.

Conservative Judaism 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).

Perspective of Reform, Reconstructionist and Liberal Judaism

In recent times, two theologically liberal Jewish groups have allowed people who do not meet the classical halakhic criteria to define themselves as Jews. The two groups are Reform Judaism, which began in mid-19th century Germany, and Reconstructionist Judaism, which began in mid-20th century United States.

Both exist primarily, but not exclusively, in the United States, where Reform Judaism is the denomination of about a third of all Jews who affiliate with any movement [4]. Reform procedures for conversion to Judaism often vary from traditional standards, and under the patrilineal descent resolution, Reform rabbis may accept a person as a born-Jew even if the mother is non-Jewish. 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 (or not 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," opening the possibility that non-religious "acts of identification" could be deemed sufficient by some Reform rabbis.

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.

Today many Reform Jewish and secular American Jews born from originally gentile mothers consider themselves to be Jews, although they are not considered Jewish by Orthodox Judaism or Conservative Judaism. Not every movement outside the United States affiliated with the World Union for Progressive Judaism (an organization to which both Reconstructionist Judaism and American Reform Judaism belong) accepts patrilineal descent.

Jews who have practiced another faith

The traditional view is that Jews are a people, not merely followers of a religion, and that those who adopt the beliefs of another religion are still Jews, though apostates (see Meshumad). However, for most legal and ritual purposes the Jewish status of such a person is in abeyance: for example they cannot be counted for a minyan (quorum of 10 for a service). (There is an exception where the conversion was under duress: see Anusim.)

Some Reform Jews view 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].[5] In practice however this may mean much the same as the traditional view.

All Jewish denominations welcome the return of any Jews who have left (or who have been raised in a faith other than) Judaism, and these individuals would not require a formal conversion, though they would be expected to abandon their previous beliefs and adopt Judaism. Males would be required to have either a full brit milah (ritual circumcision), or a symbolic one (if already circumcised other than by the Jewish rite). In some communities, Orthodox and otherwise, people who return to Judaism may be required or encouraged to participate in a ceremony similar to conversion, including tevilah (immersion in a ritual bath) and appearance before a beth din to undertake "kabbalat chaverut" (reaffirmation of Jewish status).

A particularly acute form of this question concerns former converts to Judaism who no longer 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 provided that the original conversion was valid. However, in an increasing number of 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.

Conversion to Judaism

Main article: Conversion to Judaism

A ger tzedek is a "righteous convert" or more literally a "convert [of] righteousness".

The laws of conversion to Judaism are based in discussions in the Talmud. Jewish law is generally interpreted as discouraging proselytizing, and religious conversion is also discouraged. This is due to the Jewish belief that all nations have a share in the World to Come, and thus, do not need to accept Judaism and live as Jews. Rabbis are technically required to reject potential converts three times, and only if they remain adamant to then convert them. This is on two grounds:
  • The laws Jews require of themselves are more stringent than they consider to be required of other nations; a person who would be considered derelict of religious duties under Jewish law could easily be, without change in action, an exceedingly righteous gentile.
  • Jews have suffered regular and often severe persecution throughout the ages; a proselyte is exposing himself to potentially mortal danger.
However, a rabbi convinced of the prospective convert's sincerity may allow him or her to follow the process of conversion, and thus appear before an established three-judge Jewish religious court known as a beth din ("religious court") to be tested and formally accepted.

There is no specific time frame for the conversion process and procedures. The prospective convert is taught the basic laws and beliefs of Judaism, and must show an ability to keep the laws and make a commitment to keep them. See How does one convert?. A male convert is known as a Ger (or Ger tzedek, meaning "righteous convert") and a female is a Giyoret, from the Hebrew root word gar ( גר ) (to "live" or "sojourn [with]".)

As discussed above, some denominations of present-day Judaism do not follow traditional Jewish laws concerning conversion. As a result, their converts are frequently not recognized by other Jewish denominations.

Definitions in the State of Israel

The situation in Israel is ambiguous.

Israeli rules for aliyah creates Israelis but not Jews

One area where the traditional definition of Jew is not followed by the Israeli government is in deciding who qualifies to make aliyah ("immigrate [to Israel]") and acquire citizenship under the Law of Return.

The requirements here differ significantly from the definition of a Jew under halakha, in permitting anyone with only one Jewish grandparent, or as non-Jewish spouses of Jews, to move to Israel. A person with only one Jewish grandparent is presently allowed to make aliyah but that does not confer the status of Jew upon that person according to Jewish law either in Israel or anywhere else.

Thus, because the secular Israeli Law of Return functions in far broader terms than would be allowed according to Judaism's definition of "Who is a Jew?" it is consequently estimated that as a result of the easing of standards, 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 claiming to have one Jewish grandparent or by being married to a Jew. The net result has been that Israel has not resolved the question of how such a large group of immigrants who are now Israelis but who are still not Jews should be formally converted to Judaism.[6]

Current Israeli definitions however, specifically excludes Jews who have openly and knowingly converted to a faith other than Judaism. This would include Jews that have adopted a Faith as Messianic followers of Y'shua (Jesus) retaining a Jewish lifestyle and identity yet being strictly rejected by the state as non-Jews as of 1977 in the law passed by the IMFA. This definition is not the same as that in traditional Jewish law; in some respects it is a 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, but in other respects it is narrower, as the traditional definition includes apostate Jews.

The "Law of Return" distinguishes between two categories of subjects:
  • A Jew (One who has been born to a Jewish mother or converted)
  • A non-Jew, who is "a son/daughter or a grandson/granddaughter of a Jew, and the spouse thereof" who remains non-Jewish, but nevertheless "is granted equal right of Aliyah and absorption" - this is the paragraph 4A of the law.
The repatriation visa granted to an applicant includes an indication of whether it was issued according to paragraph 4A or 4B.

Until recently, the Israeli identity card had an indication of nationality, and anyone who made an aliyah as "4A", had NOT been marked as a Jew. Instead of that, there was an empty field.

Israeli laws governing marriage and divorce

A second area where the definition of Jew is relevant is in marriages and divorces, which are under the jurisdiction of the Israeli Interior Ministry (see Ministry of the Interior) which, unlike the Law of Return, defines Jews strictly according to halakha. The Israeli rabbinate generally defines what standards and interpretations of halakha will apply for Israeli government purposes. Israel does not have civil marriage.

Israel does, however, acknowledge marriages and legal agreements made in other countries. As a result, it is not uncommon for unwed couples to travel overseas, and return married.

In terms of ethnicity, most secular Jews think of their religious beliefs as a matter of ethnicity.[7] Ancestral aspects can be explained by the many Jews who view themselves as atheist and are defined by matrilineal lineage[8][9] or a Cohen (Kohen) or Levi, which is connected by ancestry.[10] The question of “who is a Jew” is a question that is under debate.[11] However, matters concerning Marriage in Israel are controlled by strict Orthodox standards and disputed issues can be resolved by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Thus, while this issue is in dispute, it is not concerning marriages in Israel. Issues related to ancestral or ethnic Jews are solved by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.[12][13][14][15]

The rules governing converts who can marry in Israel follow the rules of Orthodox halachic conversion. Under an orthodox view of Halacha, a conversion to Judaism is not kosher unless it is properly Orthodox. Even Actual Orthodox conversions are scrutinized. Some who have followed an Orthodox conversion cannot get married In Israel. An American man who underwent an Orthodox conversion in Metairie, La., 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.<ref name="jstandard" />[16]

If one’s ancestral line of Jewishness is in doubt, one cannot marry, and the people getting married are required to take classes to keep their lineage pure. If they are not ancestrally Jewish or of a proper conversion and, thus, ethnically Jewish, then they cannot marry in Israel.

According to The Jewish Week:
As a result, non-Orthodox Jewish couples are forced to submit to an Orthodox marriage ceremony with an Orthodox rabbi and are compelled to attend classes on family purity. No Israeli may marry outside his faith community. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish or whose Jewish ancestry is in doubt are unable to marry at all inside Israel.[17]

Ancestral lineage is also important when attempting to marry a Cohen in Israel, since the rules governing who they can marry are dictated by Halachic law as interpreted by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. In the article, “Not Jewish enough to marry a Cohen”,
Irina Plotnikov cannot marry the man she loves, Shmuel Cohen, even though she is Jewish according to halakha (Jewish religious law). A rabbinic court in Jerusalem ruled recently that even though Plotnikov is Jewish, she is not eligible to marry a Cohen since her father is not Jewish. According to Jewish tradition, people with the surname Cohen are descendants of the priests that served in the Temple in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.<ref name="Cohen" >Barkat, Amiram. "Not Jewish enough to marry a Cohen", Haaretz, 2005-02-18. Retrieved on 2007-08-28. 

Also, the children of illegitimate unions are affected with a stigma.
There are two related worries: intermarriage and illegitimacy. Children of marriages forbidden by Jewish law, or halacha (for example, unions between a kohen and a divorcee, between close relatives, or between a man and a previously married woman who did not undergo a halachic divorce) are considered mamzerim or chalalim ("defiled" cohanim). Mamzerim and their offspring, stigmatized with an irrevocable brand of illegitimacy, may marry only other mamzerim. A split in the nation, the argument goes, will follow: mamzerut will increase dramatically and it will be difficult to keep track of mamzerim to ensure they do not wed non-mamzer Jews.<ref name="jewishweek" />

The option of getting married overseas is very expensive and cost-prohibitive.[18] Despite this expense, one out of every ten Israelis who married in 2000 did so abroad mainly because there is no other option for those unable to marry within the state of Israel: 2,230 couples who married abroad consisted of two Israeli partners. Another 3,660 couples consisted of one Israeli partner and one non-Israeli.<ref name="fourhundred" />

Either ancestral or ethnic Jews cannot get married in Israel. There are examples of converted Jews who cannot get married in Israel because their marriage does not conform to Halacha. There are even Orthodox Jews whose conversion is challenged along Halacha laws and, thus, cannot marry in Israel. The children of marriages forbidden by halacha are also stigmatised. Jews are both defined along ancestral and ethnic lines—as in a Cohen (Kohen) or Levi and a Convert, who is ethnically recognized. A person who is not ethnically or ancestrally Jewish, according to halachic law as interpreted by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, cannot marry in Israel. An attempt is under way now to enable a halakhically non-Jewish couple to marry, endorsed by some Orthodox rabbis and by the Israeli Law Minister, but facing some opposition from the Ultra-orthodox.

Israeli definition of nationality

A third relevant area is in the registering of "nationality" on Israeli Teudat Zehut ("identity card"). This is also controlled by the Ministry of the Interior, which has generally only registered as a "Jew" those who meet the traditional definition according to the (Orthodox) Chief Rabbinate. However, in a small number of cases the secular Supreme Court of Israel has forced the ministry to register as Jews individuals who did not meet that definition.

Other approaches to Jewish identity

There have been other attempts to determine Jewish identity beside the traditional approaches given above. 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-Semitism and the definition of Jew

Although there are many reasons that the definition of Jewishness is important within the Jewish community, the question "who is a Jew?" has often been used by anti-Semites as a precursor to persecution or discrimination against Jews as an ethnic group.

The Nazis, for example, ruled that anyone with one Jewish grandparent was either a Jew or a Mischling, and therefore subject to persecution (see Nuremberg Laws). Similarly, Neo-Nazis and modern anti-Semites often attempt to trace the ancestry of individuals to determine the existence of "Jewish blood" in a family tree, rather like the racist efforts to identify individuals with "African blood" in recent American history.

Further antagonistic debate of the question occurred at the Wannsee Conference, which formulated the "Final Solution" (the Holocaust). This is depicted in the film 'Conspiracy' and Wilhelm Stuckart, played by Colin Firth actually says "'Who is a Jew?' is another question, you see...", having argued with the casual and all-encompassing SS definition enunciated by Reinhard Heydrich.

Views of secular philosophers

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."

Sociological and anthropological approaches

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.[19][20]

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."[21]

Non-religious ethnic and cultural definitions

The traditional European definition of Jewishness (although it was not evenly distributed across Europe - the least developed European countries were almost always more prone to see the Jews in racial terms) differs markedly from the American progressive definition. In the former USSR, "Jew" was a nationality or ethnicity de jure all the way to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today, laws concerning Jewishness are unwelcome and unethical almost anywhere in the world, but de facto the situation remains.

The European definition is traditional in many respects, and reflects not only how the Europeans saw Jews, but also how Jews saw themselves. For the purposes of the secular Jewish nationalist movement the Israeli Law of Return draws on external understandings of Jewishness (such as the Nazi and Soviet views), rather than traditional Halakhic criteria.

"Ethnic Jew"

"Ethnic Jew" (also known as an "assimilated Jew," see cultural assimilation) is a term generally used to describe a person of Jewish parentage and background who does not 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 complex concepts of what makes a person "Jewish". Since "ethnic Jew" is often used to distinguish non-practicing from practicing ("religious") Jews, a more precise term might be "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 secular. Typically, secular 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, even to the point, for example, of participating in many Jewish holiday traditions, or of retaining a diet that stays close to the kosher laws.

"Ethnic Jews" include atheists, agnostics, non-denominational deists, Jews with only casual connections to Jewish denominations or converts to other religions, such as Christianity or Buddhism. Many secular Jews reject the traditional Halakhic view of Jewish identity being based on matrilineal descent, and consider someone Jewish if either parent is Jewish.

Religious Jews from any of the main Jewish denominations reach out to ethnic Jews, and ask them to rediscover Judaism. In the case of some Hasidic denominations (eg. Chabad-Lubavitch) this outreach extends to active proselytizing.

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 ethnically Jewish, but Israeli immigration will accept that person because they have an ethnically Jewish connection, and because this same degree of connection was sufficient to be persecuted as a Jew by the Nazis.


"Half-Jewish" is a term used to describe people who have one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent, though it is regarded as controversial. It has no significance as a religious category: while the major Jewish denominations apply different rules in determining the status of children of mixed unions, all versions of these rules agree that a person is either Jewish or not. As a result, many Jews reject the use of the term "half-Jewish," while others may use it to imply that Jewishness is more of a cultural or ethnic identity than a religious one.

People of mixed heritage may not fully identify as Jewish, regardless of whether they embrace Judaism as a religion. In the United States, because of intermarriage, the population of "half-Jews" is beginning to rival that of Jews with two Jewish parents, especially among young children. "Half-Jewish" is emerging as an independent identity with its own traits of tolerance and adaptation, but also perhaps a sense of detachment, spiritual indifference, or unclear identity.[22][23][24]


The Juhurim

Juhurim, a group of people from the North-Eastern Caucasus, who have been living in that area since 722 B.C.E., consider themselves Jewish and have a patrilineal rule of Jewish descent. There has been recent speculation about their identity but recently D.N.A. tests have shown that Juhurim are consistent with the rest of the Jewish population.

The Lemba

The Lemba, a group of people from southern Africa, consider themselves Jewish. For them, it is the father who determines who belongs to their tribe. See also: Jews and Judaism in Africa

In liberal secular societies

Members of most secular societies accept someone 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 the Reform movement within Judaism have also adopted this viewpoint.

In societies with race laws or traditions

Whether someone is viewed as a Jew may make, and has historically made in some times and places, the difference as to whether a person may have a certain job, live in certain locations, receive a free education, live or continue to live in the country, or even be imprisoned or officially murdered. Within the Roman Catholic Church, especially in times such as the Inquisition, it was usually considered that if Jewish people made a sincere conversion to Roman Catholicism, they were no longer legally regarded as Jews. During the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, though, Jews were forced to convert, but thereafter referred to as New Christians and still treated with suspicion. In Nazi Germany, being a Jew was considered as a racial designation, and one could not become a non-Jew in the eyes of the government by being non-practicing, marrying outside the religion, or converting to Christianity. If one grandparent, either male or female, were Jewish, even someone who actually adhered to the Christian faith could be subject to the race laws.


1. ^ Robinson, George. Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs and Rituals. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. ISBN 0-671-03480-4, pgs 229-232.
2. ^ "Question 10.11: What is the origin of Matrilineal Descent?", Shamash, accessed March 16, 2006.
3. ^ " What is the source of the law that a child is Jewish only if its mother is Jewish?", Torah.org, accessed March 16, 2006.
4. ^ 39% of affiliated US Jews belong to Reform
5. ^ "Question 18.3.4: Reform's Position On...What is unacceptable practice?", faqs.org, accessed March 16, 2006.
6. ^ Jonathan Rosenblum, "Our New Mixed Multitude", Jacob Richman Home Page, accessed March 16, 2006.
7. ^ Rich, Tracey R. “What Is Judaism?”
8. ^ Katz, Lisa. “Who is a Jew?” About.com
9. ^ “Judaism in Israel” About.com
10. ^ “The Tribe: The Cohen-Levi Family Heritiage” cohen-levi.org
11. ^ Weiner, Rebecca. “Who is a Jew?” Jewish Virtual Library
12. ^ Sheleg, Yair. “Amar: Bnei Menashe are descendants of ancient Israelites” Haaretz
13. ^ Freund, Michael. “Right On: A miracle of biblical proportions” Jerusalem Post
14. ^ “Chief Rabbi Says Indian Community Descended From Israelites” Jewish Virtual Library
15. ^ Tigay, Chanan. “Israel’s Chief Rabbinate rejects some diaspora Orthodox conversions” Jewish Standard
16. ^ Meyers, Nechemia. “Are Israel’s marriage laws ‘archaic and irrelevant’?” Jewish News Weekly
17. ^ Mazie, Steven V. “Changing Israel’s Marriage Law” The Jewish Week
18. ^ Ilan, Shahar “Four hundred brides for 1,000 men” Haaretz
19. ^ "What does it mean to be Jewish", Jewish Historical Museum, accessed March 16, 2006.
20. ^ Monica Săvulescu Voudouris and Camil Fuchs, Jewish identity after the Second World War, Editura Hasefer, Bucharest, 1999, p. 16. ISBN 973-9235-73-5
21. ^ Monica Săvulescu Voudouris and Camil Fuchs (1999), p. 56.
22. ^ Half-Jewish.net
23. ^ HalfJew.com
24. ^ Daniel Klein and Freke Vuijst, The Half-Jewish Book: A Celebration, New York: Villard Books, 2000.

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Writing system: Alefbet Ivri abjad 
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Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people, based on principles and ethics embodied in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) and the Talmud. According to Jewish tradition, the history of Judaism begins with the Covenant between God and Abraham (ca.
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principles of faith such as a creed or catechism that is recognized or accepted by all. In effect, the Shema, a prayer that a religious Jew offers daily, through participation in services or use of phylacteries, is the only Jewish creed.
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The Talmud (Hebrew: תַּלְמוּד) is a record of rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, customs, and history.

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