Are We Jews by Choice or Blood?

Judaism As Free-for-All Should Be What We Want

Thicker Than Blood: Why is it so hard for us to define who is a Jew? Leonard Fein believes it’s a great thing to be Jewish by choice.
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Thicker Than Blood: Why is it so hard for us to define who is a Jew? Leonard Fein believes it’s a great thing to be Jewish by choice.

By Leonard Fein

Published January 14, 2013, issue of January 18, 2013.
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Back when he was Israel’s Minister of Justice, the irrepressible and ever-creative Yossi Beilin put forward a proposal for secular conversion to Judaism. As he explained, “It is simply unimaginable that in the 21st century, a time in which most of world Jewry is not religious, we should continue to grant certain religious establishments the right to define ‘who is a Jew.’”

Beilin’s argument was straightforward: “Why is someone like me allowed to be an agnostic Jew while a convert to Judaism is not? Why must a non-Jewish atheist or agnostic go to a rabbi in order to become a Jewish atheist or agnostic?”

Or, more elaborately, “We must… give people… who wish to be identified as Jews the right to join the Jewish people on the basis of their own self-definition. I envision a situation where a non-Jew — who does not claim membership in another religion — turns to the local Jewish community and asks to be registered as a community member. The community would ask for references from two Jewish community members, as is customary upon joining certain movements or clubs.

Once the community is convinced that the reasons for joining are pure and that the motivation is straightforward, it would register this new Jew within its ranks without providing her or him with a religious ceremony. If the new member later chooses to marry within a Reform context, the Reform movement would require a Reform conversion; similarly the Conservative and Orthodox movements. The new Jew would then decide whether to undergo that procedure. From the standpoint of the Jewish community, however, the individual would be considered a Jew based on self-definition.”

The Beilin proposal went nowhere and was soon enough forgotten. But why the reluctance to endorse the kind of inclusiveness the Beilin proposal intended? Why did so few people consider what its rejection implied?

In the end, there can be only one reason, and the reason is blood. For to reject the idea of a Jewish people whose members have defined themselves as Jews is to define Judaism as chiefly a biological category, leavened somewhat by conversion.

Ponder the implications of that: If being Jewish is about having Jewish blood, then Judaism is a race. Do we believe that?


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