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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More generally, do we believe that blood lines should determine anything at all?

That is not a rhetorical question. Quite obviously, there are many Jews who think exactly that — and not only in the Orthodox community. That blood lines matter is a widespread and mostly unexamined belief. But upon examination, it crumbles.

Think of it this way: Broadly, societies can award status based either on ascription or on achievement. Ascription — as, for example, ascribing to the children of college alumni a preferred status. An ascribed status is a given, independent of a person’s merit, without reference to the person’s abilities. Achievement — a status earned by effort, informed by choice.

Now: Do we prefer a Judaism that is ascribed or a Judaism that is achieved? Do we prefer a Judaism that is assigned or one that is freely chosen?

It has become routine to claim that these days, all Jews, at least in America, are Jews by choice. And if we are all Jews by choice, it follows that our relationship to being Jewish — the importance we attribute to being Jewish and our relevant beliefs regarding the implications of being Jewish — is also inherently a matter of choice. We see this all around us. Atheism, agnosticism, fervent denominationalism (as also passive denominationalism), friendship and residential preferences, charitable behavior — these all vary greatly.

If I am permitted to define Judaism for myself, short of accepting some other religion, then I can come to Judaism with all manner of beliefs, values, even customs. And others can, just as freely, choose to take our dreams as their own. Is it a bad thing that so many have taken our Exodus story and woven it into their own narratives?

Judaism as a free-for-all? But isn’t that exactly what we want? And for those of us who reject that unbridled freedom — well, they are free to pick the cloister that best suits them. That is what being a Jew by choice means.

Contact Leonard Fein at feedback@forward.com


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