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Benor credited some of those answers to a key point of Jewish law: that anyone born to a Jewish mother is considered Jewish, regardless of what he or she believes. More Orthodox than Conservative and Reform people said that being Jewish is compatible with believing that Jesus was the Messiah, suggesting that many who answered the question in the affirmative were referring to that point of law.
Yet Benor also said that it points to a shift in attitude, and to a growing belief that it’s possible to be both Jewish and Christian.
Eckstein, for his part, downplayed the contradiction between traditional Judaism and the idea of Jesus as the Messiah.
“Jesus as Messiah is not a foreign concept at all,” Eckstein said. Traditional Jews believe in the concept of the Messiah, Eckstein argued, just not in Jesus himself having been the Messiah. After all, Eckstein said, Jews don’t reject as not Jewish members of the Chabad Hasidic sect who believe that their dead rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the Messiah.
“We disagree with them fundamentally, but we still incorporate them as part of the Jewish people,” Eckstein said of Chabad messianists.
One side effect of the blurring religious lines is the growth in the number of people who somehow qualify as Jewish. As definitional divisions once firm grow fuzzier, and as increased intermarriage opens Jews to the notion of mixed Jewish and Christian identities, the number of people recognized as having some sort of Jewish identity grows. While the Pew survey estimates that there are 5.3 million Jewish adults the United States, the survey also estimates that the number of adults with a Jewish background or a Jewish affinity is 8.9 million — a full 3.7% of America’s population.
“There are so many people who are the children of intermarriage, or who are married to non-Jews, who do practice elements of both religions,” Benor said. “The more Jews who are married to non-Jews, the more likely other Jews are to accept intermarriage and to accept that kind of syncretism, or mixing.”