Britain’s Supreme Court has weighed in on the thorny question of Jewish identity. By a 5-4 vote on December 16, the judges upheld an earlier court ruling that publicly funded Jewish schools in Britain could not admit students by what it deemed to be ethnic considerations. Such schools, said the court, had to look beyond the Jewishness of an applicant’s mother when determining admissions. From now on, questions of religious practice and commitment must come into play.
Many in the Jewish community expressed surprise and outrage over this decision, seeing it as an unwarranted intrusion into the inner workings of Jewish law. Even the dissenting judges opined that the majority’s view “insists on a non-Jewish definition of who is Jewish,” and “has no basis in 3,500 years of Jewish law and teaching.”
Well, not quite. Actually, for millennia, Jews have struggled with the question of whether we are a people, defined by descent and common ancestry, or a religion, defined by faith and practice. In fact, Judaism is the only major contemporary world religion that grapples in this manner with questions of ethnicity and peoplehood. The reason for this lies in the distant past.
In the ancient Near East, ethnicity and religion were fused; being a member of a tribe or nation meant being a part of that group’s culture and religion and subscribing to the group’s national god. One important corollary of this ethno-religious reality is that it was impossible for a non-Israelite man to become an Israelite. (In a patriarchal society, women could assimilate into the clan by marrying an indigenous man.) “Conversion,” as we think of it today, did not exist.
Enter Alexander the Great. Through his empire, Alexander introduced to the lands he conquered a new notion: the multi-ethnic civilization. Starting with Alexander, it was possible for people of many tribes and peoples to join Greek civilization by dressing Greek, speaking Greek, worshipping Greek gods and adopting a Greek form of government. Hellenistic culture cleaved religion from ethnicity and allowed anyone born anywhere to enter into a Greek way of life.
This shift plunged Jews into an identity crisis from which we have never fully recovered. Are we a people? A religion? Some combination of both?
The major post-Hellenistic religions are just that: religions. To be a Christian is to profess faith in Christ. To be a Muslim is to declare that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is his prophet. Peoplehood is not an issue for them. Only Jews, with their pre-Hellenistic roots, have been bequeathed this dilemma.
As with all core issues of identity, this one is more readily understood by looking at those who attempt to cross boundaries: converts, those who enter Jewishness from the outside, and apostates, those who are born Jewish but abandon Jewish practice.
Rabbinic Judaism responded to Alexander’s challenge by embracing the notion of converts. The Talmud lays out procedures for how a gentile can become a Jew through a commitment to Jewish practice and a process of circumcision (for men) and full-body immersion in water (simulating a kind of rebirth).
This acceptance of converts, however, has not been uncontroversial. While there are many texts that speak of the convert’s equality (and even superiority) to the born Jew, other texts speak much more disparagingly about converts, revealing a deep insecurity regarding the project of dissolving ethnic bonds by allowing for conversion.
Here and there, one finds contemporary Orthodox rabbis who go so far as to discourage their followers from entering into marriages with converts. In support of that position, they can point to a passage in the Talmud stating that “converts are as terrible for Israel as a rash.” This shocking — and extremely troubling — stance actually illuminates a deep truth: Every move toward strengthening the notion of Jewishness as a religious identity weakens the ethnic and national notion of Jewishness.
Apostates have been no easier to deal with. Some sources in the Talmud suggest that once one is born a Jew, one can never lose that status. Even a conversion to another religion has no effect in the eyes of Judaism, according to this view. But other sources suggest that gross violations of Jewish law — and certainly adopting another religion — effectively strip one of Jewish citizenship. After all, if one can convert into Judaism, why shouldn’t one be able to convert out?
The controversy has never fully been resolved. There were rabbis in the Middle Ages who claimed that for an observant Jew to marry a Jew who had abandoned Sabbath observance was no different than intermarriage with a gentile. And occasionally today one hears suggestions that secular Israelis are essentially Hebrew-speaking gentiles. While jarring for many to hear, such statements reflect the view that prioritizes the definition of Jews as a religious group.
Absent a return to the Iron Age, it seems Jews will be stuck with this dilemma and the difficult choices it presents for the foreseeable future. The best strategy would seem to be to identify the importance of peoplehood, on the one hand, and religion, on the other, and to draw strength from both.
Judaism as a religion benefits from Jewish peoplehood and the sense of warmth, belonging and unconditional love and commitment that come with it. At the same time, simply distilling Jewishness down to a content-free ethnic categorization determined by one’s mother threatens to trivialize and marginalize any sense of Jewish purpose and mission. Only a concept of Judaism that sees a religious mission embedded within an ethnic group — albeit with the possibility of both entry and exit at the margins — can do justice to the richness of Jewish history.
Now that the British court case is decided, Jews, as an ancient people and faith, must even more urgently return to a basic question: Do we share a future as a result of our common ethnic past, or is our common past irrelevant if we don’t share a religious vision for the future?
Rabbi Ethan Tucker is dean and chair of Jewish law at Mechon Hadar in New York City. He served on the American Jewish Committee’s Task Force on Jewish Peoplehood.