The question of “Who is a Jew,” which has been inflaming passions for so long, has recently heated up once again. Almost every day seems to bring news stories that hinge on what qualifies a person to claim Jewish identity. Whether it’s Julia Salazar relying on family lore to claim she is a Jew of Color or Israeli rabbis ruling that Ethiopian Jews, like non-Jews, render wine unkosher by touching it, the question of the limits of Jewish identity is of both daily and historic importance.
Is Judaism a religion? Is it an ethnicity? Is it an expression of nationalism? Of history? And who determines the limits of this multi-faceted identity, who is in and who is out?
The truth is, the question of who is a Jew and who gets to decide are inextricably linked in Jewish law and history. In the Jewish tradition, the question of “Who is a Jew” has never been answered by the individual claiming Jewish identity, but by the group that person wishes to belong to or join, or by that group’s recognized authorities.
In other words, Jewish identity has always been subject to gatekeeping. In classic Jewish form, the question “Who is a Jew?” is always answered with another question: “Who is the gatekeeper?”
Judaism Throughout History: A Religion Or A Nation?
A major Biblical archetype for one who chooses to become Jewish is Ruth the Moabite. When Ruth expressed her commitment to follow her mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Judea, she uttered a soliloquy that still resonates:
Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the Lord do to me if anything but death parts me from you. (Ruth 1:16-17)
In her statement, Ruth lists different elements of her commitment: It is geographic (“wherever you go…wherever you lodge…where you die….”), ethnic or national (“your people shall be my people”), and religious (“and your God my God”). There are not separate components, but different expressions of what it meant for Ruth to become Judean.
For Ruth, as for Jews throughout much of history, to be Judean, that is, to be Jewish (to this day, the Hebrew word ‘Yehudi’ expresses both), meant to consider Judea your homeland, to belong to the Jewish people, and to accept the God of Israel. The idea that these aspects could be separated was inconceivable.
This notion of Jewishness was challenged by the new forms of citizenship and statehood that emerged in Western Europe and North America in the late 1700s.
As a separate people living among Europeans whose identity was increasingly national, it was in the Jews interest to define Judaism as a religion so that Jews might not be rejected by the emerging nation-states in which they lived.
A look at the questions posed by Napoleon to a 71-member Assembly of Jewish Notables or “Sanhedrin” that he convened in 1806, show that he was deeply concerned about how a group that refused to marry among the majority of the population, professed longing for a different homeland, and respected a different set of laws could become French. He posed the following questions to the Jewish leaders he had convened:
Can a Jewess marry a Christian and a Jew a Christian woman? Or does the law allow the Jews to marry only among themselves? In the eyes of Jews, are Frenchmen considered as their brethren? Or are they considered as strangers? Do Jews born in France, and treated by the laws as French citizens, consider France their country? Are they bound to defend it? Are they bound to obey the laws and to conform to the dispositions of the civil code?
The responses of Napoleon’s Sanhedrin are cleverly and diplomatically worded to conceal as much as they reveal, reassuring the Emperor that there is no reason to doubt that the primary allegiance of France’s Jews would be to France, and that they would be loyal, patriotic, law-abiding French citizens.
The theoretical underpinnings for this stance had been developed a generation earlier by Moses Mendelssohn, who, as Leora Batnitzky shows, recast Judaism as a “religion” in the modern, Protestant sense: the dimension of life that concerns theology and its implementation, in contradistinction to national, civic, and cultural aspects of life. One could therefore be a German (or any other nationality) “of the Mosaic” faith.
This paradigm of Judaism-as-religion remains dominant in the United States and other Western states to this day.
Meanwhile, a competing paradigm, of Judaism-as-nationality, arose in Central Europe during the Spring of Nations in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Proponents of this paradigm maintained that other nations would never fully welcome Jews as being a part of them and indeed, Jews should not relinquish national elements of their identities. This paradigm ultimately produced the Zionist movement and the State of Israel.
These two paradigms, the religious and the national, provide a convenient dichotomy for discussing the basic templates of what makes someone Jewish. One emphasizes “your people is my people,” and the other, “your God is my God.”
In truth, though, the uncoupling of the various components of Jewish identity has given rise to a dizzying variety of competing ideas about which component, or combination of components, makes someone Jewish.
To further complicate this, not all Jewish communities experienced modernity in quite the same way. Whereas the West was shaped by its Protestant heritage, the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe and the Muslim world, where nothing akin to the Protestant Reformation ever took place, did not experience the same tensions between religious and national manifestations of Jewishness, and likewise did not develop different Jewish denominations.
It is Jews from these communities and their descendants who constitute the vast majority of Israel’s Jews.
Thus, the two greatest Jewish communities in the world, Israel and the United States, have vastly different ideas about precisely what it means to be Jewish.
And these ideas are policed through two very different sets of gatekeepers.
The Legal Perspective
The question of what makes someone Jewish has always had practical ramifications for individuals and communities: Can I marry this person? Count them for a minyan or mezuman (prayer quorum)? Give them an aliyah? Bury them in a Jewish cemetery? Register them in communal record books? Drink wine they touched? In New Orleans during the Civil War, a controversy arose when a local rabbi tried (and failed) to excommunicate a mohel who was circumcising the sons of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers.
The question took on a national dimension upon the establishment of the State of Israel and the passage of the Law of Return, granting Jews automatic citizenship in the fledgling state.
Suddenly, an issue that communities would address on an ad hoc basis became a matter of state immigration policy and had significant ramifications for individual civil rights.
David Ben-Gurion, aware of the difficulty of shoehorning competing notions of Jewishness into a coherent policy, let alone implementing it, took a page from Napoleon’s playbook and convened his own “Sanhedrin”. In 1958, he sent a letter to fifty Jewish intellectuals and religious figures, asking them, “Who is a Jew?” In the end, Ben-Gurion crafted his own compromise. The Law of Return would recognize anyone born to a Jewish mother or who converted to Judaism through a recognized Jewish community of any denomination as Jewish for the purposes of automatic Israeli citizenship.
In 1970, the Law of Return was amended to confer citizenship on the spouse, child, or grandchild of a Jew, although it does not automatically recognize them as Jews.
Moreover, while one definition of Jewishness was adopted for the purpose of immigration, a different definition was adopted for the purposes of marriage in Israel, which was then, as now, under the control of the Chief Rabbinate.
What all this means is that “Who is a Jew?” has one answer for potential immigrants and another for potential spouses, and many who are caught in between, deemed Jewish for one but not for the other. The gap between the various definitions of Jewishness highlights not only the complexities stemming from the confrontation with modernity, but also the fact that, in practice, the answer to the question “Who is a Jew?” is contingent upon the answer to a different question: “Who is the gatekeeper?” In Israel, the gatekeeper is determined by control of the particular ministry or authority involved, or by the political party that happens to control that ministry.
Inasmuch as Israel functions as a modern bureaucratic democracy, it is inevitable that its immigration policy is a de facto gatekeeper of the Jewish people. Given the variety of different Jewish views represented in Israeli politics, the fact that different government bodies, divvied as the spoils of parliamentary politics, have divergent gatekeeping policies, while not inevitable, is not surprising. The complexity that Ben-Gurion diagnosed has still not been resolved; no attempt to map divergent ideas about “Who is a Jew?” onto a consensus policy has succeeded, and that is unlikely to change. Yet a state must function, and so the imperfections persist.
In truth, though, every synagogue, every community center, every Jewish day school polices its boundaries, explicitly or implicitly. Every community has its “immigration” policy, implemented by its appointed gatekeepers , who either reject the applicant or offer a route to become Jewish.
The analogy between immigration and becoming Jewish is apt; the Hebrew term used to connote a convert — “ger” — actually means “migrant.” In a sense, there is no such thing as “conversion” to Judaism, at least nothing akin to Paul on the road to Damascus, the archetypal (Christian) “conversion experience.” From a certain perspective, a ger is not a convert, but a naturalized Jew.
There is a further implication of the immigration analogy. In the US (and Israel), everyone is free to claim that they are Jewish—or Canadian, Norwegian, or Apache, for that matter. However, when one applies for a Canadian passport, applies for a scholarship designated for Original Americans, or presumes to speak on behalf of the Norwegian people, the gatekeepers will test those claims.
One might reject the entire immigration analogy and claim that Jewishness is purely a function of personal belief, or blood, or simply identity, whatever that means. For the most part, this is benign and tolerated. It is only when one claims a special right or status reserved for Jews—be it an aliyah to the Torah, aliyah to the Jewish state, or some unique perspective afforded by Jewish heritage—that the gatekeepers are drawn out.
The claimant to Jewishness may accuse those who scrutinize them of racism, or witch-hunting, or blood science – accusations that have been made in the news lately. But they’d be wrong.
As we have seen, the modern era has produced multiple answers to the question “Who is a Jew?” For the most part, there is an uneasy acceptance of this multiplicity of answers. We know that different streams have different criteria for determining Jewishness and for conversion to Judaism. Hillel and Shammai, too, had different attitudes toward conversion to Judaism.
We also know, for the most part, not to question someone’s Jewishness until it becomes a practical concern—in the case of a potential spouse, for example. We have learned to live—perhaps uneasily, but functionally—with different definitions and different sets of gatekeepers, and even to respect those differences. This, and not unfounded accusations, should be how we address divergent definitions of Jewishness.
For much of Jewish history, being a Jew was anything but advantageous. Anyone who claimed to be a Jew and acted in a manner consistent with Jewishness was credible; who, after all, would falsely claim to be Jewish?
We are fortunate to live in a world that has a thriving Jewish state and a successful North American Jewish community, in which being Jewish is therefore advantageous.
There is a natural tendency to view with skepticism those who rekindle a Jewish identity that had been lying dormant for centuries precisely when the Jews never had it better.
In this situation, our goals are threefold: to overcome skepticism and respect the integrity of such claims; to understand that respecting these claims does not imply that the claimant can demand acceptance by Jewish communities that answer “Who is a Jew?” differently; and to appreciate that there has never been a better time to be a Jew.
Elli Fischer is a rabbi, translator, and writer living in Modi’in, Israel and a graduate student in Jewish History at Tel Aviv University. A founding editor of The Lehrhaus, he is a regular columnist at The Forward and other Jewish media outlets. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.