The Definition of Jewish

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Who is a Jew?


One hundred years ago, in 1904, hardly anyone would have asked that question. Then it was assumed that a Jew supports the Jewish religion. Then, despite German Reform and the recently founded American Conservative movement, Torah true Orthodoxy was assumed. It was THE Judaism. Jews and non-Jews agreed on this particularly because Yiddish was very much in vogue, securing the definition of Jew not only from the view of religion but also from the vantage of language.

The story is told that in 1904 a bearded Jew arrived in New York by boat from Russia via Germany. His brother, already in New York for one year, met him at the dock. It was Shabbat and the brothers agreed that they needed to walk to their apartment as it is forbidden to ride on the Shabbat. As they walked they came through a small park. The June day was beautiful and among others a man smoking a cigar sat on a bench reading a Yiddish newspaper. He was wearing rust colored trousers and a green shirt. His bald head was uncovered. Seeing this the newcomer said to his brother (in Yiddish of course), “America is a wonderful country for us Jews.” “How do you know that when you’ve only been here one hour?” asked the brother. “Well, look”, said the newcomer. “In this country even the goyim read Yiddish.”

Today, the question “who is a Jew” is not so easily answered. This became acute after Israel gained its independence in 1948 and the Knesset passed a law known as “The Law of Return” in 1950.

According to that law every Jew has the right to immigrate to Israel. The law does exempt criminals and others considered a danger to Israel. It also includes converts to Judaism. That, however, has been a real problem for Israel because the Orthodox will not recognize as a Jew anyone converted by Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionists. This means that American Jews who were not born to a Jewish mother would not be considered Jewish even if converted by a Reform or Conservative rabbi. It also means that all who are considered Jews have a right to Israeli citizenship but that this is not true of most converts. Evidently, this law was to be the answer to the age-old Jewish problem which denied Jews equal citizenship in the lands in which they and their ancestors had been born for generations. Excellent examples are Poland, Spain and Germany.

Now the name “Jew” is derived from the Hebrew word “Yehudi” which relates to “Judah”, one of the twelve sons of the patriarch Jacob. Judah was also the name of one of the twelve tribes of Israel, whose names were all derived from the twelve sons of Jacob. Therefore the word “Judaism”, i.e. our religion, is associated with the Hebrew word “Yehoodeem” which may mean “People of God”, depending on who is asked.

In Malachim or 1 Kings 12 and in Divrey Hayomim 10 (also known as Chronicles), the Torah tells us how Israel and Judah split into two kingdoms after the death of Solomon. Thereafter, a Yehoodee was a citizen of Judah, including the tribes of Benjamin and Levi. The book of Esther calls Mordecai a “Yehoodee” but also a member of the tribe of Benjamin (son of my right hand).

In the 6th century before the common era, Assyria conquered Israel (Malachim 17) so that only Judah remained, so that its people became known to themselves and all the world as “Yehoodeem” or Jews.

According to Jewish law, a Jew is anyone whose mother is Jewish or who has been converted to Judaism. Therefore, a person who believes everything the most Orthodox Jews believe but was not born to a Jewish mother and has not undergone conversion is not a Jew. However, an atheist who has nothing to do with the Jewish community but was born of a Jewish mother is still a Jew. This is derived form Vayikrah or Leviticus 24:10. (Go ahead, look at it in your Chumash). Accordingly, a convert is a Jew and nothing may be said about his conversion. It is as valid as Jewish birth.

There are some Jews, mainly those who belong to the Reform movement, who view as a Jew those who have a Jewish father and who practice Judaism even if they were born of a non-Jewish mother. Torah true Jews, i.e. the Orthodox (Greek for “straight believers”) do not recognized conversion performed by any but an Orthodox rabbi. This is the reason for the statement by the Agudath Ha-rabonim of 1997 that Conservative and Reform Jews are “outside of Judaism”. The purpose of this statement was to welcome into Orthodoxy all those now belonging to these two groups. The belief here is that if Conservative and Reform were abolished then all Jews would become Orthodox. It is more likely that in that event millions of Jews would leave us altogether.

Now all this still leaves us with the question “who is a Jew”? I shall therefore settle this issue once and for all. Here is the answer:

  1. Any person who is born of two Jewish parents is a Jew.

  2. Any person born of one Jewish parent and who raises his children in Judaism is a Jew.

  3. A person who adheres to the Jewish religion and honestly lives by our tradition and says of himself that he is Jewish is a Jew.

  4. Evidently, all who formally convert to Judaism in any manner that they find justified and in a manner regarded as legitimate by any branch of Judaism is a Jew.

  5. A person who belongs to another religion is not Jewish no matter who his mother or father is or may have been.

  6. A person who was born Jewish but denounces the Jewish people and seeks our end is not a Jew.

This is now the definitive list of who is or is not Jewish. There need be no further argument about this.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Man's Ascent to Reason (2003) & the forthcoming Football & American Identity.

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