Project of IISHJ

Who is a Jew?

The Jewish Humanist, August 1988

The “Who Is A Jew” question is a critical issue in Jewish life today. Orthodox authorities in Israel and in the Diaspora are seeking to achieve the power to force all Jews to accept their definition of Jewish identity. Reform and Conservative leaders, eager to appease the Orthodox, are not anxious to recognize a purely secular definition of the Jew. And secular Jews, especially young ones, are now beginning to succumb to the new assaultive fundamentalist propaganda that theistic religion is the only way in which Jewish identity can be maintained and preserved. “No davening [praying], no Jews,” it says.

Growing intermarriage among Diaspora Jews also makes this question critical. The Jewish status of countless thousands of sons and daughters of Jewish fathers is now in question. If they love the Jewish people, but do not want a religious conversion because they are not religious, they will be excluded. Plus, there is the humiliation of Jews, who know themselves to be Jews, having to undergo a ritual test they do not believe in in order to become what they already are.

All these people need our help. If the orthodox and conservative authorities have their way, the Jewish people will continue to shrink into a hard core of religious fanatics. A bold generous counter-statement is necessary to prevent this tragedy.

The Jewish world is confused on this issue.

Religious authorities have for so long been in charge of Jewish life that even many non-religious Jews think that they have the right to determine the criteria of Jewish identity. An inappropriate nostalgia prevents them from dealing with this question with integrity.

In Western Europe and North America, the prevailing definition of the Jews as a member of a religious denomination and nothing more makes it difficult for many Western Jews to understand how one can be Jewish and not be a “believer.” Even secular Jews pretend to be religious in order to conform to the social expectation of what it means to be Jewish. The history of this definition—the fearful attempt of emancipated Jews to deny their national identity lest they be accused of dual loyalty—is largely forgotten. And we are all victims of this cowardly compromise.

Zionism has also provided some mischief. While, to its credit, it has emphasized the national and ethnic character of the Jewish people, it has tended to stress the incompleteness of Jewish identity outside of life in the state of Israel. Diaspora Jews, if they are not religious, end up being shadow figures of ethnicity.

Liberalism has also provided its trouble. Given the history of racial and religious prejudice, most liberals hate all forms of involuntary identity. As a result, they want Jewish identity to be a purely voluntary act. If you want to be Jewish, you are. If you do not want to be Jewish, you are not. However, commonsense indicates that there are many, many Jews who despise being Jewish who indeed are. Excluding them from Jewish identity does not do justice to who they are. Ethnic identity is generally an involuntary identity. Pretending for the sake of some illusory self-mastery that Jewish identity can be discarded when it is inherited is foolish. Neither conscience nor residual antisemitism will allow it.

Our resentment of our historic enemies also poses a problem. On the whole, liberal Jews will allow deviations from the traditional theistic norms provided that the deviant does not join the “enemy.” Atheists and practitioners of transcendental meditation can stay in the fold, But Jews who become Christians or Muslims cannot. Now this distinction is irrational; if Jewish identity is a religious identity it does not make sense. When the Supreme Court of Israel excluded Brother Daniel, a Catholic monk from Jewish identity, they even went beyond Orthodox rejection. His parents were Jewish. He had suffered persecution during the Holocaust period. He had left Poland to live in Israel because he identified with Jewish nationality. He simply saw himself as a national Jew with a different “religion.” But he foolishly expected consistency from liberals and secularists who viewed him as a traitor.

Internal racism is another source of difficulty. Jewish social practice belies official propaganda. While many Jews publicly applaud the religious definition of the Jew, they privately make insidious distinctions between born Jews and Jews by choice. They regard the former as being more authentically Jewish. A thoroughly assimilated Montana rancher with a Jewish mother is “more Jewish” than the Dutch humanist immigrant to Israel who identifies with the Jewish people, masters Hebrew and immerses herself in Jewish culture, Even if she hypocritically chose a religious conversion—which many Gentile kibbutzniks do—it would make no difference. Conservative Jews have responded timidly to the issue and to this confusion. They accept the right of rabbis to determine Jewish identity. They simply want Conservative rabbis to have the right to be considered kosher authorities.

Reform—especially American Reform—has responded more boldly. In recent years [1983] they have championed the cause of paternal descent. They want children of Jewish fathers to be given equal status to the children of Jewish mothers. But they still adhere to the supremacy of religious arbiters. In the end, non-Jews who want to broaden the list of kosher authorities to include Reform rabbis.

At the other extreme we have the proposal of certain secularists like Haim Cohen, the former chief justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, who want to make Jewish identity purely voluntary, an act of personal will and decision. Jews who do not want to be Jews are not Jews. And individuals who want to be Jews, who regard all other Jews as illegitimate—like the Black Hebrews—are also Jews. Neither history, culture nor social context are relevant.

It seems to be that an appropriate answer to the question “Who Is A Jew?” must fulfill the following criteria.

It must recognize that for most Jews, Jewish identity is involuntary. We are born into the Jewish people. We do not choose to be Jews. We discover that we are Jews. Hopefully we will enjoy what we are. But there is no guarantee. Choosing to be Anglo-Saxon or Chinese is not an option.

It must include people with two Jewish parents or with only one. A father is just as good as a mother. After all, he most likely gives you your last name.

It must make no ideological criterion for Jewishness. There are Jewish theists and Jewish atheists. There are Jewish communists and Jewish fascists. There are rabbinic Jews and Christian Jews. There are Jews we are proud of and Jews we are ashamed of. If we are a normal ethnic group we cannot pretend to be what we are not.

It must provide for some identification with the historic Jewish people. “Bizarre” people who deny that Jews who are normally regarded as Jews are really Jewish and who affirm that they alone are Jewish—like certain Black religious sects in America—cannot be taken seriously. There has to be some identification with the history and fate of the acknowledged Jewish people.

It must allow all men and women of goodwill to join the Jewish people, whether they be religious or secular, theistic or humanistic. No formal ceremony or certificate is required. The informal acceptance of the Jewish community which the individual wants to join—whether it be the synagogue or the kibbutz—is sufficient.

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Note on sources: The Jewish Humanist  was the monthly newsletter of The Birmingham Temple. The periodical Humanistic Judaism was the quarterly journal of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The Center for New Thinking was Wine’s adult learning program beyond Humanistic Judaism. Selections from Wine’s books are appropriately cited.
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