Who is a Jew

One of the burning issues for Jewish people is the question of Jewish identity. Many Orthodox Jews will not accept Gentile converts unless they have undergone their particular conversion process and this has created problems for Jews married to converted spouses who wish to live in Israel. The following article is extracted and adapted from a forthcoming book by Jean-Paul Rempp.

The requirements of contemporary Judaism for conversion have little in common with the Bible’s standards. In the book of Ruth, for example, it was sufficient for Ruth to say, “Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God” (Ruth 1:16) to be accepted into the community of Israel. Although there is a great debate among Jews today about proselytisation, there appears to have been a great zeal among Jews in New Testament times to convert Gentiles, as is evident from Matthew 23:15 and possibly Romans 2:19. Conversion to Judaism was available to all Gentiles on the basis of their willingness to worship and serve the one and only God.

Until the end of the second century, when the Talmud began to be written, conversion was relatively easy. Mireille Hadas-Lebel, a lecturer in the history of religions at the Sorbonne in Paris, points out that the Talmud’s definition is very broad: “A Jew is whoever does not worship idols” (Megilla 13a). Over the centuries, however, the Talmudic laws concerning conversion became stricter and the requirements for potential converts more demanding. Rabbi Josy Eisenberg, who produces and directs the French TV programme A Bible Ouverte, observes that in ancient times, conversion was easy but now, says Rabbi Josy, converts are required to be ultra-orthodox and observe the 613 commandments as defined by the rabbis.

Who decides?

Nevertheless, in spite of some seemingly insurmountable obstacles, every year in
Israel more Gentiles convert to Judaism than Jewish people turn to Messiah. Liliane Vana, a specialist in Hebrew Law, observes that conversion is a major bone of contention among contemporary Jewry because, in spite of being a minority, the Orthodox refuse to recognise conversions conducted outside their circles. The only conversions legally recognised in Israel are Orthodox conversions but, as Mireille Hadas-Lebel, observes, although conversions carried out by other Jewish strands are far more frequent, the fact that the Israeli Rabbinate does not recognise these conversions can sometimes lead to tragedy. The monopoly claimed by the Orthodox creates tension and conflict.

The issue of conversion is further complicated by the fact that with the Jewish community there is no single authoritative definition of what constitutes Jewishness. Apart from religious considerations, the Orthodox definition of a Jew is anyone born of a Jewish mother, although others would include the offspring of a Jewish father. For Chief Rabbi René Samuel Sirat, as for many leaders
within Judaism, “defining Jewish identity remains the exclusive prerogative and duty of the religious authorities of Judaism.”

With regard to Jews who convert to other religions, Rabbi Sirat insists, “It is impossible to assert one’s faith in the religion one has joined and at the same time to remain attached to Judaism”. Writing in the magazine Sens (Direction) in memory of Catholic Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, who declared that he was both Jewish and Christian, Rabbi Josy Eisenberg pointed out: “It is a principle fixed once and for all by the rabbinical law; ‘A Jew, even a sinning one, remains a Jew’. Except, says the law – and this is the limit of its application – if this Jew commits – forgive me – the only disqualifying ‘fault’ of joining another religion.”

Culture not religion

However, in the same issue of Sens, Rabbi Rivon Krygier, replies: “The question whether an apostate Jew should be considered Jewish was discussed in the Middle Ages by the rabbis who specialised in the Law. By a large majority they stated that ‘even a Jew who sinned by committing apostasy remained Jewish.’ In such a case, if he returns to his fathers’ religion he does not need to convert back. Nevertheless, he will need to go through a ritual bath to mark his reintegration into the community of Israel.”

According to Armand and Eliette Abécassis in Le Livre des Passeurs. De la Bible à Philip Roth, trois mille ans de littérature juive, Judaism is not simply a religion, it is also a vision of the world, man and history. Judaism is not a monolithic entity, they argue, it has been expressed throughout the centuries in varied, different and sometimes contradictory ways. A Jewish person can express and live out his Jewishness in different ways. Some prominent Jews were neither religious, nor observant, they never set a foot in a synagogue or observed the kosher dietary regulations, but none can deny their extraordinary contribution to Jewish history and tradition. The definition of a “Jew” must be widened to recognise that non religious Jews contribute, in their own way, to the continuity of Jewish tradition.

Armand Abécassis is “very pessimistic about the future of Judaism in Israel and in France”. In both countries, he believes, there is a divisive Judaism which sets Jewish people against one another. Defining oneself as Jewish in opposition to the other is, says Abécassis, childish. Defining Jewishness needs to be done with the other, taking him into account whatever his ideas or religious identity may be. “He has the same right to exist as I have. So I have to protect his life, even if it is not like mine. That is what being Jewish means,” argues Abécassis. “Judaism
faces a serious identity crisis.”

The exception to the rules

Mireille Hadas-Lebel endeavours to sum up “being Jewish” in such a way that to be Jewish is to be attached to a collective body of people who traditionally have derived their identity from a religion which has evolved and diversified in more ways than can be imagined. However, says Hadas- Lebel, this does not prevent the contemporary Jews from looking for their identity outside religion and finding it, for instance, in a historical experience or a cultural heritage.

For many, “being Jewish” remains a question to which are brought a great variety of answers. Many Jews aspire to assert the plurality of Jewish identity more explicitly. Middle-East specialist Neil Lazarus, for example, declares, “I don’t like going to synagogue, but I love Israel… this country is in constant dialogue about what Judaism and the Jewish identity are.” He thinks that “Israel should be the place where every Jew, secular or other, can live according to his beliefs. The very nature of Zionism is to allow each Jew to decide what his Jewish beliefs are.”

All this has relevance for Jewish believers in Jesus. If Jewishness is determined by religion, are Messianic Jews Jewish? If Jewish identity is a matter or shared culture or history are Jews who follow Jesus excluded from that culture? What if Neil Lazarus is right when he says that every Jew must be allowed to determine their own beliefs? Is there room for Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah? Maybe. But maybe not. For it seems that however broad the definition of Jewishness, it will never be broad enough to accommodate “the Israel of God”.

Jean-Paul Rempp

This article first appeared in the Sept-Nov 2009 issue of the Herald

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