For Jew and non-Jew alike, nothing perplexes like the fundamental question of who is a Jew. Rabbinical Judaism is matrilineal, a person whose mother was Jewish is a Jew . Karaite Judaism is patrilineal, going by the father. There are “Jews” who claim the title ethnically but who do not practice Judaism or have any connection to the Jewish community. So, who is a Jew? To hear a podcast on this topic please click here.
The Nation of Israel
We have become accustomed to thinking of Judaism in light of the modern definition of religion: a group of people drawn together by common beliefs, customs, and practices. There is also the unfortunate perception that religion is something one does once a week. While the label of religion describes certain aspects of Judaism, it does not cover even half of the definition. Are Jews an ethnicity? An ethnicity is drawn together by a common ancestry, physical traits, and DNA. Yet, so many people have joined Judaism through marriage or conversion, that we can hardly be defined as an ethnic group; and such a definition ignores our common beliefs. For Judaism, even the term ‘nation’ falls short, in that most nations form around a common geography. Judaism predates the acquisition of a common geography, and continued for long periods in the absence of one.
In his book This is my G-d (1959), the American Jewish writer Herman Wouk addressed this complex issue. As an orthodox Jew, he describes Judaism in dynamic terms (pg 16-17):
Various disputants all hold that Jews are a race, or a nation, or a religion, or a people, or a sect, or a state of mind in non-Jews. Agreement on the topic does not occur (except among Anti-Semites, who know that Jews are international fiends).
[O]ur history ascribes several strange things to us that no other people today claim. The first that we began as a family. A nation of some [fifteen] million souls descends from one man, Abraham, and one tribal house, Israel.
[B]lood is not decisive in this kinship. Faith is. A man or woman who undertakes to worship the G-d of Abraham, and to follow the law given at the hand of Moses, can become a member of our ancient house. In this way, though we are not a faith that crusades for converts, our numbers have much expanded, and we have gained some of our noted leaders and scholars. Scripture too tells of such adopted kin. By the reverse, through apostasy, we have lost many Jews.
[O]ur nation came into existence before it had a land. We received our statutory law from Moses in the desert. Nationhood for other peoples means first of all living together in one place. Jews are peculiarly a nation in time. They sprang into being not in a certain place, for even their father Abraham was a wanderer, but at a certain time, long before they could call any soil their own. This fact, I believe, lay under their ability to survive so long the loss of their soil. The Holy Land was their historic fulfillment, but not their origin.
The strangest thing of all is the purpose that our tradition ascribes to our history and origin. It is frankly supernatural. Tradition says the Creator gave our folk the task of bearing witness to [H]is moral law on earth. This is what the battered phrase “the chosen people” means. Our history, in the Scriptures and afterward, is in the main a melancholy account of our failure to live up to this high election, and catastrophes that came from our failure. But the election stands, the mission remains, and we live because these things are so. That is what our faith teaches.
Wouk describes many of the challenges that face us in the task of defining Judaism and precisely who is a Jew. There is an age old adage that whenever two Jews are found together there are three opinions. Jews can hardly agree as a whole that the sky is blue even when we can look up and see it. Someone will venture a counter argument. It is thus the case that there can be no definitive answer. One man’s Jew is another man’s goy (foreigner/gentile).
In terms of what label best defines Judaism, if not completely, we can be best described as a nation. Like any nation, it has a state and that state holds authority. Hashem is the divine king and the Torah the divine Constitution. There are in that document established corporeal authorities like the Cohanim (priests) and Levites who teach the Torah and enact its ritual laws, a King or Shofet (chieftain/ruler/judge) to lead the people, Sarim (administrative judges/government ministers) to adjudicate minor disputes and to govern the people, and Hakhamim (wisemen) and elders who are the natural leaders of the people, who lead our communities. It is to these authorities that one must turn for judgements in cases which involve questions of national importance (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 17:9). The judgments of the appropriate authorities are binding on all who observe the Torah whether or not they concur with the ruling as communities, interest groups, or individuals, much as Supreme Court decisions are binding in the United States whether or not the majority of the people at large, a given state or locality, or some individuals dissent.
Since the destruction of the Temple, these institutions have not existed. We have a record of many of the traditions, practices, and enactments the predated that time. The written Torah, scriptures, and commentaries as well as these ancient practices form the foundation of all modern Jewish movements. Since that time, our communities have been led by Hakhamim or Rabbis as our wise elders and it is they who make judgements on behalf of our nation today. There are several forms of Talmudic Judaism answering to differing groups of Rabbis but in general agreement about law and practice. There is also the Karaite Jewish movement which began to coalesce 1200 years ago from the congregations that did not recognize the Talmud as containing the correct traditions.
Like any nation, the Jewish national authorities choose who among them is to be regarded as a citizen and who may be naturalized as a citizen. Like most nations, there is endless debate on how to define membership and how to admit new members. As a peculiarly Jewish nation, it is fractious and cannot agree as to who is and is not a citizen.
The third Mishnaic order, Nashim (women/wives), includes seven tractates of which the seventh is Kiddushin. In this tractate the Mishnaic Rabbis unanimously rule that Jewish descent is matrilineal. A Jew is a man or woman whose mother was Jewish. This is based on limited scriptural evidence and of the two solitary parental arguments (patrilineal and matrilineal) this is by far the weaker textual argument. That said, the judgement is made with some sound reasoning. Details like this are not expressly written out in the Torah such that there will be flexibility to handle unforeseen circumstances in the future. In some cases, judgements can be made in which a weaker scriptural argument is chosen over a stronger one in order to achieve some goal or abate some crisis. One powerful argument in favour of the matrilineal approach is that we always know who the mother of any given child is. Until recently determining paternity conclusively was not possible.
It has been rumoured for millennia that in the Roman Era Jewish men were marrying non-Jewish women. This left many Jewish women unmarried and barren. Even if these non-Jewish women converted to Judaism, there was still the problem of Jewish women losing out. Genetic evidence would seem to confirm these romours. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is transmitted from the mother almost without contribution from the father. mtDNA studies of Ashkenazic (European) Jews have found that most share common ancestors with a number of women of Italian and Mediterranean origin as far back as 2000 years ago. Jews also made up at one time an estimated 10% (about 8 million) of the total population of the Roman Empire. It would seem that Jewish men were indeed marrying Roman women.
Following the destruction of the Temple, Jews integrated into Roman society to a large degree and began to rise through Roman social strata. Soon they gained admittance to the Equite class (which included many high ranking bureaucrats and government officers), giving Jewish men access to higher born Roman women. The historian Josephus was himself a member of the Flavian house, close to the Emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. He would have had access to marriage with some of Rome’s highest born women. These marriages were advantageous and brought the rewards of wealth, power, and pedigree. It makes some sense, then, that the Mishnaic Sages would have chosen to require a Jewish mother to determine one’s status as a Jew. In that way, fewer Jewish women would be barren and the children would be raised more reliably as Jews.
Some lineages continue to be patrilineal despite this ruling. The status as a Cohen (priest) continues to be based upon patrilineal descent, among other restrictions. In Rabbinical tradition the status of Levite is a patrilineal status. A Levite is a Jew whose father was a Levite. Rabbinical traditions are thus not entirely matrilineal. The Reform movement accepts the child of either parent as Jewish and even some Orthodox Jews argue for the same practice.
As I stated above, from a textual perspective, the patrilineal argument is the stronger argument.The early lineages of B’reishit (Genesis) include male names from Adam down to Noach and thence to Avraham. There are few mentions of the women. Avraham passed his blessing on to Yischak. Rivka, although a member of the House of Bethuel, joins the tradition and the narrative, only with the question of marriage to Yitschak. The same is true of Leah and Rachel in their marriages (and those of their two servants) to Yakov. It is clear that the status of membership in this holy house is patrilineal. This goes still father. Yakov has twelve sons, we know all of their names: Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Issachar, Zevulun, Yoseph (whose sons were Menasseh and Ephraim), Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. Each son is the founder of a tribe of Israel and each tribe is named for its founder, save for Yoseph whose tribe carries his sons’ names, despite Yoseph’s marriage to an Egyptian.
Yakov’s daughter Dinah (which means “avenged”) is worthy of mention only because of the incident with Shechem. There is the question in B’reishit (Genesis) 46:26-27 where it states that Yakov’s party was alternatively 66 or 70 members when they traveled into Egypt. There has been some considerable debate over who were these four additional persons. Verse 46:7, however, states that Yakov went to Egypt with his Sons and their sons, with his daughters (plural: b’not בנוֹת) and his son’s daughters. That daughters are mentioned in the plural means that Yakov had at least one daughter in addition to Dinah, in that there seem to be as many as four more people in his party who go unnamed, he may have had as many as five daughters in total. This additional daughter (or daughters) is not even worthy of being named. These daughters did not found tribes and nothing more is said of them in the scriptures.
The Book of Ruth also offers some evidence here. In chapter 4 verses 19-22 a lineage is given from Boaz and Ruth to Yishai the father of David. This is a direct male lineage from start to finish. Again, the only reason that Ruth is even worthy of mention or of a place in the biblical narrative, is that she carried the male lineage of a prominent Levitical house (the Ephratites) through levirate marriage. This lineage was then passed down through the male descendants of Ruth to David.
There is also some scriptural evidence in favour of a matrilineal descent, although much weaker. Perhaps the most significant is found in Vayikra (Leviticus) 24:11:
And the son of an Israelite woman blasphemed the Name, and cursed; and they brought him unto Moses. His mother’s name was Shlomit, the daughter of Divriy, of the tribe of Dan.
The scriptures offer a few other examples that favour the matrilineal position. One is that of Hiram, the bronze worker who made the brass pillars, basins, and many other items for Shlomo’s Temple. Hiram was the son of an Israelite widow (of Naphtali) and a man of Tyre (a non-Israelite). Yet he was considered Israelite enough to be employed working on the Temple (1 Melekhim [Kings] 7:13-47).
The scribe and Zadokite priest Ezra made Jews who had returned from the exile cast off their foreign wives and the children of those wives. Some have argued that by so doing Ezra was switching to matrilineal descent. In fact, the Karaite interpretation is that these wives were pagans and were not practicing Judaism. They and their children were cast off because they were pagans, not because the women were not born Jewish. Nevertheless, it is a strong argument for Jewish motherhood.
The Karaite Jews follow the tradition that is textually stronger: the patrilineal descent determines who is a Jew. This was the primary means of determining who was a Jew prior to the Mishnah. That said, the Karaite Council of Hakhamim have on rare occasions made exceptions and declared as Jewish, Karaites whose mother only was Jewish. These were clearly the exceptions to to rule.
Since 1983 the Reform movement, ostensibly a Talmudic form of Judaism, has accepted as a Jew one whose mother or father is a Jew. Thanks to the 14th Amendment, an American attains citizenship when born within the legal jurisdiction of the United States. Congress has also enacted laws providing that when one is born abroad, one is eligible to US citizenship when one parent is a US citizen. Judaism is more than just a nation, we are more than just an ethnicity. Citizenship in the Holy Nation of Israel should be taken a little more seriously than that in a modern nation-state; more seriously than the accident of birth. Bemidbar 15:31 states:
Because he has despised the word of YHVH, and has broken His [Hashem’s] commandment; that person shall completely be cut off (karet – כּרת), his iniquity shall be upon him.
What is the status of a Jew who refuses to practice? Who is not a member of a Jewish community, observes none of the laws, and has no connection to Judaism? In fact, there are self-identified “Jews” who live this way. Many Jews have been historically involved in leftist causes to the extent that many are secular leftists–socialists and atheists for all intents and purposes. Many of these would-be Jews claim their identity purely as an ethnicity and do not believe that there is any need for community involvement or practice as a part of the Jewish identity. These secular-leftists simply do not want to be identified as “white” and thus use their ethnic “identity” as Jews to grant themselves a minority status. Ben Shapiro speaks of this phenomenon frequently and has argued that as many as half of self-identified Jews are truthfully secular leftists.
I strongly disagree with any definition of Judaism or Jew in which one may claim to be a Jew without being an adherent of Judaism (mic drop). I would like to note that for the purposes of making aliyah (immigrating) to Israel, the Law of Return should be as expansive as possible. In returning to the land one is demonstrating a desire to live among Jews. It is also true that in many places, especially Eastern Europe, Jews are persecuted for their ethnic identity irrespective of beliefs and there must be a place where those individuals can go for safety.
A person who is born to Jewish parents is certainly eligible to be a Jew, but in my opinion, cannot claim the status unless they are practicing Judaism, part of a Jewish community, or otherwise connected to Judaism. DNA evidence of “Jewishness” is likewise troublesome. DNA does not profess a belief. It would thus take more than mere birth or genetic evidence to prove Jewishness, although DNA could be used to help determine eligibility to be a Jew in certain circumstances. More on this in the section on DNA below.
There is a formal process for a person who is eligible to be a Jew to return to the practice of Judaism: Teshuva (return). A secular Jew who returns to the practice is known as a Baal Teshuva (master of the return). For those of us who undergo this process it is often a rather easy and informal process of simply learning Torah, Jewish law and tradition, and practicing with the community.The process often culminates in a late Bar/Bat Mitsvah, wherein the Baal Teshuva leads a service as is traditional for a thirteen year-old. This should be a more complex process that requires some kind of oath and a demonstration of dedication to community and tradition–a minor conversion of a sort.
Both and Neither
In my opinion, and that of many other Jews, one should be considered eligible to be a Jew if born to either a Jewish father or mother. There is scriptural backing for the use of both lineages, as I have shown above. Being eligible should not, however, automatically grant a person the status and label of a Jew. Some formal process must be undertaken with Jewish authorities to confirm the return to the practice. The title of Jew (Israelite) should be awarded to those who are deserving. This should be demonstrated through their dedication to Torah, Jewish practice, and/or participation in the community. Whether one is eligible through birth or is a Jew by conversion, one must believe in Judaism to be a Jew.
DNA and Judaism
Many studies have been conducted upon Jews to determine if there is a DNA link among Jewish people in general. Indeed there are studies that have found genetics links. As it turns out about 75% of self-identified Jews have ancient Middle Eastern origins. That does not mean the other 25% of Jews are not Jewish, as we are a nation which takes in naturalized citizens (converts) from many ethnic backgrounds who upon completion of the conversion process become Jews. Under Rabbinical tradition a convert is a “Ger Tsedek” or a righteous sojourner, and their children are considered full Jews. Under Karaite tradition, a convert is an Israelite as if born that way with all of the rights and privileges thereof, much like naturalized citizens of the United States.
Perhaps the most fascinating DNA studies are those performed upon Cohanim and Leviim. As it turns out, most Jews today who claim to be Cohanim, members of the priestly family descended from Aharon, have a common ancestor who lived about 3,300 years ago. This would seem to confirm the theory that the Cohanim are in fact related to one another; this would seem to confirm Jewish history and tradition on the subject. That said, having these genes does not make one a Cohen nor does lacking them deprive one of the status. There are several restrictions upon the Cohanim that could cost some people their status as Cohen. When a Cohen or Levite leaves Judaism it is arguable that neither they nor their descendants can ever reclaim that status.
There are those out there who claim that some who are born Jewish are somehow a special class of Jews to whom certain special laws apply and to others it does not. I recently encountered a strange idea out there that genetic studies will soon determine who are direct descendants of Avraham and who is not, the former being people of a special status.One can just imagine that if such an idea prevailed in Judaism soon certain Jews would be asked to sit in the back of the synagogue, or to have a reduced involvement in the service. Soon they might be asked not to come to services at all. Indeed, every holocaust must begin by defining an ubermensch and the necessarily resulting untermensch. Such concepts are incompatible with Judaism and would be unwelcome in our tradition. It is because of this kind of nonsense that I must reiterate: the Torah was given to Jews for a reason and only Jews can properly teach Torah. DNA will never be able to determine who is a direct descendant of Avraham, this is not possible, nor would it be valuable to establish such a status.
There is the question of whether DNA can establish a person’s status as a Jew. Our tradition, fairly universal Jewish tradition, says no. Once a person has converted away from Judaism they and their families cease to be Jews. Jewish movements will accept those who have simply fallen away from the practice of Judaism (as in wholly secularized Jews) back into the fold through the process of Baal Teshuva (master of return/redemption); this tradition generally does not apply to those whose families actually practiced a different religion. Thus, whether one has Jewish DNA or not does not have any standing in Jewish Halakha (religious law). It may perhaps be available as one more point in favour of a prospective convert in the process of converting back to Judaism, but it cannot establish one’s status as a Jew.
There are also those out there who believe modern Europeans are the descendants of the “Ten lost Tribes.” The lost tribes were lost, killed or acculturated to Assyria. Today, there are no lost tribes. The idea that Europeans represent these tribes is beyond the whimsical and well into the ridiculous. Nothing further need be said on that topic. The tribes are all gone, their status ceased to be relevant during the late Kingdom of Yehudah, from which our people derive the name: Yehudim – Jews. The tribe of Levi has been maintained as they have special duties under the Torah and so have the Cohanim our hereditary priesthood; such that one day these institutions can be restored. The tribe of Binyamin also continues to exist because it was the tradition of our people to preserve Binyamin after a war that nearly destroyed that tribe all together. Aside from that, modern Jews are members of the Tribe of Yisrael (Israel). The other tribes who fell away into idolatry will never return, nor would their return be of any special benefit.