Halacha and “WHAT is a Jew”

At least in the press, and sometimes in the Knesset, it appears that “Orthodoxy” approaches Halacha in lockstep, that the definition of what Halacha is and means is uniformly recognizable, adopted by all. That, at least, is what appears when Who is a Jew is raised as a legislative offering. Unfortunately for the self-appointed among us, Halacha is, and always has been, flexible, adaptable, adjusted by generations to apply to the Modern of that period (who worried about Shabbas elevators in the Middle Ages?). And worse, even among the hochmim among us each is likely to interpret Halacha different from ones equally passionate advocate next door!

GM: “To get French citizenship involves exclusively the applicant and no external testimonies. He gets a temporary residence and working permit and after a few years spent decently in France and speaking basic French he gets automatically the citizenship… In my mind, something like that is missing in Israel, a possibility to prove one’s intrinsic, spiritual conviction of being Jewish, without any extrinsic  affiliations, testimonies or certificates.”

DT: Being the “state of the Jews” already describes Israel as intrinsically different than “France” or “Russia,” Georges. And Jewish history in the Christian Diaspora and, most graphically, our recent experience with the Shoah immediately describes the need for a “state of the Jews.” Which is why, when you ask me for precision in arriving at a definition of “Jew” you and I approach the question from different directions with different implications.

Israeli Orthodoxy (already a very diverse category involving the “moderns” and numerous “traditionals” and then there are the anti-Zionist “traditionals” (moshiakh to deliver the state, present state illegitimate, etc) to the Netorei Karta, whatever they are! All are presumably “halachic” in observance but when you get down to the nitty-gritty of the interpretation of, and application of “halacha” each is likely to come to a different understanding.

Which is just a long way of saying that even among the “halachic communities” one is unlikely to find a one size fits all agreement on Who is a Jew!

In fact, to my knowledge, the only uniform definition of “Jew” is defined first by the Church in the fifteenth century as limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) vs mala sangre (black, or Jewish blood) updated by secular Christendom in Germany as Mischlinge in the Nuremberg Laws.

In promulgating the Law of Return for the state of the Jews it was important to the purpose of Zionism, in lieu of the Holocaust and the Nuremberg Laws, to provide as wide a definition as possible in response.

Despite that Israel is still struggling with its identity as state of the Jews it still represents the founding Zionist role as refuge to the Diaspora, and to whatever definition of “Jew” the next Holocaust may impose.

About the Author
David made aliya in 1960 and has been active in Jewish issues since. He was a regional director for JNF in New York, created JUDAC, Jews United to Defend the Auschwitz Cemetery during that controversy; at the request of Jonathan Pollard created and led Justice for the Pollards in 1989.
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