Who is a Jew

This is my first blog, so please bear with me as I attempt to articulate my thoughts.

Over the last few years I have become increasingly frustrated with -amongst other things – the rise in the autocracy demanded by both the ultra-orthodox and the very liberal left. They have become more (vocally) radical in attempting to impose their views on the rest of world Jewry. From Brooklyn to Jerusalem we hear demands that only those converted by certain Rabbonim (some of those excluded are generally accepted as observant) or have a kesuba from an “approved” authority, are Jews; that Men should not be forced to sit with women on public transport; the LGBTQ community should be ignored and excluded from our society; Chained Women (Agunot) must remain in limbo, and the list goes on. From California to Jerusalem we have the demands of Women of the Wall, who never seem to be happy with whatever they’re given. Both sides trying to make political capital, instead of listening to each other and solving issues.

So, what’s my problem? Well, approaching 60, I could just be getting to the “crotchety old man” period of life, or it could be I just don’t get it! I think I have “crotchety old man” syndrome, with an element of “Prisoner of 2nd Avenue” thrown in. I sometimes find it difficult to differentiate between the opposing forces, their apparent lack of common sense, decency and respect for each other’s views.

So, for this blog I’m concentrating on “who is a Jew”. I was brought up in a religious home and went to religious schools to the age of 16. Halachically (spiritually and traditionally too), I am a Jew, according to the current religious definition (parents, grandparents, great-grand parents, and great-great grandparents have halachically accepted kesubas), as are my children and grandchildren, so I have no personal axe to grind. I disagree with the views of some of my friends and relatives on religious matters, as they do with me, but was always taught by my father z”l that your views should never be imposed.

This is my dilemma, until approximately 2100 years ago, if your father was Jewish, that was good enough, although to complicate the matter further there are some authorities that say this interpretation goes back to when the Ten commandments were given. Then a group of (learned) men decided to re-interpret the rules and since that time the Jewish lineage is matrilineal. If we’re honest, for most of us, determining who is a Jew can become a little complicated if we go back far enough in history (personal and global).

This is my perspective.

Abraham, was the 1st Jew, and for the sake of argument we’ll assume that Sarah accepted Judaism at more or less the same time, so whichever way you look at it Isaac was Jewish. Rebecca the sister of Laban – Father of Leah and Rachel – was probably not Jewish as we know Laban came from a family of idol worshippers. So far…not too many Jewish women from our matriarchs, but again let’s assume they all “converted” – No don’t ask who did the conversion and would the Israeli Chief Rabbinate accept it, read on..

Fast forward to Joseph, who, married Osnat (an Egyptian) and had 2 children, Ephraim and Menasheh.

With the children of Jacob from Bilhah and Zilpah (Jacobs concubines) and Joseph, at least half of the 12 tribes of Israel are descended from non-Jewish mothers.

Then our greatest Rabbi, leader, sage etc.- Moses – married Zipporah, a Midianite and had 2 sons.

But if we go with the interpretation that being a Jew followed the paternal line prior to the ten commandments, all the above are halachically Jewish. Still a bit hit and miss and a lot of ifs and buts.

I suppose in early times (Abraham-Jacob) there was a shortage of “Yiddisher Girls” as the religion was in its infancy. For Joseph in Egypt there was no choice, and Moses was stuck in the middle of a desert, so they all had good excuses.

So, let’s move on 500 years, and Solomon builds and dedicates the 1st Temple to G-d. A great and wise King of a United Israel. 12 Tribes to choose a “nice Jewish girl” from, and bring home to Mum and Dad for approval but no, he had 1000 wives and concubines. We know that one, Naamah was an Ammonite – mother of Rehoboam who was King after Solomon – and the remaining 999, were from a variety of places and cultures including Egypt, Moab, and Sidon.

I ask the question why, if it was reasonable for the Rabbonim to change the law 2100 years ago, or interpret it as being changed from “Matan Torah” why could the law not be changed again to allow one Jewish Parent. I am told by learned Rabbinic sources that we no longer have a Sanhedrin to make these momentous decisions. In the great traditions of Jewish learning I answer that with another question. Surely, we do have a Sanhedrin in some format, as there is a forum in Israel (The Chief Rabbinate) that has pronounced whom they are willing to accept as a Jew (either by birth or conversion). I can only assume they don’t want to make the change, less so debate it.

We are a small tribe, yet have the diversity of a large nation. Some may see that diversity as making us stronger, some as weaker. The world in which these laws were made – where we were perhaps living in isolation – there may have been a call for such a strict interpretation. In an open and modern society, whilst we may still need protection against the anti-Semites, and anti-Zionists, those who have some claim to being Jewish should be welcomed. No one is suggesting forcing every child of a Jewish father to become a Jew, but if they want to, let’s not treat them like 2nd class citizens. If it was good enough for Ruth the great-grandmother of King David and great-great-grandmother of King Solomon, to merely declare “wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God.” (Ruth 1:16), then surely, it’s good enough for the rest of us mere mortals.

I can only trace my family tree back with certainty to my great great-grandparents, if I was able to go back further I’d probably find that there was some intermarriage and that historically I’m Jewish by practice and tradition rather than by birth. Thing is I can’t prove it either way, and don’t need to.

It is apparent that both in Israel (where the government need the ultra-orthodox parties to keep them in power) and in the UK (where the Chief Rabbi’s office seems to acquiesce to their demands) we are giving a minority group huge power and effect over our lives. Each time we give in to them it encourages them to demand more. Even if the Chief Rabbis office doesn’t know that, surely the Government of Israel is more adept at dealing with those holding us to ransom.

Just to add complication and inconsistency to the whole situation, The Law of Return (which allows all Jews to return to Israel) has since 1970 included “the right of entry and settlement to people with one Jewish grandparent and non-Jewish people who were married to Jews”. Will the ultra-orthodox want this repealed, or will they be happy to accept these “non-Jews” as citizens with full obligations to the country but without full benefits.

But the real question is.. would you disown your son, daughter, grandchild if they married someone not Jewish, because effectively you are losing two people to Judaism, and we need all the help we can get.

What would Tevye (Fiddler on the Roof) say…On the one hand…but on the other hand…

About the Author
Born in Manchester and educated at Hasmonean in a religious environment, Mike now runs his own business specialising in design an implementation of residential and business AV systems .
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