Who Is a Jew? Responding to D’s Challenging Thoughts

D’s Letter

Shalom Rabbi,

A few days ago, I posted on social media that from DNA perspective I am not fully a Jew.   Genetically speaking, only 25% of my DNA is Jewish. 

Quite a few Jews commented to my post with rather mean words.  They said, “you are not really a Jew” and “Leave us alone, we don’t want you. You are a Goy.” 

Their comments got to me much more than I expected.  I face antisemitism outside of the Jewish community and I don’t want to face it from fellow Jews.

Now, on the other hand, some people said that since my mom is Jewish, I am Jewish.  It does not matter what is the Jewish percentage in my DNA.  I am aware of this concept but I can’t say that it makes sense to me.

Joseph from the Torah (Jacob’s son) had children with a non-Jewish woman.  And yet, his children, Ephrayim and Menashe became two of the Israelite Tribes.  The same case is true for Moses.  He had children with a non-Jewish, Midyanite, woman, and yet, his children were still Jews. 

I researched the issue further and learned what was one of the reasons for that law to be in effect.  At the time, there was no definitive way to know who the father of a child was.  In contrast, the mother of the child could be recognized with ease.  However, in today’s day and age, we have DNA testing that can prove Jewishness and paternity.  So, I ask again, why should it matter? 

Recently, I was talking to my Jewish friend, who is, just as I am, Jewish through her mom.  We both agreed that this whole concept is outdated.  Why should someone whose father is Jewish and  grew up as a Jew through one’s whole life and knows nothing outside of Judaism have to convert just because one’s mother is not Jewish?  There are patrilineal Jews that keep many more of the Jewish laws than I do.  They know much more than I do and yet they are considered non-Jews.  I do not subscribe to this ideology and I think I will continue to defend Patrilineal Jews forever. 

Please, I’d appreciate it if you will let me know what your perspective and knowledge on this subject. 

With respect and thanks, D.

My Answer to D.

Shalom D.,

Thank you for writing and for the issues you raise.  I really like the way you think and express yourself, and basically agree with your position.  Let me elaborate a little…

As you probably know, there are many denominations in Judaism, just as there are in other religions.  In Islam you have the Sunni and Shia (and probably sub-denominations within those two).  Christianity has the Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans and many more, and Judaism has Orthodox, Conservative and Reform as the main denominations.  Regardless of the religion, each denomination interprets the sacred scriptures (Koran, Old and New Testaments, Torah and Jewish Law) differently.  There is nothing wrong in any of those different interpretations, they can and should live one next to the other.  One would eventually affiliate with a specific denomination according to one’s beliefs and feelings.

Jewish Orthodoxy is basically much less egalitarian than other Jewish denominations.  I grew up in an orthodox household during childhood and a youth.  I didn’t like it at all and because of that, I turned to be a secular Jew.  in Israel, during those years, there was no other choice: one could be either orthodox or secular.  There were no reform or conservative denominations to speak of, then.  Thank God, there are today; not too many, but they do exist, and growing.

Indeed, Orthodox Jews do not recognize in patrilineal lineage as a proof of someone being a Jew by birth, for the reason you mentioned in your email. 

The point you made about Josef that married an Egyptian woman, and Moses that married a Midyanite woman is correct.  In fact, there are many testimonials in Tanakh (The Hebrew Bible) and Mishnah that support your assertion.  The Jewishness of the newborn was determined according to the father probably until the end of the Second Temple Era. 

The trend of recognizing the Jewishness of the newborn according to the mother started with Ezrah the Scribe (about 450BCE).  After the Return of the First Exile from Babylonia he preached and acted to expel non-Jewish women and wives.  However, the Halakha that recognizes a Jew according to one’s matrilineal genealogy is attributed to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yoḥay (~100CE).  The Talmud cites his interpretation to verses in Deuteronomy (7:3-4) that bans interfaith marriage, regardless of Gender, and explains why:

וְלֹא תִתְחַתֵּן בָּם בִּתְּךָ לֹא תִתֵּן לִבְנוֹ וּבִתּוֹ לֹא תִקַּח לִבְנֶךָ׃

 כִּי יָסִיר אֶת בִּנְךָ מֵאַחֲרַי וְעָבְדוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים וְחָרָה אַף יְהֹוָה בָּכֶם וְהִשְׁמִידְךָ מַהֵר׃

You shall not intermarry with them: do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. 

For they will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods, and Adonai’s anger will blaze forth against you, promptly wiping you out.

The concern is clear: the children in this relationship could stray away from Judaism and turn to other faiths.

Going back to the Orthodox definition of who is a Jew, it is a binary definition.  If your maternal grandmother was a Jew, then obviously your mother is a Jew and so you are.  No ifs nor buts.  It does not matter if you believe in God or not.  You are a Jew, whether or not you keep a single Mitzvah in Torah.  You are 100% Jew, even if your maternal grandfather and all your father’s lineage is not Jewish. 

Conversely, your father may be a decedent of the most revered Orthodox Rabbi and he keeps most of the Mitzvot.  But your mother is not a Jew (because her own mother was not a Jew).  You will be, then, 100% non-Jew.  If your mother converted to Judaism before your birth, then you will be 100% Jewish.

All Non-Orthodox denominations accept both patrilineal and matrilineal lineages as a proof of Jewishness.  I myself am one of those who accept either lineage as a qualifier to being a Jew.  Understanding the intent of the Torah Law I would focus the effort on embracing the intermarriage couple with love.  I’d expose the whole family to the beauty of Jewish life and culture, and strengthen their Jewish root.  I’d familiarize them with Jewish values and what it means to be a part of the Jewish People and Family.  By doing all that we can mitigate the fear expressed in Deuteronomy.

This leads me to yet another view of who is a Jew, or is eligible to the privileges that Jews have.  I refer to the Law of Return in the State of Israel.  This law deals with those who have the right to become Israeli citizens upon their immigration to the State Israel. 

The Law of Return defines that a Jew is eligible to become an Israeli citizen upon immigration (Aliyah) to Israel.  In this law, a Jew is whomever is born to a Jewish mother or was converted to Judaism.  For the law, the conversion that is done outside of Israel is valid regardless of the denomination.  The spouses of the Jewish person, his/her children and their spouses, and his/her grandchildren and their spouses are also eligible to the same rights as the Jewish person. 

In essence, the Law of Return mirrors the definition of the Nazis to who was a Jew and faced the threat of extermination.  It so turns out that many that enjoy the status and rights of the Jews according to the Right of Return are non-Jews from the pure Orthodox halakhic point of view. 

This situation creates some complications with other laws and authorities in Israel.  Israeli law authorizes the Rabbinate to perform marriage and divorce, as well as burial.  This may create some conflicts and unpleasant situations, that I feel are out of the scope of this conversation.

I encourage you to read more about my views about what is a Jew and the key tenets for Jews.

The last point I want to make refers to the mean responses you received.  Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b:12) teaches that “anyone who whitens the face of another in public it is as shedding bloods.”  Basically, anyone who humiliates another in public, it is as if s/he spilled the blood of the humiliated person.  This colorful image depicts the humiliated person becoming pale, the blood flows out of one’s head.   When the Talmud uses the term “shedding bloods” it means murdering, actually or metaphorically.   The lesson from this teaching is that humiliating someone in public equals to the murdering of that person.  Talmud continues the discussion regarding the severity of this transgression and lists it as a transgression that cannot be redeemed.   This teaching is only one facet of my understanding of the Verse This teaching is only one facet of my understanding of the Verse “Love to your fellow as yourself; I am Adonai.” (Leviticus 19:18).

Those who were mean in their response and embarrassed you in public, transgressed the “You Shall not Murder” Commandment.  In my humble opinion, they are much less of a Jew than you are.

Take care and be well, as you continue studying and developing your own values and ethics.  You are doing fine!

Warm Blessings,

Rabbi Emanuel Ben-David

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