The big questions in life often seem deceptively simple. It frequently takes more skill just to identify the true issues as it does to resolve them. When a group of wise scholars independently address a difficult topic, we learn as much from their angle of approach as from their answer. The State of Israel registers religion and nationality separately, for security reasons. To execute this requirement, the government must determine who is a Jew–no small matter of controversy. After heated debate, a Knesset committee in 1958 instructed Prime Minister David Ben Gurion to consult with fifty scholars in Israel and abroad to resolve how to define a Jew for these purposes. Their responses are translated into English in Baruch Litvin’s Jewish Identity: Who Is A Jew?, recently republished with additional essays by Prof. Lawrence Schiffman, R. Michael J. Broyde and R. Kenneth Brander.

Who Isn't A Jew?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

I. The Inquiry

The big questions in life often seem deceptively simple. It frequently takes more skill just to identify the true issues as it does to resolve them. When a group of wise scholars independently address a difficult topic, we learn as much from their angle of approach as from their answer.

The State of Israel registers religion and nationality separately, for security reasons. To execute this requirement, the government must determine who is a Jew–no small matter of controversy. After heated debate, a Knesset committee in 1958 instructed Prime Minister David Ben Gurion to consult with fifty scholars in Israel and abroad to resolve how to define a Jew for these purposes. Their responses are translated into English in Baruch Litvin’s Jewish Identity: Who Is A Jew?, recently republished with additional essays by Prof. Lawrence Schiffman, R. Michael J. Broyde and R. Kenneth Brander.

This question may seem simple but it is not. The knee-jerk Orthodox reaction is that the definition of a Jew is someone whose mother is Jewish or who converts halakhically. But that is beside the point. This question is how a person will be identified in a secular government document, not in a rabbinic court. Perhaps a secular definition should reign. Since the Israeli government represents the entire Jewish people, in addition to its gentile citizens, maybe a more universal definition that takes modern historical developments into account should be used. The issue is not primarily halakhic, which makes the responses from halakhic authorities more interesting. How does a nuanced rabbinic thinker, who recognizes the complexity of the issues involved, answer this question?

Ben Gurion inquired of Jewish scholars across the spectrum, Charedi to Reform, rabbinic to literary. Of the forty-five responses he received, forty-three are published in Litvin’s book (he did not receive the authors’ permission to publish the other two). As such, this book contains a cross-section of Jewish attitudes in the late 1950’s. Due to space considerations, I can only discuss a few of these scholarly essays and only a few of the issues they raise.

II. History

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik and R. Chaim Heller both received inquiries but responded with a joint statement (p. 117). They first explain the relevant religious laws which are, they state, “basic principles of our Torah and commandments.” They then quote the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Chovel U-Mazik 1:6) who states about these types of laws that they were transmitted to Moshe and have been upheld by religious courts throughout the generations. Since the Torah and Jewish history justify the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel, the State of Israel must uphold the standards of its theoretical basis. To deviate would undermine the state.

R. Shlomo Goren, in a lengthy treatise quoting extensively from Talmud and midrash, appeals to history in a different sense (pp. 46-48). In addition to many other reasons we discuss below, R. Goren argues that Jewish history’s “lessons, without exception, caution us against any separation of and division between the Jewish nation and its religion.” During the First Temple era, wicked kings attempted to promote Jewish nationalism over religion, always with catastrophic results, including the disappearance of the Ten Tribes. We dare not repeat this ancient mistake.

III. Assimilation

Prof. Saul Lieberman argues that the proposed definition would encourage intermarriage (p. 238). “Any laxity in Israel regarding the sons of intermarriage will lead to tragedies for Israel in exile… The children [wishing to intermarry] will justifiably argue that if it is permitted in Israel, then most certainly is it to be permitted in America.” These words seem to be lost on today’s Conservative movement (link).

R. Aharon Kotler similarly argues that the revised definition would encourage intermarriage and assimilation. Aside from the great sin and the loss of future generations to the Jewish people, it would also “lead to the fragmentation of the Jewish Nation” (p. 105). I believe that R. Kotler’s primary concern is intermarriage and only secondarily the lack of unity. The London Beth Din took the opposite approach.

IV. Unity

Responding on behalf of Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie, the London Beth Din argued that a deviation from the traditional definition of a Jew would cause an irreparable break in Jewish unity (pp. 68-69). They proceed to explain that the proposed standard will lead to assimilation and intermarriage around the world. I believe that this second point is intended to explain why the diaspora communities would have to reject Israel’s standard, leading to disunity, the primary source of objection.

In a lengthy essay, R. Yechiel Ya’akov Weinberg similarly appealed to Jewish unity (p. 91). He argues that the historical definition of Judaism consists of unity and chosenness. By weakening Jewish unity, the government would be weakening the Jewish people.

Prof. Alexander Altmann begins with theology but ends with unity (pp. 225-226). The “inseparable unity of nationality and religion” is an important element of Judaism, uniting different tribes for a “religious universal role which constitutes the great and glorious destiny of the nation.” Tampering with the definition of a Jew, and hence Jewish unity, threatens the very role of the Jewish people. The term Israel was emptied, to a degree, of its religious meaning to include gentile citizens of the country. We dare not also negate the religious content of the term Jew.

V. Jewish Identity

R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, used a fascinating strategy. His primary letter set down the law, which is clear and brief (pp. 110). He added as a postcript arguments for adhering to the traditional definition. And finally, he sent a follow-up letter the next day encouraging Ben Gurion to set the cultural tone in Israel based on Judaism. He called on Ben Gurion to engage in kiruv!

In addition to appealing to Jewish unity, R. Schneerson noted that a person’s sense of Jewishness is intimately tied to personal identity. If we weaken the definition of a Jew, we risk damaging many Jew’s links to their people. In other words, if all it takes to become a Jew is to declare oneself to the Israeli government, being Jewish is no big deal.

R. Schneerson also pointed to the potential security concerns to which this proposal could lead.

VI. Linguistics

R. Yosef Kappah appealed to the meaning of the word “Jew” (p. 135). It does not refer to geographic location nor merely religion or nationality or tribe. You hear of a Jew in England but not a Jewish Arab or a Christian Jew. Rather, the term Jew refers to both religion and nationality. To register a gentile as a Jew is to distort language. R. Kappah does not address the English Jew or Yemenite Jew. Presumably he would consider them to be Jews living in England or Yemen.

Prof. Harry Wolfson argued that the term Jew denotes religion alone (p. 241). Non-religious Jews retain the description because of their origin and past. However, “Jewish secularism in the Diaspora, by itself, is devoid of any positive content and social cohesiveness; it is something negative, a mere form of escape.” What about secularism in Israel? Wolfson does not address this but adds that we need a term for adherents to Judaism. If we redefine Jew then we must coin a new term, which would be odd so late in Jewish history.

VII. Logic

R. Weinberg pointed out an absurdity in recognizing as Jewish someone who wishes to join the Jewish nation but not Jewish religion (p. 87). If religion is irrelevant, then why not accept a practicing Christian who wishes to join the Jewish nation? Why should secularism be preferred over Christianity? And if not, how can we register a Christian as a Jew?

Prof. Yehezkel Kaufmann similarly argues that the exclusion of someone who belongs to another religion makes this issue one of religious, and not just civil, status (p. 146).

Arguing from halakhah to a non-religious Jewish leader is useless. It will not convince anyone who does not accept its authority. Instead, these eminent scholars sought secular reasons to buttress their halakhic claims. They appealed to Ben Gurion’s principles as a leader of a diverse and historic people, asking that he not destroy the underpinning of Jewish survival. Sadly, they failed and, much later, the Reform movement further eroded Jewish identity with its acceptance of patrilineal descent. Only decades later, we already see the intense conflicts emanating from these diverse and deviant definitions of Jewish status.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

54 comments

  1. For a quick summary of “Who Is a Jew,”
    go to the front page of my Torah web site:

    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DerechEmet/

  2. The argument from Jewish unity is the strongest argument (and I think it should be decisive).

    I don’t understand why patrilineal descent (in and of itself) is more encouraging of intermarriage or assimilation than matrilineal descent. Both leave open the possibility of intermarriage, so why is one better than the other on logical grounds (obviously it’s better on halachic grounds)? I don’t think it’s a good response to say “Reform adopted patrilineal descent, and look what happened to them!” because what did Reform Judaism in is not patrilineal descent per se, but its broader antinomian spirit (of which acceptance of patrilineal descent is merely a symptom).

  3. jerry – The Reform movement recognizes both patrilineal or matrilineal descent, doubling the theoretical rate of intermarriage assuming both genders are equally affected by the disincentive of having nonJewish children. In practice, I believe that men are more affected by this disincentive. I’m pretty sure that even among unaffiliated Jews, there are more men who intermarry than women.

  4. YLM – by that logic, matrilineal descent itself should be done away with, out of a concern for intermarriage, with the new standard being that BOTH parents are required to be Jewish.

    My point is that there is no secular/logical basis (other than unity rooted in tradition) for preferring matrilineal descent to any other system. There are excellent halachic reasons, but that’s not at issue here.

  5. I see. The “who/what is a Jewish identity” issue 🙂 I took for granted that Jewish identity and erosion thereof is defined relative to the halachic norm, and not relative to hypothetical halachic norms in an alternative halachic universe.

    Matrilineal descent may have excellent logical, practical and psychological bases, but not necessarily have preventing intermarriage as its sole concern. Even if the main goal of the system is to prevent intermarriage, there are still logical arguments in favor of a matrilineal descent system. For example, a woman may be raped and have a nonjewish’s man child against her will, whereas it’s difficult for a woman to have a man’s child without his voluntary participation (ISTM that lehalacha the only scenario in which this is possible is nisabra be’ambatya as the halacha is eyn kishuy ela midaas). Insisting that both parents be Jewish would impose an unfair penalty on women who are raped and have no preventative effect on intermarriage. (There’s also the more obvious issue of establishing paternity, unless the argument is that the advent of dna testing has made that irrelevant?)

  6. (Oops..not just nisabra be’ambatya, also niskashe l’ishto …but these are peculiar, extraordinarily events, not typical scenarios).

  7. ylm:

    jerry – The Reform movement recognizes both patrilineal or matrilineal descent, doubling the theoretical rate of intermarriage assuming both genders are equally affected by the disincentive of having nonJewish children. In practice, I believe that men are more affected by this disincentive. I’m pretty sure that even among unaffiliated Jews, there are more men who intermarry than women.

    That is only possible if there is either a strange gender imbalance in births among unaffiliated Jews or there are more unmarried unaffiliated Jewish women. I don’t believe either is the case.

  8. YLM – For example, a woman may be raped and have a nonjewish’s man child against her will, whereas it’s difficult for a woman to have a man’s child without his voluntary participation

    What does this have to do with matrilineal vs. patrilineal descent? Are you saying that with matrilineal descent the child conceived via rape simply disappears?

  9. Jerry: My point at the end is simply that Reform has a different definition of Jewishness that is causing great confusion. If someone says he is a Reform Jew, you have to ask questions before taking him at his word (assuming you are doing something like performing his wedding) because there is a strong chance he is not halakhically Jewish. Plenty of people now say, “If I’m Jewish enough for… why aren’t I Jewish enough for the Orthodox rabbis?” (serve in the IDF, become an Israeli citizen,…) These are legitimate complaints! But the Orthodox rabbis aren’t to blame because we didn’t start playing games with the definition. Although lately there seems to be a reaction of extreme conservatism in the other direction, which can also be partially blamed on the original redefinitions.

  10. “That is only possible if there is either a strange gender imbalance in births among unaffiliated Jews or there are more unmarried unaffiliated Jewish women. I don’t believe either is the case.”

    My impression is that there are more unmarried unaffiliated Jewish women than men. Quite possibly this impression is overly influenced by the complaints of the unmarried Jewish women that all the good Jewish men are married, and so many to non-Jewish women.(I believe there’s a very small gender imbalance at adulthood that has a very small, for our purposes negligible, effect.)

  11. But the Orthodox rabbis aren’t to blame because we didn’t start playing games with the definition.

    Gil — A question that needs to be answered is whether the American Reform movement would have made its decision on matrilineal or patrilineal descent if they had been truly respected and accepted as Jews by American Orthodoxy. Arguably, once the American Reform were “thrown out” by Orthodoxy, they had zero incentive to continue to make compromises for the sake of unity.

  12. That’s silly. Reform was persona non grata in Orthodoxy decades before. The decision of Reform was in response to increasing intermarriage in their movement that threatened their movement, or made matrilinear descent moot: Here is the link to the resolution:

    http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/patrilineal1.html

    We face today an unprecedented situation due to the changed conditions in which decisions concerning the status of the child of a mixed marrige are to be made.

    There are tens of thousands of mixed marriages. In a vast majority of these cases the non-Jewish extended family is a functioning part of the child’s world, and may be decisive in shaping the life of the child. It can no longer be assumed a priori, therefore, that the child of a Jewish mother will be Jewish any more than that the child of a non-Jewish mother will not be.

    This leads us to the conclusion that the same requirements must be applied to establish the status of a child of a mixed marriage, regardless of whether the mother or the father is Jewish.

  13. “Gil — A question that needs to be answered is whether the American Reform movement would have made its decision on matrilineal or patrilineal descent if they had been truly respected and accepted as Jews by American Orthodoxy. Arguably, once the American Reform were “thrown out” by Orthodoxy, they had zero incentive to continue to make compromises for the sake of unity.”

    I don’t get that. Someone born from a Jewish mother is Jewish whether I or they like it or not.
    How exactly did we throw them out?
    Or did you mean we should have respected their bastardized form of judaism?

    =============

    http://judaism.about.com/od/interfaithfamilies/a/intermarr_jew_2.htm
    •More than half of American Jews disagree with the statement, “It would pain me if my child married a gentile.”
    •50 percent agree that “it is racist to oppose Jewish gentile marriages.”
    •78 percent said they favor rabbinic officiation at Jewish gentile marriages “in some form and under some circumstances.”

  14. IH: Reform would have been equally concerned with the Conservative movement’s reaction to their decision

  15. The so-called “Reform Judaism” movement did not officially recognize so-called “Jewishness by patrilineal descent”
    until 1983, but they were practicing it unofficially since the 1930s in Germany.

    In my humble opinion, so-called “Reform patrilineal descent” in Germany in the 1930s was one of the least-known but most important reasons the Holocaust happened, because once the Reform Jews changed the definition of who-is-a-Jew, there was no hope for them returning to Torah.

    Now for a quick quote:

    Dr. Lamm [Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, chancellor and Rosh HaYeshivah of Yeshiva University] referred to the Reform decision to accept Jewishness through patrilineal descent as:
    “The single most irresponsible act in contemporary Jewish history.”

    SOURCE: Piety and Power (chapter 33, page 292) by David Landau, year 1993

  16. Gil — I am talking about the long road travelled before their decision in 1983. E.g. Piskei Halacha by RMF and RYBS in the 1950s and 1960s. At some point I suspect it became impossible to raise greater Jewish Unity as a factor. But, I am no expert and will leave it to the historians.

  17. IH-If you think that RYBS and RMF were without precedent in their views of RJ in the 1950s and 1960s, especially on the issues of mixed pews and ecumenical theological dialogue, you are sadly mistaken. Anyone who has listened to RYBS’s shiurim or is aware of RYBS’s POV would tell you that RJ clergymen attended his drashos and wrote about his articles. That in no way meant that RYBS had any obligation, halachic or otherwise, to view their views on anything relating to Klapei Pnim as halachically significant in the least.

  18. For the record, the American Reform position is more nuanced that often represented:

    The Central Conference of American Rabbis declares that the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption of the Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people. The performance of these mitzvot serves to commit those who participate in them, both parent and child, to Jewish life.

    Depending on circumstances,1 mitzvot leading toward a positive and exclusive Jewish identity will include entry into the covenant, acquisition of a Hebrew name, Torah study, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and Kabbalat Torah (Confirmation).2 For those beyond childhood claiming Jewish identity, other public acts or declarations may be added or substituted after consultation with their rabbi.

    Notes

    1According to the age or setting, parents should consult a rabbi to determine the specific mitzvot which are necessary.
    2 A full description of these and other mitzvot can be found in Sharrei Mitzvah

    Thus, there is an implicit form of conversion within their process.

  19. Hirhurim: My point at the end is simply that Reform has a different definition of Jewishness that is causing great confusion.

    I agree with this. This is the “unity” argument (if we want to be able to live together we have to have one definition, not multiple definitions, and if we’re going to have one it should be the one we’ve been using millennia).

    I just don’t understand the intermarriage argument.

  20. MiMedinat HaYam

    ylm — much larger tendency of (reform and unaffilliated) jewish men to intermarry than women.

    gil — how do you account for nationalistic jews (like, say cardinal lustiger) than “religious” jews? or you can say then number is statistically insignificant; perhaps, but if you offer the option, you will get many halachic jews opting for the nationalistic category, today.

    also, conservative jewry offers (by default) its rabbinate an option to recognize a patrilinearly descended jew as jewish, if he / she is recognized as such by the reform rabbinate. note: even reform requires a patrilinearly descended jew to actually request being jewish (provided he / she takes some affirmative act, like pay temple membership), as opposed to a matrilinearily descended jew who is a jew by default.

    i am surprised RAK answered ben gurion’s request. does the book give the back story on that?

  21. Steve Brizel on February 8, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    “IH-If you think that RYBS and RMF were without precedent in their views of RJ in the 1950s and 1960s, especially on the issues of mixed pews and ecumenical theological dialogue, you are sadly mistaken. Anyone who has listened to RYBS’s shiurim or is aware of RYBS’s POV would tell you that RJ clergymen attended his drashos and wrote about his articles. That in no way meant that RYBS had any obligation, halachic or otherwise, to view their views on anything relating to Klapei Pnim as halachically significant in the least”

    But the tone of their language was entirely different than the Ravs. Clearly, one does not care about halachik opinions by those who don’t accept halacha. However,one would be hard pressed to find a nuanced view of how to deal with non religious Rabbis in RMF and RAK that one finds in the Rav-see eg his letter as to why he can’t accept the invitation to the dedication of Rabbi Shubow’s new synagogue in Brighton, Mass. He turns down the invitation in order not to give his approval to mixed pew congregation zbut he also refers to them bringing Judaism to a new area in the Boston area.

  22. “In my humble opinion, so-called “Reform patrilineal descent” in Germany in the 1930s was one of the least-known but most important reasons the Holocaust happened, because once the Reform Jews changed the definition of who-is-a-Jew, there was no hope for them returning to Torah.”

    And you have what to base this on? Some conception that the Holocaust was a divine punishment based on Jews abandoning Torah? Was Hurricane Katrina caused by the decadence of New Orleans?

    Of course, in practical terms, German Anti-Semites had been defining those with Jewish blood as Jewish for decades by that point (see, for example, Theodore Fritsch’s The Racist’s Decalogue).

  23. IH raises an interesting point, albeit inadvertently: Reform does not recognize as Jewish people Orthodoxy does recognize. I don’t hear any wailing about that.

    His point about Reform somehow doing this out of revenge is nonsense on its face.

    JLan, don’t feed the trolls.

  24. “His point about Reform somehow doing this out of revenge is nonsense on its face”

    Disagree that it is nonsense on its face. There were in the past Reform leaders who although they would believe that there is no theoretical need for a get when a party wanted a divorce would not remarry the party wo a get to keep achdus in Judaism. There were officers of the CCAR who just after the Reform decision to go for definition of a Jew as including father being Jewish were willing to say lets put it off to keep Jewish unity. All of these people had Orthodox Rabbi friends who worked together on klapei chutz and most important would say the Reform Rabbis are mistaken -they would not call them reshaim.
    If I had to guess the Reform movement would have probaly gne that way eventually anyway but to claim otherwise is not nonsense on its face.

  25. “IH raises an interesting point, albeit inadvertently: Reform does not recognize as Jewish people Orthodoxy does recognize. I don’t hear any wailing about that”

    Can anyone give an example of one who would be considered a Jew in Orthodox standards who was turned down for membership by a UAHC temple on the grounds that they were notJewish.

  26. “so-called “Reform patrilineal descent” in Germany in the 1930s was one of the least-known but most important reasons the Holocaust happened”

    Claiming knowledge for the reason for the Shoah IMO is blasphemous.

  27. Mycroft:

    1. And what was so different about the 1980’s? Please.

    2. Your point about Reform temples is irrelevant. I protest Reform dismissing as “non-Jewish” all good people with Jewish mothers who may not be practicing. Every Jew is precious to me; apparently not so to Reform.

  28. ” Nachum on February 10, 2013 at 3:38 am

    Mycroft:

    1. And what was so different about the 1980′s? Please”
    Not sure I understand the question-but in the 80s the Reform was still in flux about their actions-there were still mainline Orthodox Rabbis who were invited to their conventions to speak. Mainline Orthodox Rabbis who had personal relations with members of the CCAR. I am talking about Orthodox Rabbis who would followed the Ravs distinction of klapei chutz and klapei pnim. I suspect the Ravs influence of being firm on halacha but working together on issues where we can is much more conducive to achdus than treating non Orthodox clergy as Reshaim. We believe they are mistaken, have nothing to add to halacha, misguided but not necessarily evil.

  29. I think that the Rav came up with the most subtle and sublime approach to this, which with a little effort could be expanded here. He distinguished between the Edah and the Am. The Edah was the community of adherence to mitzvot and the Am was the Jewish People as a broader group.

    A great article explains more:

    http://www.jewishideas.org/articles/we-have-found-enemy-and-enemy-us-rethinking-rav-sol

  30. I would use as a parable, the history of the Puritans in the United States. When the Puritans landed in Massachusetts Bay Colony they were separatists who believed that they were the kingdom of the elect on earth. Indeed they had exhaustive tests of the people to see whether they were among the “elect”. Within one generation they had splintered due to the question of whether the child of a couple that were both proven “elect” was automatically “elect” or whether they had to be tested. The movement split up and the conservative group that believed that everybody needed to be tested moved south to a new place where they could practice their conservative vision. They called it the New Haven. Within a generation the same argument began in New Haven (it seems that parents don’t want their children to have the potential to be un-elect.) Again, the conservatives moved south, they founded a new place called New Ark (Newark, NJ). In the original area of the Puritans, churches became more and more liberal until now there is little that remains of those most stringent groups. In some sense it goes to show that stringency in and of itself is not a defense against assimilation. As a parallel, all Conservative and Reform Jews came from Traditional stock.

  31. “Dr. Lamm [Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, chancellor and Rosh HaYeshivah of Yeshiva University] referred to the Reform decision to accept Jewishness through patrilineal descent as:
    “The single most irresponsible act in contemporary Jewish history.”

    Allowing once married people to marry wo a get is probably much worse.

  32. Mycroft, IH blamed Orthodox attitudes toward Reform for Reform’s decision. I merely ask if he’s got anything at all to back that up.

    David S: Amsalem makes a similar point, based on centuries old ideas. And Newark is also a place in England. 🙂

  33. Amsalam is definitely one of the good ones. The point is, we need not be so defensive about everything. A more inclusive view of the Jewish people is without compromising the Mesorah. Indeed, the old saying that one can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar seems appropriate.

  34. Nachum — For the record, I did not “blame” Orthodoxy and certainly did not assert there was any “revenge” by American Reform. I was responding to Gil’s point by making a sociological observation. Borrowing from modern Israeli politics — when there is no partner for negotiation, one makes decisions that were deliberately not made when dialogue was ongoing.

  35. “There were in the past Reform leaders who although they would believe that there is no theoretical need for a get when a party wanted a divorce would not remarry the party wo a get to keep achdus in Judaism.”

    Back in the days when Orthodox synagogues weren’t afraid of hearing views that differed with their own, RD Eugene Borowitz was on a panel discussion in Teaneck on interdenominational relationships (or something like that). He was asked why, for the sake of achdut, the Reform movement didn’t require a get. His answer (and I paraphrase): “Since I don’t believe in halacha I don’t think a get is b=necessary and a secular divorce is sufficient. However, your question is a good one and I’ve thought about it. My conclusion is that I would push for that for the sake of achdut when the Orthodox community would institute equality in get between men and women.” Of course, the other issue is that even if the reform instituted get, or, similarly, when the Reform didn’t have matrilineal descent, the Orthodox didn’t accept their converts (and would accept their gittin). So I don’t really get the achdut argument other than, for the sake of achdut, require gittin and conversions to be done only by Orthodox rabbis. I understand that position, but achdut it ain’t.

  36. IH: So when *was* there dialogue, and when did it end, and can you prove causality?

  37. People often do not realize how nuanced these issues of status are.

    The notion that a Jewish mother automatically makes the child Jewish was contested by scores of authorities over the ages, including the Mahari Algaze, commenting on the Maharshal, Yevamot 16b, whose position seems very close to the Reform position on children of Jewish mothers (he learns that when the child of a Jewish mother and gentile father is deemed kasher, the Gemara means he should only be considered a Jew when given a Jewish identity. If raised by the father as a goy, the child requires giyur). R’ Akiva Eiger (YD 266) and others also felt that the child of a Jewish mother and gentile father would require giyur.

    On the other spectrum, we have the shitot of R’ David Zvi Hoffman, R’ Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer, R’ Benzion Uziel, R’ Isser Yehuda Unterman, and R’ Haim Amsalem who believe that the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother are “Zera Yisrael” and must be brought close through the ritual acts of conversion, even if they will not lead Torah-observant lives (Hoffman notes that even one who will not keep mitzvot ben adam l’makom will still be keeping mitzvot ben adam l’havero, such as kibbud av v’em, ve ahavta le reacha kamocha, tzedakah to the Jewish community, etc.

    For those who are zera yisrael and identify as Jewish, through no fault of their own (these children never asked to be born to an intermarriage and they certainly never asked to be persecuted for their Jewishness in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia), there must be a mechanism for them to be brought halakhically into the Jewish people.

  38. “Arguably, once the American Reform were “thrown out” by Orthodoxy, they had zero incentive to continue to make compromises for the sake of unity.”

    Quite possibly the single most absurd thing I’ve ever read on this board.

  39. Kind of ironic that most of the same people who would champion “zera yisrael” would recoil from it as racist in many other contexts.

  40. As an interested Gentile reader, I have a related question: what are the assumptions of recognizing multiple authorities? “in hopes of finding a universal definition. He received 45 different answers, of course.” Is this diverse authority vs universalizing not a uniqueness, possibly the essence, of Judaism? I really appreciate everybody’s input on this. Thanks.

  41. Dan: I think it was more of a political move. The Israeli government, at least at that point, did not want to alienate of all its Jewish supporters around the world. Also, it wanted to justify its own decision. They probably figured that if they asked enough people, eventually someone would say what they wanted to hear.

  42. “They probably figured that if they asked enough people, eventually someone would say what they wanted to hear.”

    Sheesh what a cynic you are. Ive you’ve done any reading at all you would know that there is no simple answer.

  43. I see nothing racist in that concept at all. It is obvious that the child of a Jewish father, or the descendant of anusim, possesses some kedusha by virtue of having the blood of Israel in their veins.

  44. Daniel: I agree, but that is the very definition of “racist” (or at least “racialist”).

  45. I think it is ugly now, that what defines a Jew is radical right wing support for Israel, and an intense hatred for Arabs and Muslims. According to Halachic Law, what defines a Jew is when someone has a Jewish mother. Which defines me. But I have Jewish extremists, tell me there is nothing Jewish about you, because you do not hate Muslims. I have traveled to 9 predominately Muslim nations, and been in ecumenical dialogue with Muslims, and I have no reason whatsoever to hate them. They always been kind and polite to me. So is sick politics, suppose to define what we are?

  46. Tim: I don’t know what you are talking about. I just had a great conversation with a Muslim before eating lunch. No one sane thinks that is relevant to Jewish status.

  47. Racialist, yes.

    I’ve had many learned people express that they feel zera yisrael is racist (such as Hakham Isaac SD Sassoon), but in the realm of giyur, I think that it makes practical sense- in many cases, you have baalei teshuva making a denominational shift to Orthodoxy and they need to meet Orthodox standards of membership. These are people raised Jewish, living Jewishly, reading Hebrew, supporting Israel, etc. When they become Orthodox, there is little value in putting them through the ringer, which is what happens to gerim nowadays.

  48. The choice of matrilineal descent as the signifier of “Jewishness” was simple. During the Mishnaic era and thenceforth, Jews were a vulnerable population and were therefore more susceptible to intermarriage. Matrilineal descent was the obvious choice (as a protectionary measure), whereas previously patrilineal descent decided the fates of the children of mixed marriages–at a time when the Hebrews were strong as a nation.

  49. The historical origings of Matrilineal Descent are hotly debated. Prof. Lawrence Schiffman and others in this book argue that it dates back to at least Ezra.

  50. Thank you David S. and whomever at Hirhurim for responding to my question. Can anyone point me to sources on why at least a certain segment of Judaism, if not all, EXPECT multiple answers rather than a unified theory? Whereas, it is typically Greek to expect to synthesize into one.

  51. In the Biblical Book of Ezra, chapter 10, Ezra ejected all children born to non-Jewish mothers, even though they all had Jewish fathers.

    Ezra was never criticized for this by any prophet (even though prophets were still active in his time) or classic Torah book (for example: Mishnah, Jerusalem Talmud, Babylonian Talmud, Halachic Midrashim, Agadic Midrashim, Baraitot, Zohar, etc).

  52. Mr. Cohen — for a small investment of $167, you can validate your own provenance through Family Tree DNA’s Y-DNA37 test.

    For more details, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Y-chromosomal_Aaron

  53. Ezra ejected them because they were determined to introduce idolatry into Israel. Nowadays, when it is clear that many of the zera yisrael children and their mothers want to practice Judaism and build Jewish homes, such a historical episode is of little consequence. (And, narratives in the Tanach do not inform halakhic determinations- bBeitzah 10b).

    R’ Druckman cites a psak of R’ Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer, who says:

    “Even though according to law the ancestral line of the offspring goes according to the mother, even so if the father is Jewish the offspring can still be called a holy seed. This is learnt from the story of Ezra who rebuked Jews who married non-Jewish women as is written “For they have taken of their daughters for themselves, and for their sons: so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the peoples of those lands …” (Ezra 9:2)”

    “We understand from this that if it is within our possibility to return a seed that was damaged by impurity, to release a prisoner from his jail and return him to holiness, how good and fortunate our lot. (The story also tells of women that were not converted but told to leave, these women were from seven specific nations mentioned in Ezra or from those that would/could not refrain from idol worship).”

    I don’t see how this narrative bears any relevance to the present-day, in which these people desire to build Jewish homes and families and become part of Jewish/Israeli society.

  54. Regarding historical conceptions: Schiffman claims that this dates back to the time of Ezra; Shaye JD Cohen (who has authored a comprehensive work on Jewish status and its development) argues that the practice is Talmudic, not Biblical.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: