Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Definition of Jew

"So I work at this Hebrew school," she says, "It's Reform, so a lot of the couples are intermarried. And so it's so funny because there are all these kids with the last name Gonzalez or Campbell and they're probably really Jewish and then there are all these kids whose last names are Cohen or Levy and they're probably not!"

Ever hear something like this? The above is an approximation of something a friend of mine told me many years ago. I remember laughing at the time. How odd, I thought. A Cohen that's not Jewish and a Gonzalez that is. How twisted and strange.

It is now years later and my life, my outlook, my world are very different than they were when I first heard that story.

I have a good friend who lives in my town. She was born Christian and later in her life became distanced from the religion of her birth and more just spiritual. Then she met the man she would eventually marry. He was Jewish. He never pressured her to become Jewish, but through him she fell in love with the religion and eventually decided to convert.

She looked at all the different Jewish affiliations, spoke to all the rabbis of the different congregations, and found that the one philosophy which most resonated with her was that of the Conservative movement. And so it was under the guidance of this rabbi that she converted.

Today, her family attends that synagogue regularly. They also celebrate Shabbat and the holidays with an enthusiasm that is rare among practicing Jews. They keep kosher. My parents, sisters, all of the people in the world that I come from, indeed almost any Orthodox Jew, would not consider her or her children to be "really" Jewish.

I remember also the story of my second cousins. My grandmother's sister had intermarried; indeed, she had converted to Christianity when she got married. She then went on to have four children and raise them Christian. "They're really Jewish, and they just don't know," we used to whisper to each other as kids. 

I think of my friend who converted, of my second cousins, of that story that I laughed at so long ago. How terrible! To imagine that one group has the power to define membership in a religion. It's even kind of juvenile; the way in high school, groups of kids turn up their noses at that one other kid who they've decided is a "poser." It's also just plain bizarre for a group that (rightfully) sees themselves as endangered, as losing members constantly to secular world, to turn away anyone who wants to be part of their religion. And, at the same time, clings so desperately on to those who don't even see themselves as Jewish.

So where does this idea of the Jewish blood line come from? I know the halachah upon which this is all based, that lineage is determined by the mother. From my understanding, the reason for this is that, historically, you could never be sure of a child's paternity, but you could of their maternity. But with modern science, that problem is now gone.

And why the obsession with the one standard way of conversion? In other words, why does it matter? If someone wants to be part of the Jewish tradition, shouldn't that be enough? Especially if that person who is raised without religion entirely but has a Jewish mother can just (poof!) become a practicing Jew over night if they wish?

It really just seems like some kind of magical thinking to me. As if people just believe there's some sort of innate quality to being Jewish. I guess they do believe this, though it seems absurd to me. I remember one rabbi in high school teaching us that Jews possess a nefesh (spirit?) and a neshama (soul), whereas non-Jews possess only a nefesh.

And so I come back then to the question: Judaism, as defined by its adherents -- a race or a religion? It seems to me like it is the former.


David said...

To people like uou I can only say.: in another few years you will have a completely different philosophy and you will change all your perceptions about Judaism many times so there is no Point in explaining or discussing these concepts. I will just read your blog and follow with amusement your evolution.

On Her Own said...

Well thanks, David. That was truly helpful. I mean, the feedback and thoughts provided by people like you is most certainly the reason why I have this blog.

Really?! What does this smug, patronizing comment accomplish? While I accept that people change numerous times throughout their lives (my philosophy has changed before and I do believe it is entirely possible that it will change again), IF my philosophy does change, it will be because of extended discussion and thought around these concepts, not some magical process that *just happens* to "people like me."

Also, who exactly are "people like me?" Are you suggesting that there are no people with liberal ideologies above a certain age? I've been writing in this blog for ~5 years, during which time I've gone from my late 20s to my early 30s, and have only become MORE liberal in ideology.

So, thanks. Keep following my blog if you wish. But don't comment unless you're actually going to engage with me and discuss the concepts that I just wrote. Thanks.

Philo said...

>"during which time I've gone from my late 20s to my early 30s, and have only become MORE liberal in ideology."

This reminds me of an incident in my own evolution. I was quite "frum" in my late teens, both socially and religiously. In my mid-20's, I hadn't spent much time in the last couple of years with my sister, who was living in Israel and was very right-wing. On a visit to Israel around that time, I was with some friends and my sister, and I happened to give a female friend a hug. Later, my sister asked me, sounding a little shocked, if I was dating that girl. I replied that I wasn't, she was just a good friend. I was so far removed from my former fruminess at the time, that it never occurred to me that anyone could see any problem whatsoever with giving a goodbye hug to a friend. And I was still quite religious, just not fussing about repressive things like "negiah."

I told my sister that I'd simply gotten more liberal about religion, and she insisted that I was obviously on a pendulum and that I would swing back in her direction.

15 years later, I'm far more liberal in almost every way than I was then.

JRKmommy said...

Judaism defines the Jewish people using words like "nation" or "people".

The closest analogy is to think about being a citizen of a nation. In many cases, it's possible to be a citizen because you are the child of a citizen, even if you never lived in that country or contributed to it in any way. You can also find yourself accidentally subject to obligations (like military service) under the law of that country, even if you always considered yourself to be a citizen of a different country.

At the same time, being a long-time resident of a country doesn't make you a citizen without going through a citizenship ceremony.

There's a high-profile case in Canada right now, where a long-time activist has been fighting to become a Canadian citizen. He meets all the requirements, but will not take an oath to the Queen. Now, as a native-born Canadian, I can say that the monarchy is an outdated institution and get away with it, but he can't become a citizen without this formality.

Many Americans don't see smoking pot as a big deal, and Obama even admitted his former habit in his autobiography, but having a conviction within the past 5 years for marijuana possession can get your citizenship application rejected.

Halacha can be seen as a legal system for the Jewish nation. Originally, this system also had a way of dealing with those who weren't citizens but were permanent residents ("ger toshav"). In this view, there needs to be a way of determining whether or not someone is subject to the laws. Even DNA tests aren't a perfect way to determine who a father is. [I'm a family lawyer, and these tests cost money, take time and don't help when the mother can't or won't identify the father.]

At the same time, the current insanity over conversions could actually be violating halacha. Ruth certainly did not appear before a Beis Din. If someone has sincerely accepted halacha and dipped in the mikvah, they may be Jewish and stripping them of this status may violate the halacha against oppressing a ger, and also lead to the possibility of them leaving observance when they are in fact technically Jewish.

David said...


When I say people like you I will explain to you what I mean. In psychology/psychiatry there is a term called splitting. You, and other bloggers, come across to me as splitters. Once they come to one conclusion they cannot grasp how somebody else can think differently and therefore think that those people are either irrational, stupid or both. This is how your writings come across to me. Maybe you are not like that, but this is how you come across and I therefore wrote that the only think to do is just watch with amusement your evolution.

Every person evolves in their philosophy, including myself. I come to my conclusions on many issues that I no longer agree with a certain idea, be it religious or otherwise, however I still recognize that those who do agree with those ideas are "as legitimate" as I am in their belief even though I don't share it. And I also recognize that even my new philosophy will change again as I get more information and life experience which restrains me even more from vilifying those who do not share my belief. I am strong enough in my beliefs that I act on them, but not so strong so to vilify others.

Since you raised the issue about liberalism, the worst offenders of splitting that I came across are liberals. As for me, I am libertarian.

On Her Own said...

Philo - Awesome to hear. Thanks for sharing!

On Her Own said...

JRKMommy - Thanks for your thoughts. I guess the answer to the question then is that Jewishness is, by Jewish definition, a nationality (as distinct from race or religion; you can't lose your membership in a race). Which is a strange way to think about a religion in the framework that we operate in, in contemporary America.

What's weird, though, is that (even as we have concepts like karet) there seems to be this (contemporary?) idea that there's nothing you can do to lose your Jewishness. There's the example of my great aunt, for instance, and her children who were deemed Jewish by my family even though she (my great aunt) had actually CONVERTED to another religion. (An analogy would be someone who immigrated to another country that did not recognize dual citizenship.) I heard things like this all the time growing up, including the idea that the pope, Hitler, and several others were actually Jewish (I know these may be urban legends, but in this case it's the concept and not the facts that illustrate my point). This may, of course, just be popular perception rather than reality as defined by halachic sources.

Yes, I've thought about the ger toshav thing and how (Orthodox, at least) Judaism doesn't recognize that concept at all anymore. At the very least, my friend who converted in the Conservative movement (her kids?) should be considered a ger toshav.

On Her Own said...

David - Thank you for engaging.

I don't think it's fair to say that I am "splitting." The issues that I blog about (or at least, have blogged about recently) tend to be issues with which I have a strong point of contention. That's why I blog about them. My blog cannot be said to represent all of who I am or all of my beliefs. There are many opinions held by Orthodox Jews that have remained consistent for me and/or that I have a more balanced opinion about. (See former blog posts about the beauty of celebrating of holidays, for example, and/or the importance of community.) If anything, I have been said by people who actually know me to have too little a black & white approach to life and too much a grey approach (i.e., don't make judgements of people even when it is may be better to do so). I do, generally, view others' conclusions as legitimate and assume that people are intelligent.

That said, I *will* have strong viewpoints about some things. And as someone who was once part of an insular group, I gain with each day an increased distance from the ideologies that I once just took at face value without much analysis. As a result, I am reexamining all of those ideas from this new vantage point -- which often amounts to seeing things in lights I had never thought of them before. My outrage over some of these issues may become tempered as I sit back and think about them more. Heck, that's why I blog about them at all. The feedback from JRKMommy, for example, above, provided me with a different perspective on this issue that I can now chew on and think about.

As for your claim that liberals are the worst offenders of splitting, I believe that is an easy thing to say about any group with which you hold an opposing viewpoint. Would it not, for example, be easy for a non-Orthodox Jew to say that about Orthodoxy in the examples I cited above? And let's think for a minute about some of the Bush-era language around good/evil (or McCarthy era, etc., etc.). I think by accusing liberals of being the worst offenders of splitting, you may actually be guilty of splitting, yourself.

JRKmommy said...

I do think that it would be worthwhile to revisit the ger toshav category. As I understand it, it was applied to non-Israelites who accepted the 7 Noachide laws and had the right to dwell in the land with the Israelites.

I can think of non-Orthodox converts, supportive spouses of Jews and non-Jews who are simply admirers and supporters, who would fall into this category. I'm not sure if the idea of the Righteous Gentile fully captures it.

Arguing about whether Jews are a race or religion is like arguing about whether a circle is a square or triangle. It's self-defining, and I'm not sure that it makes much sense to shoehorn it into a concept shaped by another religion. Christianity, in general, places the most emphasis on belief. You need have a very specific belief in order to attain salvation. Judaism, by contrast, focuses far more on actions - the belief itself is more abstract, and the emphasis is on following the laws. Christians, therefore, tend to define themselves as a community of people who share a belief, while Jews define who is subject to Jewish law.

BTW - I had a great-aunt with a similar story! She and my bubby were literally separated at birth (long story), and she was raised in Cuba, and converted to Catholicism when she married a Cuban Catholic. I remember visiting my 2nd cousins around Xmas one year as they were showing off the elaborate nativity scene and wondering why we were picking at the fancy ham dinner. At the same time, though, my great-aunt never stopped seeing herself as a Jew as well.

Did you ever read the book The Color of Water? If not, I highly recommend it.

Ami Horowitz said...

Unfortunately, part of out identity is determined by others. I may feel that Judaism is a religion and that since I now an atheist, I am no longer Jewish. But I live in Israel where the majority of people around me see it as a nation and they still see me as Jewish. I can deny it all day long, but everyone will still me that way.