Jewish Belonging

Who is a Jew, is a basic question about Jewish identity. The question is based on ideas about membership to the Jewish people. Jewish identity has long been a source of questions and concerns for all Jews. How do we explain Jewish identity?

It used to be simple, if one had a Jewish mother then one was Jewish.  Most Jews probably believe that Judaism has always been a matrilineal religion, but this is not true, historically one’s Jewishness was passed down from the father, but the rabbis changed this sometime around the Roman occupation and the second temple period. In other words the rabbis “reconstructed” Jewish identity to fit with the times

Mordecai Kaplan’s pioneering work, Judaism as a Civilization challenged American Jews in the early part of the 20th century to think creatively and courageously about Jewish life.  Kaplan’s central argument was that Jewish civilization has never been static, but has always been dynamic. Judaism, he maintained, has evolved and changed as its practitioners have moved through time and space.

Kaplan felt that since Jews lived in a modern society it would be almost impossible for Jews to adhere to many of the same traditions of the past. American Jews of  Eastern European descent no longer lived in the shtetls of Europe but in a free America, where they could attain the full benefits of citizenship.  And Jews must always regard themselves as members of two civilizations – the Jewish civilization and the civilization of the secular state in which we live.

And just like in the beginning of the 20th century we are redefining what it means to be a Jew. The lines are not as clear as they once were.  High rates of intermarriage  between Jews and non-Jews, patrilineal descent, queer Jews, more Jews of color , adoption, conversion, and status vs identity all have changed the very fabric of what it means to be Jewish today.

As Judaism continues to evolve and we ask more and more: Who is a Jew? What is a Jew? What does a Jew look like? Do our stereotypes limit our openness to and welcoming of a wider array of Jews? How do we navigate an American Jewish population that is less tied to the past? Speaks less Hebrew? Is less connected to the State of Israel? And looks more and more like the rest of America? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but they are definitely questions to think about, and it’s time to discuss these issue, so let’s discuss

5 thoughts on “Jewish Belonging

  1. Is not the question of Jewish identity settled by halacha or Jewish law? One is either born a Jew or one converts without regard to any other consideration. Given that Judaism has such a patriarchal religious cosmology, I would like to know more of the dynamics or the considerations involved that resulted in the rabbis making the determination for Jewish identity from patrilineal to matrilineal descent.

  2. Hi Sydney I’m not sure there is a real answer. I have heard that it was in keeping with Roman law and I have also heard during that period women were raped and it may have been unclear who the father was but one would definitely know who the mother is.

    I think the lines are less clear about Jewish identity today. Most Jews do not follow Halacha and it’s the minority of the Jewish population that does. Reform movement, Renewal and the Reconstructionist movement all recognize patrilineal descent. Also patrilineal descent is becoming an out of dated term. What does one do if a child has two fathers or two mothers? Do we still use language that was written for heterosexual couples?

    • If we look at Judaism as a declared faith community, then like other faith communities there are liminal requirements that recognizes ones entry or membership of that faith community, liminal requirements as determined by each faith tradition whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reform,, Renewal or Reconstructionist. In other words one cannot just say categorically “I am a Jew” and be accepted and recognized unconditionally as a Jew, or can they?

  3. I hear you, but who is a gatekeeper and each movement has decided for itself who is jewish and who is not. The other issue especially around patrilineal descent is that, not being recognized by the orthodox community means that Israel is not a safe haven. Today we have Rabbi’s in this country who are of patrilineal descent. 😀

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