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Who is a Jew?

Our Roots and Branches
Part One
By Shlomo Phillips © December 29, 2010 (last updated June 26, 2016)


Parts 1-3 Presented Live on Facebook

Go to: Part 2
Go to: Part 3
Go to: Part 4
Go to: Part 5
Go to: Part 6

There are two essential ways to determine who is Jewish and who is not.

First, understand that Judaism is not a belief system. A person can believe everything Jews believe and still not be Jewish. A Jew can believe nothing Jews believe and still be Jewish. Beliefs are neither of these two identifiers. This is important to understand. While there are certain beliefs that religious Jews tend to agree on, Judaism is incredibly diverse.

Who Is A Jew?
One is a Jew if:
  1. One is born of a Jewish mother.
  2. One formally converts through a Jewish beit din (a religious court of three knowledgable, observant Jews).

Who Is Not A Jew?

Therefore if ones birth mother is not Jewish and one has not formally converted through a recognized Jewish beit din, one is not Jewish, no matter what one believes or does. Self identifying as a Jew does not make it so.

One can not simply decide to be Jewish anymore than a non-citizen can decide to be an American. There are rules and requirements that must be met if one wishes to be part of the Jewish Covenant.

So far everything is clear, no? But in Judaism things are so simple!

As for point one, according to traditional Rabbinic Judaism, if your mother is Jewish you have been born into the Covenant. You are Jewish. This is not dependant on anything else. Such a person is born Jewish.

BUT is ones mother really Jewish? This is where things can get complicated. Because Orthodox authorities are now challenging and rejecting so many conversions past and present, the Jewishness of many people is being challenged!

A directly related question to this is connected with point two; did one halachically convert to Judaism? Many people go through a conversion process through non-Orthodox synagogues. Many of these people have lived as Jews for many years and yet are not accepted as Jews by the Orthodox Rabbinate! In some cases people whose parents converted years ago are having their Jewishness challenged. This is a serious difficulty for many good people.

Origin of the term "Jew"

Short answer: The term "Jew" is derived from the name of Jacob's fourth son, Judah. Judah's lineage are known as Jews.

Slightly longer answer: The two kingdoms that developed after the reign of Melech Shlomo divided north and south. The northern Kingdom was named Israel and peopled by the ten Houses, known collectively as Ephraim. The southern kingdom was called Judah and people by those of the houses of Benjamin and Judah. When the ten houses were divorced only Judah (the Jews) and Benjamin remained. By the end of the Babylonian captivity these two houses were one for all intent and purposes (II Kings 17:18).

Since the ten houses disappeared only Judah (the Jews) remain of the Covenant. Once Messiah comes he will identify and restore the ten lost houses and they will submit to Judah and the Lion of the House of Judah, Yehudah, the Messiah.

More detailed: On his deathbed, Jacob (Yaakov) assigned Judah (Yehudi) the role of leader and king -- a prophesy that was fulfilled in 869 BCE when twelve tribes submitted to the reign of King David, ruler of the House of Judah.

Yehudi as "Jew": The word Jew arises from a Middle English form of the Old French juiu, via Latin from the Greek Ioudaios, via Aramaic from Hebrew yĕhūḏī, which stems from yĕhūḏāh or Judah.

The word "Jew" is therefore accurate in English, although Yehudi is more accurate in the original Hebrew. Either is acceptable for use for all members of Klal Israel regardless of House affiliation. We know that many people of Ephraim. made their way into Judea and merged with Judah.

Who among the Yehudim have the authority to decide the terms of gerut (conversion)? The Jews are quite divided today, both between movements and within movements. There are two important streams to consider in this regard:

  1. Our Roots: What is Judaism? What are the origins of Judaism? What is the Sinai Covenant of Judaism?
  2. Our Branches: Who has the authority to determine who is and who is not Jewish and to rule over our people?
For the first point, we need to understand the essential history of the Jewish Covenant with God. Without the Sinai Covenant, Judaism is simply another 'ism', another human created religion. It may be meaningful to the individual who practices it, but it would be lacking in its claimed divine authority. By what authority do Jews proclaim our right to exist as a distinct people with a national homeland, language and religion? In other words, by what authority do we legislate such matters as Jewish identity?

For the second point, we need to understand who is authorized to rule on matters of Jewish Law and practice. Over the past 100 years or so Judaism has fragmented into rival movements or denominations. Which if any of these wield divine authority and has the right to judge and establish halacha (Jewish law)? To understand this we need to examine the Jewish movements and their claims. With these two points let's continue.

Go to: Part 2 -- Our Roots
Go to: Part 3 -- Becoming Jewish
Go to: Part 4 -- Our Movements
Go to: Part 5 -- Why Be Jewish? With Rabbi Meir Kahane (ZK"L)
Go to: Part 6 -- US Jews By the Numbers

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