Who is a Jew? Do we Really Know Anymore?

June 20, 2021

6 min read

Recently, a man living with his family for several years in an Orthodox community in Israel was discovered to be an undercover Christian missionary. The revelation sent shockwaves through the Israeli Orthodox world and many questions were asked about how such a thing could be allowed to happen. An untold aspect of the story shows that the blame lies in an inherent flaw in how the American Orthodox rabbis define who is a Jew.

I would rather not name the man as his success at infiltrating the Orthodox community has brought him notoriety and honor among the Christians who seek to convert Jews. The main parts of the story are well documented. What I have not seen discussed is his career in the US as a mohel, mashgiach kashrut, and sofer stam. He posed as a kohen, even legally changing his name to help perpetuate the lie, blessing the congregation and performing pidyon haben. He officiated at weddings as a rabbi musmach.

It is precisely this smicha that was problematic as it was used as proof of his status as a Jew for the purposes of Aliyah under the Law of Return, accepted by the Israeli Ministry of the Interior that he was Jewish. The problem began when the rabbis accepted him as a Jew, no questions asked. Neither the smicha nor the rabbis who granted it are the problem. They acted in entirely good faith, operating on precisely the same principles that rabbis have used for 2,000 years to establish the Jewish identities of their congregants; if you admit to being a Jew, if you are actually willing to take on the yoke of heaven and mitzvoth, then you probably are Jewish. Until last month, anyone who learned halachot for the purposes of smicha could be assumed to be a Jew.

This principle can no longer be trusted. A serious inspection of how we establish Jewish identity is absolutely necessary. And through personal experience, I can tell you that this is not so simple.

In 1991, I decided to make Aliyah. This required a trip to the Misrad HaPanim (Ministry of the Interior) where a woman bureaucrat with improbably long and lacquered fingernails entered my details into a computer that was antiquated even in those days. Inspecting me over cat glasses adorned with rhinestones, she challenged me to prove that I was Jewish. After spending my young adulthood sweating to hide and deny my tribal membership, her challenge caught me off balance. If the last name ‘Berkowitz’ and my decidedly Semitic features did not merit an Israeli ID card, then I didn’t know what would.

A letter from the rabbi who officiated at my bar mitzvah, attesting to having seen my parents ketubah, sufficed. And again, when my blushing bride-to-be and I showed up at the Misrad HaDatot to file for a marriage license, I went through the same process, however with more rigorous requirements. My mother-in-law boarded the plane with her ketubah packed in her onboard luggage.

Proving your Jewish identity is difficult because we have never had to do so since, historically, Jews there was never any practical reason to do so. Many Jews left the tribe but even after they recanted their faith, they were so identifiable as Jews that this was a lifelong point they wrestled with. More importantly, no Gentile would ever try to pass himself off as a Jew. Being a Jew had no social benefits and came with a boatload of liabilities, so many that we had a name for it; tzurus.

Christians and Muslims have no problem. They are religions and have declarations of faith performed on demand. Judaism is also a religion but is primarily a nationality, as designated throughout Tanakh. 

Orthodox Jews have made Jewish status absolutely binary; Jewish mothers have Jewish children, Jewish fathers are not even considered as a partial factor. This approach runs counter to what is evident in the Bible. Being part of the nation of Israel was, in the Bible, a matter of the father’s identity, linked to the tribal association. Moses married Tzipporah, a non-Jew, but his children were unquestionably part of Israel. Jewish boys were expected, or at least encouraged to marry Jewish girls, as was evident in Samson’s parents admonishing him for his infatuation with Delilah. But the grandchildren would inherit land and remain part of the Nation of Israel.

A woman’s identity was more fluid, allowing a Yisrael woman married to a Kohen to partake of hekdesh. Ruth, a Moabitess, could enter into the nation of Israel but a Moabite man could not. But a man’s identity was set. He could marry a non-Jewish woman but his children were Jewish. This was diametrically changed by the rabbis in exile to matrilineality. It is significant that the return from the Babylonian Exile in the days of Ezra was the catalyst for 113 Israelite men to leave their non-Jewish wives. Though Halachically their children were Jewish, a return to Israel meant a redefining of their identity within the nation.

It is unsurprising that the secular Zionists who established Israel did not adhere to the Halachic definition of a Jew that had been used by Orthodox rabbis for 2,000 years of Exile to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people. When establishing a Jewish state while the smoke from the Holocaust still hung over Europe, they chose, instead, to base the Law of Return on the definition of Jew used by the Nazis, i.e. anyone with one Jewish grandparent or who is married to a Jewish spouse. Whether it was an intended or unintended result of this decision, many Israeli citizens are not Halachically Jewish. Since the Zionists perceived Judaism as a religion like Christianity and a matter of faith, they excluded from the Law of Return any descendant of Jews who voluntarily abandoned the Jewish religion or converted.

It is interesting that if a Jew “accepts Jesus”, becoming part of what is called the Messianic Jewish movement, the Israeli government considers that person to have converted out of the Jewish faith and he may not make aliyah based on the Law of Return.

Due to Israel’s success and attractive lifestyle, being Jewish now has practical benefits. After the fall of the Soviet Union, over one million Russians emigrated to Israel. Over one-quarter of these new olim were not Halachically Jewish but were eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return due to patrilineal Jewish descent or marriage to a Jew. Russian law and culture determined religious identity along patrilineal lines. Being part of the Jewish nation has a practical benefit for anyone from an economically depressed country wishing to improve their condition.

With a few exceptions, the Knesset has assiduously avoided defining Jewish identity as it would undoubtedly lead to an irreconcilable confrontation with the Orthodox and Haredi factions. The notable exception to legislation concerning religious identity concerns conversions. Though conversions performed under the auspices of anyone but an Orthodox rabbi are unacceptable to Orthodox communities outside of Israel, they are accepted for the purposes of Aliyah under the Law of Return. The Chief Rabbinate has not contested this however they fought, and recently lost, a law that recognized non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel for the purposes of Aliyah.

As an ancillary though powerfully relevant point, conversions to Judaism, which were rare just a few decades ago, are growing in numbers. Judaism was, for 2,000 years, the basis of persecution and the Jew the most reviled member of society. With the birth of Israel, and even more so since Jerusalem was unified in 1967, this is no longer so. This could be attributed to the improved image and treatment of Jews making it more attractive to Gentiles to choose to be a Jew. I believe this growing phenomenon is the manifestation of the miraculous pre-geula ingathering of the exiles.

In conclusion, the importance of having a clear practical approach to Jewish identity is growing. Due to political partisanship in Israel being defined along religious and secular lines, the Halakhic definition will not be adopted in Israel. Since it has economic as well as social and religious ramifications, it will be worked out eventually.

I am more concerned about the Orthodox Jewish community in the US. As the recent incident proved, non-Jews can and will infiltrate the Jewish community posing as Jews. That is dangerous but there is an even greater danger. Given the overwhelming mandate of PC “woke” culture, there is an inclination even among Orthodox rabbis to be more accepting of “the other.” When faced with a person whose sexual or gender preferences put them outside of Halakhic limits, rabbis and laypeople may be inclined to base their decisions on PC principles.

But even more dangerous is when Jews operate by the same principles that have guided them for generations. “He said he was Jewish so I believed him” is no longer an option. If Orthodox rabbis have decided that only Orthodox conversions are valid for entrance into the Orthodox community, they must follow up on that. Jewish identity must be verified in order to be a member of an Orthodox shul or to be granted smicha.

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