Who Is a Jew and What Is Jewish?

March 1, 2011
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Susan A. Glenn & Naomi B. Sokoloff

In 2009, controversy erupted when a publically funded Orthodox Jewish school in London denied admission to a child with a Jewish father and a mother who had converted to Judaism. The Orthodox standard of Jewish­ness employed by the school favored children born to Jewish mothers, regardless of how religiously observant, over children born to non-Jewish mothers, regardless of how stringently those children and their families observed mitzvot. The school insisted that because the mother’s conversion did not meet those standards, neither she nor her son had a right to call themselves Jews. But that was not the end of the story. As it turns out, while British law permits publicly funded faith schools to use religion as a criterion of admission, it strictly forbids discrimination on the basis of race. And when the British Supreme Court heard the case in December of 2009, the majority opinion declared that “by definition, discrimination that is based upon [the matrilineal] test is discrimination on racial grounds” and therefore illegal. State-funded Jewish schools are now required to adjust their policies so that evidence of faith-based activity, rather than Orthodox halakhic tests, are the criteria for admission. The ruling continues to be contested.

This case provides but one example of how the age-old questions — “Who is a Jew and what is Jewish?” — have taken on myriad, sometimes startling, new manifestations in the rapidly changing world of the late-20th and early-21st centuries. The past decade has posed a wide range of unprecedented conundrums. Some dilemmas, such as the British school admission debate, have to do with the ways Jewish groups interact with the laws governing states and societies in the Diaspora. In Israel, too, perplexities abound: Immigrants without formal ties to religion, Arab citizens, guest workers and their children, and homosexuals who assert their voices, press their cases for full civil rights, and struggle to define their relationship to the predominant culture of a Jewish majority — a culture shaped in significant ways by Jewish religious norms and constituencies. Furthermore, in recent years, awareness has grown regarding shifting and dynamic aspects of modern Jewish identity among Jews around the world — in North America, Israel, Africa, Asia, and Europe. The national media, as well as Jewish-interest periodicals and exhibits such as “The Jewish Identity Project: New American Photography” at the Jewish Museum in New York City, vividly call attention to the varieties of cultural expressions and physical appearances among Jews worldwide. Much interest revolves around the changing demographics of Jewish life, as intermarriage, and adoption — along with waves of immigration from the Former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, Iran, and other countries — have introduced diverse individuals and populations into Jewish communities whose ancestral roots were primarily European.

All these phenomena challenge previous conventional wisdom or assumptions of what is normative, and they have heightened awareness that the conundrums posed by the question “who counts as a Jew?” are ever evolving. Similarly, the movement of women into positions of religious authority has raised intense enthusiasms, intense opposition, and intensely creative discussions about the gendering of the word “Jew” within the practice of Judaism. Moreover, scholars and the wider public alike have avidly followed debates arising over the conflict between Jewish self-identification and established norms of ethnic and religious identity. Such debates have become especially acute as communities that live outside the cultural and social mainstreams of Jewish life (such as the Lemba of southern Africa, the Subbotniks of Ukraine, the Falash-Mura of Ethiopia, the Kuki-Chin-Mizo in India, and the Crypto-Jews of the American Southwest) assert their rights to be recognized as Jews.

One of the most useful ways of understanding today’s contending definitions of “Jewishness” is to encourage cross-disciplinary and comparative perspectives on what might best be described as the various Jewish “epistemologies” — ways of knowing who and what is “Jewish.” Our recent book, Boundaries of Jewish Identity, brings together the work of a diverse group of scholars with insights from the realms of law, anthropology, history, sociology, literature, and popular culture. It sheds light on three overlapping areas of debate: definitions of who and what is “Jewish,” including controversies surrounding conversion, apostasy, and notions of authenticity; images and self-representation of Jews, including those found in scientific and rabbinical discourse; and boundary issues arising out of the interactions among Jews and non-Jews.

We start from the premise that, though Jews have often been defined by their enemies or within the discourse of surrounding majorities, Jews themselves have carried on a rich and sometimes rancorous internal dialogue about how Jewishness should be defined. Contributors examine how those definitions have been established, enforced, challenged, and transformed. We ask: What is considered normative, what is official proclamation, and what is imposed and by whom? The essays in our collection — like many of those in this issue of Sh’ma — take into account divergent views on whether or not Jewishness requires religious belief, practice, and formal institutional affiliation, as well as how individual claims to Jewish identity are measured against biological or physical notions.

Questions about identity generate multiple answers, reflecting the different social, intellectual, and political locations of those who are asking. They reveal that different ways of knowing and determining what is “Jewish” — genetic, cultural, social, religious, physical, legal, linguistic, literary, and others — produce surprisingly diverse and sometimes contested definitions of identity. And they lead to a host of further, specific questions. For example, in Israel, how do lived practices and popular behaviors challenge official categories of Jewish citizenship rights and government policy? How does halakhah respond to advances in genetic testing, assisted reproduction, and other medical progress? What do the ideas and practices of groups at the margins of the Jewish establishment reveal about the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion? In literature, how do stereotypes of Jewishness function? Do they merely demarcate and reconfirm reductive, schematic, and inflexible (hence necessarily flawed) boundaries of identity, or can they be deployed artistically to critique simplistic notions and circumvent or reconfigure conventional boundaries? In popular culture and everyday behavior, if looking for Jews on the basis of their physical qualities is a very Jewish way of knowing who is Jewish, how do we reconcile a century of social scientific thinking that attributes stereotypes of Jewish looks to racist thinking? And what does the continuous and shifting public Jewish discourse about whether Jews look “Jewish” reveal about the complex and contradictory meanings that Jews have attached to the notion of their own physical differences?

In order to understand the sources and dimensions of conflicts — both contemporary and historical — about the definition of Jewish identity, we need to ask how boundaries work. How are they formed, revised, and lived? It is important, today, to illuminate the varied and contingent meanings of Jewish identity across time and space. Regardless of the formal historical, institutional, or national definitions of “who is a Jew,” the experience of identity is layered, shifting, syncretic, and constructed, and it is clear that Jewish identity can be reforged under new circumstances. Yet, at the same time, the social practices through which individuals and communities of Jews in various parts of the world have challenged conventional understandings of the boundaries of Jewish identity have opened up profound debates on questions of cultural and even biological authenticity. Jewishness has always exceeded clear-cut categories of racial, ethnic, and religious identity — hence, the ongoing, continually renewed, and multifaceted debates generated by the question, “Who is a Jew?”

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Susan A. Glenn is the Howard and Frances Keller Endowed Professor of History and a member of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Naomi B. Sokoloff is a professor of Near Eastern languages and civilizations and a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of Washington.

Glenn and Sokoloff are editors of Boundaries of Jewish Identity (University of Washington Press, 2010).


  1. What I’ve found in my journey towards Judaism is that being Jewish, as you’ve mentioned, can mean so many different things to different people. For me, being Jewish is first and foremost a religious choice. I am racially and culturally black, but my religious identity is Jewish. In addition, because I am culturally and racially black I, inevitably, will change the cultural and racial makeup of my Jewish Identity. The Jewish identity of my family and the Jewish identity of the family I hope to create with my partner.

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  2. Where did the ISH come from in the word jewish? Christians are not christianish, muslims are not muslimish, so on and so forth. I find it interesting the ish is added to the word jew, does any one know how it got added? Maybe if only one of your parents is a jew that only makes you jewish?

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  3. Who is a Jew?

    The most often repeated mitzvah of ALL the mitzvoth in the Torah is “be kind to the stranger in your midst, for you too were once strangers in the land of Mitzraim.”

    This positive mitzvah is repeated more than 30 times.

    If conversions are no longer recognised, then at a stroke, there is no such thing as a Jew. For Avraham Aveinu was himself a convert when he made his brit milah.

    Are the Haredim going to ex-communicate Rabbi Akiva’s parents, David HaMelech’s grandmother Ruth, and countless others for being gerim? I think not.

    If every Jew is a grandchild of Avraham Aveinu, then every Jew is the grandchild of a convert.

    I have halachically Jewish friends (i.e. born to a Jewish mother) who eat bacon while they drive to the pub to get drunk on Shabbat. Yet these are considered ‘real Jews’, while the most passionate and observant convert is not.

    The Rabbinate exhibits the propensity, like any other organisation, to be yet another Big Boys’ Club. The world is, sadly, still run by Big Boys’ Clubs.

    In my view, to be a Jew is to be a ‘light unto the nations’. This is the central mandate for the Jew.

    Sadly, I have met some very dark souls who fly under the banner of ‘ultra-orthodoxy’. To me, they are not upholding the mandate; light, kindness, love, service of HaShem, and sanctification of HaShem’s name.

    To me, being Jewish and keeping the mitzvoth is analogous of being in the army.

    Being a light unto the nations is the ‘big picture’, just as an army’s raison d’etre is to defend its people.
    The mitzvoth are all of the seemingly irrelevant and finicky things which a soldier must do, from making her bed perfectly, to having perfectly shined boots and buttons.

    Both are extremely important in service to the King of Kings, HKBH. If, however, a soldier loses sight of the big picture, and becomes obsessed with shining her buttons to the detriment of defending her nation, then her role as a soldier is worse than futile. She becomes a danger.

    Just the same, those ultra-orthodox Jews who have forgotten about being a light unto the nations (i.e. EVERYONE ON EARTH) and instead have become closed in upon their own dark little worlds, have become futile and dangerous as Jews.

    Who is a Jew? Read the Torah - it’s all in there.
    Baruch HaShem!

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    Shanti Rachaman
  4. Insights into the Hebrew Language: The scripture Root of the terms Jew and Judaism.

    *YEHUDIM.{Yod, Hey, Vav, Dad, Yod, Mem} from the word {Jew, Strong # 3064 Yehudi} Interpreted Jews, is the Hebraic portmanteau word from two existing terms Strong # 3050 YAH} and {Strong’s # 1935 “Hohd.” he, vav, daleth.} meaning splendors, majesty, glory, honor. Literally signify “YHWH’S Glory.”

    Adherence to satisfy a number of prophetic verses, one is in (Num. 6:27) “They shall put My name upon the sons of Israel, and I will bless them.” Laid claim in the scripture as the people of YHWH, for only they are titleholders of YHWH’s mononym (Proverbs 1:7,9, 4:5,9, Isaiah 43:6-7.) (Michah 4:5) “For all people will walk every one in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of YHWH our Elohim FOREVER and ever.” It is a real meritorious act of valor to namable be known by our Heavenly Father mononym.

    Those that are Yehudim by the freedom of chose {Strong’s 1481 Gur.} (Ex. 12:48, Eze. 47:23) while {Strong’s # 1616 Gehr. gimel, resh.} has a very sympathetic meaning, it’s based on {Strong’s # 1481 Gur} meaning Abide and Assemble together, Dwell together, Guest, one who had converted {Strong’s # 1481 Gur. gimel, vav, resh.} The convert Tribal inheritance is determine in (Eze. 47:21-23). A delightful manifestation for the title Yehudim by chose is in the portmanteau term {Strong‘s 3054 Yahad. Yod, He, Daleth.} this word derive from two terms [Strong’s # 3050 Yah and Strong’s # 1906 “Had.” He, daleth.] means “YAH’s Joyous declaration,” meaning He Joyously declare them as His own.

    The Hebrew Yahadut is a offshoot from Strong‘s 3054 Yahad, the evidence indicate that “Yahadut” is comprise of the same root letters and pronounce is associated with Strong‘s 3054 Yahad. The scripture revival what is a convert “Yehudim.” The veracity defined in (Est. 8:17) “People of the land‚ converted {Strong‘s 3054 Yahad. Yod, He, Daleth.} to Yehudim” When they converted they were called literally by YHWH’S mononym, in the Hebrew with the titled “Yehudim.” Indicated by a different Hebrew word {“HiteYahad.” He, tov, Yod, he, Daleth.} that it means “to make one‘s self a Yehudi.“

    “Yahadut” has been considered as the accepted form of expression for the only religion joyously reveal and titled by His name.

    YAHADUT { Yod, He, Daleth, Vav, Tov.} The word Judaism is the word translated from the Hebrew Yahadut. The Hebrew Yahadut lay claim to the meaning as “YHWH scripture religion.” Yahadut literally root denote “YHWH Joyous proclamation” for there is only single religion declared in the scripture.

    The word Yahadut derive from a beautify offshoot of [Strong‘s 3054 Yahad.] Both Yahadut and Strong‘s 3054 Yahad are also a Hebraic portmanteau words formed by blending together two distinct words, then combining their meaning, such as Yahadut is produced from [Strong’s # 3050 Yah] and [Strong’s # 2304 Hedut.] Strong’s # 2304 Hadut {Heth, Daleth, Vav, Tov.} is initially from Strong’s # 2302 Hadah {Heth, Daleth, He.} which in turn is rooted in Strong’s # 1906 “Had” {He, daleth.} all this Hebrew words are an expression of His passionate enthusiasm and unrestrained declaration of joy.

    The Torah along is the preeminence source to understand the mechanism that causes the real natural processes of our blessing, spiritual strength, joy, delight and happiness, therefore applied for the word “Strong’s # 2304 Hadut” express in (1 Ch. 16:27) and (Nehemiah. 8:10) “YHWH’s Joyousness {Heth, Daleth, Vav, Tov.} is your strength.” Its a rooted from “Joyous declare shout” {Strong’s # 1906 “Had.” He, daleth.} which is another word that means His “declare” Joy, Delight and Happiness as [Strong’s # 2304 Hedut.” heth, daleth, vav, tov.] “YAHADUT” maintain YHWH mononym association with His Joyousness “proclamation” for a Torah covenant relationship should be by portmanteau word definition a delightedness religious practice. YHWH children encompass insatiable spiritual aspiration to find their real and lasting scripture heritage, and is undisputable that the scripture is Yahadut preeminence defining source. We find the term “Yahadut” was coin by the first century BCE as YHWH’s religion. References include the Second Book of Maccabees 2:21 and 8:1. “Yahadut” or “dat Yahadut,” this word has been utilize as the Yahudim religion for more than two millennia. Yehudim (Jews) [derive from Strong’s # 3050 Yah and Strong’s # 1935 Hohd] is the titled of those in HIS flock, and in His Kingdom who practice Yahadut [Judaism, indicate YHWH system of joyous covenanted life.]

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