Who is a Jew?
Halakha, Jewish law, defines a Jew as someone who is either
the child of a Jewish mother, or a person who converts to Judaism in accord
with Jewish law.
This standard is mandated by the Talmud, the record of Oral Law that
explicates the Torah, the text on which Jewish law is based. According to
the Talmud, this standard has been followed since the giving of the Torah at
Mount Sinai some 3500 years ago. Non-Orthodox Jewish historians claim that
this standard has been followed only for the last 2,000 years.
Mere belief in the principles of Judaism does not make one a Jew. Similarly,
non-adherence by one who is Jewish to Jewish principles of faith does not
make one lose one's Jewish status. However, the Israeli legal definition of
a Jew excludes those who have joined other religions.
In the last half of the 20th century, two theologically liberal (primarily
American) Jewish groups Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism have
allowed people who do not meet these criteria to define themselves as Jews.
They no longer require converts to follow traditional Jewish procedures of
conversion, and they accept a person as a Jew even if their mother is
non-Jewish, so long as the father is a Jew.
This has thus resulted in a serious schism among the Jewish people; today
many Reform Jewish and secular Jewish-Americans consider themselves Jews,
although they are not considered Jewish by Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews,
and even by many Reform Jews outside of the United States.
Some Reform Jews view Judaism as a religion alone, and thus they view Jews
who convert to another faith as non-Jews. In contrast, traditional rabbinic
Judaism views Judaism as a peoplehood, and not merely a religion. In this
view, those who leave Judaism by converting to another religion are still
seen as Jewish people; however, they are seen as apostates who by their
actions have chosen to remove themselves from the Judaic religion.
According to Jewish law, Jewishness is determined by the mother; thus the
immediate male descendants of a female Jewish apostate are still considered
Jewish; all her female descendants, but only in an unbroken female line of
descent, and their immediate male children are also considered Jewish. While
most of these descendants probably would not be practicing Judaism, or in
many cases aware of their Jewishness, their status as Jews technically still
would be in effect. As such, all Jewish denominations welcome the return of
any of these people back to the Jewish community; such people would be
considered Jews in good standing without the need for a formal conversion.
Generally, people who have been raised as non-Jews would be expected to make
some sort of public sign that they are returning to Judaism, for instance
engaging in a course in Jewish education, joining a synagogue, having an
adult Bar Mitzvah ceremony, etc. If not circumcised, males are required to
have a circumcision.
Note that "circumcision" in the Jewish sense is not the medical procedure
performed by a doctor but is a religious procedure performed by a mohel.
Jewish is not inherited from one's Jewish father but from the mother, even if
he were not an apostate from Judaism. This traditional rabbinic view is
still held by many in the return-to-tradition wing of Reform, and by all of
Orthodox and Conservative Judaism.
Conversion to Judaism
The laws of
conversion to Judaism are based in discussions in the Talmud;
throughout history different Jewish communities have always agreed on the
basic requirements, although minor details have varied from community to
community. Specifics can be found in the responsa literature, and in the
various codes of Jewish law. Whenever someone converts to Judaism their
sponsoring rabbi has the role of a mara d'atra, local halakhic authority,
who has within bounds, the final say in deciding how to apply and interpret
Jewish law. A good summary of the process of conversion to Judaism can be
found in the Shulchan Aruch, a classic 16th century code of Jewish law.
Most authorities interpret Jewish law as forbidding proselytizing, or at
least discouraging it. Any non-Jew who wishes to become a Jew is gently
discouraged from doing so. Traditionally, a Rabbi turns away a prospective
convert three times. However, if the Rabbi approached is convinced of the
prospective convert's sincerity, then he will allow him or her to follow the
process of conversion. This process requires that the convert be taught the
basic laws and beliefs of Judaism. The convert must show an ability to keep
the laws and make a commitment to keep them.
The conversion takes place in the presence of a three-person court; the
three may be rabbis, but in pressing circumstances some or all may be Jewish
laypeople generally recognized in the local Jewish community as religiously
observant and trustworthy. The court must give the convert a summary of the
laws and the convert must undertake in the presence of the court to keep the
If the convert is a man he must undergo circumcision. If he is already
circumcised, he undergoes a symbolic circumcision in which a tiny drop of
blood is drawn. The convert then immerses himself or herself in a mikvah
(ritual bath) in the presence of the court. If the convert is a woman, she
immerses herself, in a standing position, in the presence of women, leaving
her head above the water. The court then witnesses the immersion of the head
from another room. (This fulfills two goals: (1) the immersion of the
head---and therefore the whole body---is witnessd by the court and (2) the
privacy and modesty of the woman is protected.)
Upon immersion, the convert becomes a full-fledged Jew. He or she is from
that moment onward required to keep the laws of Judaism; according to
classical Jewish theology, a convert will get an additional heavenly reward
for doing so, yet can incur heavenly punishment if he or she fails to keep
Conversion in Reform Judaism
These rules of conversion to Judaism are still followed by Orthodox and
Conservative Judaism, and by some of Reform Judaism outside of the USA.
However, Reform Judaism within the USA no longer follows these rules. The
Central Conference of American Rabbis (the official body of American Reform
rabbis) formally resolved to permit the admission of converts "without any
initiatory rite, ceremony, or observance whatever." (CCAR Yearbook 3 (1893),
73-95; American Reform Responsa, no. 68, at 236-237.)
Although this resolution has been examined critically by some Reform rabbis,
the resolution still remains the official policy of American Reform Judaism
(CCAR Responsa Circumcision for an Eight-Year-Old Convert 5756.13, and
Solomon B. Freehof, Reform Responsa for Our Time, no. 15.) Thus, American
Reform Judaism does not require ritual immersion in a mikveh, circumcision,
acceptance of any part of Jewish law as normative, the appearance before a
rabbinical court, or a minimal course of Jewish study. As such, their
conversions are generally rejected by non-Reform Jews.
Recognition of converts between denominations
Converts who have undergone non-Orthodox conversions will find that many
Jews will not marry them or their children. Orthodox Jews generally accept
the validity of most Orthodox conversions to Judaism, but reject the
validity of most Conservative conversions, and reject the validity of all
Reform and Reconstructionist conversions. Even among Orthodox Jews, disputes
Conservative Jews accept the validity of all Orthodox and Conservative
conversions to Judaism; they are willing to accept the validity of
individual Reform and Reconstructionist conversions if those cases are
carried out in accord with Jewish law; however these are examined on a case
by case basis.
Since they do not consider themselves bound by Jewish law, Reform and
Reconstructionist Jews accept the validity of conversions to Judaism from
all Jewish denominations.
It is sometimes not made clear to converts that their conversions would not
be accepted by all Jewish groups. This can lead to circumstances when a
Rabbi will not agree to let somebody who thought he was Jewish marry until
he undergoes a new conversion. In the case of a woman who underwent a less
stringent conversion, those who require a more stringent conversion would
consider her and all her children non-Jewish until they undergo the more
In addition the more stringent accuse the less stringent of causing
intermarriage and the deterioration of the Jewish people as they are
watering down what it means to be a Jew and making it easier for people to
leave Judaism by allowing them to easily join non-Jewish families. The less
stringent note that Jewish descent in the Bible appears to have been
patrileneal, that modern DNA testing can remove doubts about paternity, that
Judaism is no longer an ancient tribal religion and should model its
conversion procedures on modern faith communities, that the more stringent
discourage sincere conversions to a religion and people decimated by
generations of oppression, and that stringent conversion procedures
discourage non-Jewish romantic partners of Jews from joining the Jewish
Law of Return
The State of Israel allows any Jew to acquire citizenship; this is known as
the Law of Return. For the purposes of the Law of Return, anyone with a
Jewish grandparent or who converted to Judaism is considered Jewish, and
Israeli law also allows the immediate non-Jewish family of immigrants to
immigrate under the law. This definition is not the same as that in
traditional Jewish law; it is a deliberately wider, so as to include those
non-Jewish relatives of Jews who were perceived to be Jewish, and thus faced
anti-Semitism. More on this topic can be found in the article on Population
groups in Israel.
For the first two periods the history of the Jews is mainly that of
Palestine or Judea. It begins among those peoples which occupied the area
lying between the Nile river on the one side and the Tigris and the
Euphrates rivers on the other. Surrounded by ancient seats of culture in
Egypt and Babylonia, by the mysterious deserts of Arabia, and by the
highlands of Asia Minor, the land of Canaan (later Judea, then Palestine,
then Israel) was a meeting place of civilizations. The land was traversed by
old-established trade routes and possessed important harbors on the Gulf of
Akaba and on the Mediterranean coast, the latter exposing it to the
influence of the Levantine culture.
Jews descend mostly from the ancient Israelites (also known as Hebrews), who
settled in the land of Israel. The Israelites traced their common lineage to
the biblical patriarch Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. A kingdom was
established under Saul and continued under King David and Solomon. King
David conquered Jerusalem (first a Canaanite, then a Jebusite town) and made
it his capital. After Solomon's reign the nation split into two kingdoms,
the Israel (in the north) and the Judah (in the south). Israel was conquered
by the Assyrian ruler Shalmaneser V in the 8th century BC. The kingdom of
Judah was conquered by a Babylonian army in the early 6th century BC. The
Judahite elite was exiled to Babylonia, but later at least a part of them
returned to their homeland after the subsequent conquest of Babylonia by the
After the Persians were defeated by Alexander the Great, the Seleucid
Kingdom was formed which sought to incorporate Greek culture into the
Persian world. When the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, supported by
hellenized Jews, attempted to rededicate the Jewish temple to Zeus, the
orthodox Jews revolted under the leadership of the Maccabees and created an
independent Jewish kingdom known as the Hasmonaean Dynasty which lasted from
165 BCE to 63 BCE. This was followed by a period of Roman rule. In 66 CE,
Judeans began to revolt against the Roman rulers of Judea. The revolt was
smashed by the Roman emperors Vespasian and Titus Flavius. The Romans
destroyed all but a single wall of the Temple in Jerusalem and stole the
holy menorah. Judeans continued to live in their land in significant
numbers, and were allowed to practice their religion, until the 2nd century
when Julius Severus ravaged Judea while putting down the bar Kokhba revolt.
After 135, Jews were not allowed to enter the city of Jerusalem, although
this ban must have been at least partially lifted, since at the destruction
of the rebuilt city by the Persians in the 7th century, Jews are said to
have lived there.
Many of the Israeli Jews were sold into slavery while others became citizens
of other parts of the Roman Empire. This is the traditional explanation to
the diaspora. However, a majority of the Jews in Antiquity were most likely
descendants of convertites in the cities of the Hellenistic-Roman world,
especially in Alexandria and Asia Minor, and were only affected by the
diaspora in its spiritual sense, as the sense of loss and homelessness which
became a cornerstone of the Jewish creed, much supported by persecutions in
various parts of the world. The policy of conversion, which spread the
Jewish religion throughout the Hellenistic civilization, seems to have ended
with the wars against the Romans and the following reconstruction of Jewish
values for the post-Temple era.
Before the rise of Islam the Jews inhabited the entire Roman empire; with
the Arab expansion, some of them would move as far as India and China. Some
Jewish people are also descended from converts to Judaism outside the
Mediterranean world. While the Avars Hebrew origins/conversion debate
continues, it is known that some Khazars, Edomites, and Ethiopians, as well
as many Arabs, particularly in Yemen before, converted to Judaism in the
past; today in the United States and Israel some people still convert to
Judaism. In fact, there is a greater tradition of conversion to Judaism than
many people realize. The word "proselyte" originally meant a Greek who had
converted to Judaism. As late as the 6th century the rump Roman empire (i.e.
Byzantium) was issuing decrees against conversion to Judaism, implying that
conversion to Judaism was still occurring.
The commonly-used terms Ashkenazi and Sephardic refer both to a religious
and an ethnic division. Some scholars hold that Ashkenazi Jews are
descendants of those who originally followed the Palestinian Jewish
religious tradition, and Sephardic Jews are descendants of those who
originally followed the Babylonian religious tradition.
Jews have historically been divided into four major ethnic groups:
Ashkenazi (Jews who lived in Germany or France before migrating to Eastern
Sephardic (Jews who lived in Spain or Portugal)
Oriental Jews (Jews who lived in the Middle East and North Africa, but later
spread to Central Asia and South Asia). Note that in common usage, most
Oriental Jews are called Sephardic, as the religious rites of Oriental Jews
and Sephardic Jews is essentially the same.
The Yemenite Jews (also known as Teimanim). These are Oriental Jews whose
geographical and social isolation from the rest of the Jewish community
allowed them to develop a liturgy and set of practices sufficiently distinct
from other Oriental Jewish groups so as to be recognized as a different
Smaller groups of Jews include the following:
The Ethiopian Jews, also known as the Falasha or Beta Israel.
the Bene Israel, i.e. Jews who lived in Bombay, India.
The Cochin Jews, also living in India
The Romaniotes, i.e. Greek speaking Jews living in the Balkans from the
Hellenistic era until today (almost 6,000 people worldwide)
Yiddish is the traditional language of the Ashkenazi, whereas Ladino
(Judeo-Portuguese) is that of the Sephardim. Most Oriental Jews spoke
Arabic, but others spoke Aramaic or Persian.
Following the Spanish Inquisition the Sephardic Jews were dispersed, some
migrating to Europe, where they were assimilated into the Ashkenazi, others
migrating to the Middle East where they were assimilated into the Oriental
Jews. Most Oriental Jews practice Sephardic rite and are therefore sometimes
referred to as Sephardic. Ashkenazi Jews practice Ashkenazi rite.
Out of these communities, the largest by far are the Ashkenazim, comprising
~80% of the Jewish total, with Oriental Jews comprising most of the
Sub-groups of Jews include the Gruzim (Georgian Jews from the Caucasus),
Juhurim (Mountain Jews mainly from Daghestan in the eastern Caucasus),
Maghrebim (North African Jews), Abayudaya and (Ugandan Jews)
Ancient sects of Judaism
Almost all Jews today are Rabbinical Jews, who follow Judaism through the
lens of the oral law, contained in the Mishnah and Talmud. A miniscule group
known as the Karaites still exists. They accept the whole of the Tanakh, or
Hebrew Bible, but reject the teachings in the later Mishnah and Talmud. As a
result, the Karaites do not accept the Talmud's prohibition against eating
milk and meat together.
One small community of Samaritans is still extant; however, their religion
is not the same as rabbinic Judaism. The Samaritan faith and that of other
Jews diverged over a millennium ago; Samaritans do not consider themselves,
nor call themselves, Jews. The Samaritan religion is based on some of the
same books used as the basis of rabbinic Judaism, but these religions are
not identical. Samaritan scriptures include the Samaritan version of the
Torah, the Memar Markah, the Samaritan liturgy, and Samaritan law codes and
biblical commentaries. They do not recognize the legitimacy of the oral law,
nor most of the Jewish Bible (Tanakh).
Traditionally only the greatest scholars of the
Torah and Talmud rise to
become the leaders of the Jewish people. This requires deep study of the
Talmud and the Shulkhan Arukh Code of Jewish Law as well as many other
classical texts of Jewish scholarship. Normally, one must study many years
in a Yeshiva to become a rabbi. Synagogues are led by rabbis (spiritual
leaders). In many synagogues there is a hazzan (cantor) that leads many
parts of the prayer service. Many Sephardic rabbinic Jewish communities
refer to their leaders as hakham. Among Yemenite Jews, known as Teimanin,
the term mori (teacher) is used.
The spiritual leader of a Karaite community is often called a hakham.
Prior to World War II the world population of Jews was around 18 million.
The Holocaust reduced this number to around 12 million. Today, there are an
estimated 14 million Jews worldwide in over 134 countries. Of these, around
5.8 million live in the United States and 5 million live in Israel. Most of
the remainder live in Canada, Hungary, Ukraine, France, Argentina, Russia
and Germany, including 2.4 million in Europe. At the moment, an increasing
number of Russian Jews are emigrating to Germany.
More than 500,000 Jews live in Latin America. Nearly half of them live in
Argentina, while large communities also exist in Brazil (about 120,000) and
Mexico (about 50,000).
Israel is the only country in which
Jews form a majority of the population.
It was established as an independent state on May 14, 1948. The symbol on
the Israeli flag is known as the Star of David ("Magen David" in Hebrew).
Despite the small number of
Jews worldwide, many influential thinkers in
modern times have been ethnically Jewish. These include Karl Marx (whose
parents converted to Christianity before he was born, and gave him no Jewish
education), Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, Noam
Chomsky and Milton Friedman. See List of famous Jews.