Does 'Opting Out' Make People Non-Jewish?

Rabbi Aron Moss contributes regular Q&A commentaries to Gather the Jews.  Rabbi Moss is the proprietor of Nefesh and can be reached at rabbimoss@nefesh.com.au.  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rabbi Moss.

Question:

Although I was raised in a traditional home, was brissed and barmitzvad (sorry about these spellings) I have never had any faith or “religious” belief. I am now aged 34, and would describe myself as an atheist. I have no wish to be buried in a Jewish cemetery (and my Will has also made this clear) and have married a non-Jew in a civil ceremony. My question is, can I consider myself officially non-Jewish, by my effective opting-out, or do I need some sort of form or dispensation to be officially no longer Jewish?

Many thanks for your help with what is perhaps an unusual question.

Best wishes,

Edward

Answer:

Dear Edward,

I would like to help you, but I feel there’s nothing I can do. According to your question, you have done everything possible to negate your Jewishness: in practice you do not keep Jewish tradition; in belief you are an atheist; in family life you have married a non-Jew and thus won’t have Jewish children; and even in death you are determined not to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

One would think that all this would be enough to confirm your un-Jewishness. But no.

For some reason, you are still unsatisfied: you still feel Jewish. So much so, you feel you need official dispensation. And so, being an atheist, to whom do you turn to solve this problem? A doctor? A psychiatrist? The civil celebrant that married you? No…….You turn to a rabbi!!! I’m reminded of the child who ran away from home, but ended up just going round and round the block because his parents told him never to cross the road by himself.

I’m sorry, Edward. There is nothing more you can do. You are as Jewish as Moses, Woody Allen and the Chief Rabbi of Wales. And you always will be. There is nothing you can do to change it. In fact, it seems that being Jewish is the most dominant facet of your personality. It is even influencing the place you want to be buried. (Why would an atheist care about where they are buried?) Edward, Jewishness is not a belief, a feeling, a conviction or a lifestyle. It is a state of being. You have a beautiful Jewish soul. You can either celebrate it or fight against it. But it will always be there. So why not celebrate it?

All the best,

Rabbi Moss

2 replies
  1. Stephen Richer
    Stephen Richer says:

    Hmmm… I know that this makes sense genetically and according to Jewish law (per the conversation on the “Jews for Jesus” piece with Will G), but I don’t know that I like it. It seems weird to me that somebody can’t walk away from being Jewish — after all, you can even walk away from being an American by renouncing your citizenship. And I don’t like to think that we trap people in Judaism, and I don’t really want to count these people as Jews if they despise being Jewish.

    But I guess I’m thinking of it too much in a religion and not enough as a culture/race. Just as you can’t walk away from being white or black — you can’t walk away from some immutable genetic characteristic — you can’t walk away from being Jewish (by birth, but you can walk away from being Jewish by practice).

    I don’t really like this topic — I don’t like being in the business of telling people whether they’re Jewish or not. Interesting/good post nonetheless.

    Reply

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