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Who counts as Jewish?
To non-Jews, this might sound like a bizarre inquiry, but everyone within the faith knows the thorny politics that surround this question. And, as is often the case, if you ask this question to two Jews, you’ll get three opinions.
This question is more than just a political dispute. The answer essentially defines the purpose and essence of Judaism, as well as who gets to claim Jewish status. It’s a bitterly divisive question, and one that often leaves many people feeling hurt and excluded, if not downright irate. Please, for real, see disclaimer #3 at the bottom***.
In this article, I will first outline what I think are a few of the most commonly held opinions on the subject (see disclaimer #1 at the bottom*). Then, I will discuss what I feel are the strengths and weaknesses of each.
From the standpoint of traditional Judaism, being Jewish means having a mother who was born Jewish, since tradition dictates that Judaism is matrilineal. It’s binary: either you have a Jewish mother (and she had a Jewish mother, who also had a Jewish mother…), or you’re not Jewish. The essence of Judaism, according to this theory, is genetic; nothing more, nothing less. This was the way things ran for thousands of years.
As the world (and Judaism) have evolved, additional modern approaches to the “who counts?” question have emerged. The next most traditional approach argues that being Jewish means being religious and following the laws of the religion. Praying every day, keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, etc., are what define and separate us from other religions. People differ in their opinions about which specific practices you need to keep and to what degree, but the basic idea is that the essence of Judaism is religious practice.
The religiosity theory primarily hinges on behaviors and religious practices, but part of that is an implicit sense of feeling connected to the religion. This is another answer to the “who counts?” question: that Judaism is primarily about feeling connected to the religion, engaging with the religion, and being proud to be part of the religion. This is probably the approach that has the most variation among its constituents: for some, feeling connected means thinking about issues from a Jewish perspective and having discussions about Jewish topics. For others, it means being proud of being Jewish and being a vocal advocate for Jewish causes. For others, it means being religious and deriving meaning from religious practices (essentially an addendum to the “Religiosity” answer above). For others still, it’s some combination of the three. The key component of this approach is that the person’s spirituality and connection to Judaism are what matter, not their exact behaviors, practices, or familial background.
Finally, many Jews subscribe to the “Cultural Judaism” approach, which focuses on the many pieces of Jewish culture that do not directly relate to specific religious practices or doctrine. Eating bagels, schmoozing, Israeli dance, and other activities define this approach. From this vantage point, being around other Jews and sharing in the common culture is the defining feature of being Jewish. This approach is perhaps the most common among American Jews today.
Now that I’ve outlined some of the most common approaches to the “who counts?” question, I’ll take a moment to provide my own personal musings on their relative merits:
This is the least convincing and most problematic approach to me. First and foremost, it does not require any effort or devotion from the person; if you were lucky enough to be born to a Jewish mother, you get a free pass. This seems directly at odds with many core aspects of Judaism (especially traditional Judaism!), which emphasize the importance of hard work and dedication. In addition, it excludes a huge swath of Jews in a way that fails the “sniff test”: according to this theory, a practicing Jew who goes to synagogue, loves the religion, and constantly tries to build their Jewish community might not be considered Jewish. On the other hand, someone who hates the religion, feels no connection to it, and has no interest in raising a Jewish family, could be considered Jewish. While this is technically the answer according tradition, to me it feels inadequate and arbitrary.
On a more practical level, this seems like a strategically poor approach: the genetic theory primarily incentivizes marriage practices, with little focus on people’s religious practices or sense of connection and belonging. The question of whether intermarriage will shorten the lifespan of the Jewish religion is outside the scope of this article, but I would strongly argue that a world of genetically “pure” Jews with no connection to the religion is much less likely to keep the religion alive than a group of genetically diverse, but incredibly enthusiastic ones.
The religious approach makes sense on a basic level: Judaism is a religion, and religions are traditionally defined by beliefs and practices. If someone is born into a Jewish family, but their family does not engage in any religious activities, it seems like a misnomer to label them Jewish (unless you subscribe to the genetic theory).
From a pragmatic and self-preservation perspective, this approach makes the most sense to me. The people who are most likely to pass down the religion (and even, one could argue, the cultural aspects) are probably the people who are voluntarily engaging in Jewish practices in the first place. The religious approach is probably the simplest one that passes the “sniff test” for me.
The main problem with this approach is that it risks alienating a huge group of modern Jews for whom religious practice is not the defining feature of their Judaism. For many, religious practice might be a piece of their Jewish identity, but connecting with Judaism in other ways is their priority. Given how quickly Judaism (along with other religions) is shrinking, it seems like a mistake to cast out this massive group of people in pursuit of a stricter definition.
The “Connecting with the Religion” approach also makes a lot of sense to me, and it solves some of the inclusivity issues that go along with the “Religiosity” approach. Many Jews feel a deep connection with Judaism, whether or not they actively engage with the religious doctrine. This approach allows a diversity of practices and backgrounds to coexist under one roof; whether you connect to Judaism through prayer, discussion, Israel advocacy, or any of the other myriad options, this approach offers you a seat at the table.
From a pragmatic standpoint, this approach complements and mirrors the “Religiosity” one. It still focuses on people who are actively maintaining the religion, but allows for the inclusion of a wider slice of the modern Jewish pie. If you make Jewishly-focused people feel included, one would imagine that they’ll be more likely to keep up the practice (however they define it) and pass it down to their children.
The downside to this approach is that it has the potential to be a bit too permissive, since it essentially allows people to define Judaism however they want. While that may be good for the most part, there are certainly cases where it can go too far. As an example, many people define their Judaism primarily through the practice of tikkun olam, or healing the world. For many of them, though, this ends up simply being a commitment to charity that is not actually informed by the traditions of Judaism. While a commitment to charity is always a good thing, I think that this is pushing the envelope by ascribing a general, secular value to Judaism, simply because A) they subscribe to it and B) they also happen to be Jewish. At some point, it’s important for one’s Jewish principles to actually be rooted in specific Jewish traditions (however broadly defined).
The “Cultural Judaism” approach is one that I find fairly unconvincing (at least as a complete explanation). First and foremost, it suffers from the same problem as the “Feeling Connected” approach above: if anyone can define what cultural Judaism means and no one can dispute it, then there are bound to be cases where people include things that seem too general and secular. Beyond that, this approach feels slightly too removed from the religious nature of Judaism for me. Specifically, I know many non-Jews (both self-defined and as defined by other Jews) who love many of the aspects of cultural Judaism. They sometimes joke that they wouldn’t even need to convert, because they love going to Bar Mitzvahs, eating bagels, saying yiddish words, etc. Saying that these people are genuinely Jewish fails the “sniff test” pretty clearly to me. If our definition of Judaism includes people who would never seriously consider themselves Jewish (and who very few Jews would consider Jewish), it cannot be the sole way in which we define Judaism.
That said, I think that cultural Judaism makes a lot of sense as one piece of what it means to be Jewish. Few Jews would deny that culture plays a role in their relationship with Judaism, even if they primarily define culture through religious practices like going to synagogue. If this is the case, any definition that wholly ignores the cultural component would seem incomplete.
From a pragmatic point of view, I think the “Cultural Judaism” approach has both pluses and minuses. On the one hand, the “Cultural” approach makes many people who would otherwise have little connection to the religion feel included. To not use this definition (at least partially) runs the risk of alienating those people enough to drive them away from the religion altogether. On the other hand, I think there is a strong argument to be made that Jewish culture (much like any other culture) has a tendency to fade over time, unless anchored to something more enduring. It boils down to the classic argument of whether to be prescriptive or descriptive, and I think there is merit to both points.
So, where does that leave us? Obviously, I do not have the perfect answer to the “who counts?” question, and I would strongly argue that anyone would be hard pressed to find one.
My hope in writing this article is that it encourages Jews to engage in discussion around this question in a more productive way. I hope that people will think about not only their own perspectives, but also how those perspectives interact with other Jews and their experiences.
If we do this, I think we have a much better chance of creating a religion with both purpose and inclusion, flexibility and resolve; one that has the power to attract people from across the religious spectrum, and one that can outlast the ups and downs of external historical trends.
This list is by no means exhaustive. If you or people you know have an approach to Judaism that does not appear in this article, that doesn’t mean it’s not legitimate! I chose to include these four approaches because they are the most common ones that I’ve encountered.
“It seems like sometimes you use the word ‘Judaism’ to refer to the culture/race, but other times you use it to refer to the religion.” That is correct! I find it hard to argue that Judaism is entirely one or the other, and I would have tied myself in knots trying to delineate which definition I was using in every instance throughout the article.
In writing this article, I sincerely did not set out to offend or upset anyone. That said, I know that it is hard to avoid doing so when discussing such a hot-button issue. I hope that if people take issue with parts of this piece, they’ll use that as inspiration to write their own articles or have discussions with friends in a respectful and productive way.
About the Author: Eli Feldman is the Research Associate to the President at The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a non-partisan non-profit that defends student and faculty rights on college campuses. Eli graduated from Yale in 2016 with a degree in psychology. Eli is an alumni of GatherDC’s Open Doors Fellowship, from which he launched the Jewish Monthly Article Club (JMAC), a club for Jewish 20s/30s to discuss articles about a range of important topics. He is passionate about sports, music, coding, politics, free speech, Marvel movies, and tech.