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Who has the right, or authority, to bestow Jewish identity on someone?

Clive Lawton
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PLUS61J 53 (2)

Published: 22 February 2022

Last updated: 4 March 2024

In the last of his series, CLIVE LAWTON asks whether, in a time of shrinking Jewish populations, we can afford to allow draconian gatekeepers to turn away those who want to join the tribe

I HAVE OFTEN said that being a Jew is a bit like being male or female. For most people, what you’re born as is a given, but then you might spend the rest of your life deciding how you want to do it. Society provides us a few good templates but each of us develops our way of doing male or female, sometimes happily, sometimes resentfully, and occasionally with a sense of utter rejection.

Even contemporary controversies concerning whether trans people can choose their sex do not undermine my parallel. Some say of trans people: “just because you say you’re a man (or a woman) doesn’t make you one”. But who has the right, or the authority, to bestow such identity?

And the same is true for Jews.

There is one definition of a Jew which I think no-one disputes. Pop out of an indisputably Jewish womb and there you are – Jewish. Jewish mother - Jewish child. Done!

But the story becomes muddy when we consider those with Jewish fathers only.

Most Progressive Jewish streams accept someone as Jewish who has a Jewish father and has been brought up to think of themselves as Jewish in a Jewish milieu; what has become known as “patrilineal descent”. This inclusion of this group, traditionally not allowed to identify as Jews, fits the Progressive Jewish reluctance to see Jews as primarily a tribal clan.

The culture, tradition and faith are as important in the Progressive Jewish view, so it seems absurd to them that someone who is brought up with a Jewish consciousness and identity should be rejected because of the sex of their Jewish parent. (The position is even further reinforced when one remembers the general desire of Progressive Jews to resist any differentiation between the sexes on all Jewish matters.)

Such a position is not accepted in Halakha. Only mothers count - though there is a little-known halakhic position (which is entirely respectable) which accepts that someone with a Jewish father only is a little closer to being Jewish and might therefore be treated more leniently or welcomingly in matters of conversion compared to their counterpart who has non-Jewish parents.

The status of converts is often framed as 'Who is a Jew?' but should be called 'Who is a rabbi?' The issue is who has the authority to declare someone Jewish?

And then there are converts. The status of converts is often framed as the “Who is a Jew?” discussion, but more properly it should be called the “Who is a rabbi?” debate. The issue is who has the authority to declare someone Jewish? It’s not about the process demanded of a prospective convert, either.

Imagine that a Reform rabbi decided to impose the most rigorous imaginable process on some potential converts. They still would not be accepted by the Orthodox authorities because that rabbi would not be deemed capable of making such a decision. In the end, then, it’s the status of the rabbi which decides who is a legitimate convert.

Blowing the shofar in Mumbai
Blowing the shofar in Mumbai

Obviously, among Progressive Jews, those accepted as converts by Progressive rabbis are fully Jewish in their eyes because they do not doubt the rabbinic status of the rabbis doing the deed. Add in Conservative/Masorti and Reconstructionist rabbis, to say nothing of Renewal, post-denominational and plain freelance rabbis - and the situation is unsurprisingly muddled.

And when their female converts give birth, is that a “Jewish womb” the baby has just popped out of?

But in the 21st century, that’s by no mean the only “Who is a Jew?” issue.

Let’s go back a bit. As everyone knows, Jews can be divided into Ashkenazim and Sephardim. For example, Israel has an Ashkenazi and a Sephardi Chief Rabbi. There are various cultural and traditional differences between the two camps, but each accepts the Jewishness of the other. You may also know that it’s only Ashkenazim who have divided into denominations – Orthodox, Reform etc – that we have today. Sephardim didn’t do that.

But this simple frame is woefully inadequate. Visit Israel today and you’ll see the vast swathe of Israeli Jewish society which is Mizrakhi – eastern. Loosely called Arab Jews or Jews from Arab Lands, this group represents a large proportion, possibly the majority, of Israeli society, including Iraqi, Iranian, Egyptian, Syrian and other Jews.

And what then of the entirely distinctive Yemenite Jews. Are they Mizrakhi or simply Yemenite? Can you bunch Turkish Jews with Mizrakhim or are they more Sephardi? (Some still speak Ladino.) What about Indian Jews, not to mention Italian Jews, who proudly predate the division into Ashkenazim and Sephardim? Yemenites and Indians in Israel have to make do with the Sephardi Chief Rabbi. They don’t get one of their own.

Luckily, though, all this diversity doesn’t appear to trouble us on our concern. All the different ethnic sub-divisions have decided to accept each other’s claim to Jewish status, in most circumstances. For a long time, Iraqi Jews arriving in India did not accept the Jewishness of the indigenous Indian Jews.

To their credit, they provided them with alms and support but would not count them in their minyanim. Now, at last, the Bnei Yisrael, as the local Indian Jews are called, have been accepted, but behind them is another group – the Bnei Menashe - about whom various groups have various doubts.

Groups are emerging who demand recognition as Jews, sometimes because they claim authentic descent and sometimes because they simply want to be Jews.

Remember, too, the disputes about the Ethiopian Jews as they arrived in Israel. Were they truly Jewish, asked the rabbis. Israeli authorities proposed that they go through a bit of a conversion thing to avoid doubt. But for people who had just trekked through famine and desert to reach the Promised Land, this kind of halakhic nicety went down like a lead balloon.

Fortunately for all of us, Ethiopian Jews are now accepted as Jews. But if we’re going to accept their unprovable claims of Jewish (or less anachronistically, Israelite) provenance, how can we refuse the claims of the Lemba in southern Africa, the Abuyadaya in Uganda or the Ibo Jews of Nigeria?

In different corners of the world, groups are emerging who demand recognition as Jews, sometimes because they claim authentic descent and sometimes because they simply want to be Jews.

In many cases, Reform or, more frequently, Conservative, Jews have either accepted their claims or supported them through conversions, but as explained earlier, these conversions have not been accepted by the Orthodox.

In a smaller number of cases, Orthodox rabbis have carried out conversions too, but by so doing they have often confirmed their maverick status in the eyes of other Orthodox rabbis, thereby calling into the question the status of their conversions.

And what of those who, like trans people asserting their right to define their own gender, simply assert that they are Jewish, regardless of what any other Jews think of them?

Prayers at the new Stern Synagogue in Mbale, in eastern Uganda (Stephen Wandera/AP)
Prayers at the new Stern Synagogue in Mbale, in eastern Uganda (Stephen Wandera/AP)

In today’s globalised world, in a time when Jewish populations are shrinking and many born Jews want little or nothing to do with established Jewish life, can we afford to allow draconian gatekeepers to exclude and turn away sincere and dedicated folk?

And it’s not just rabbis. Israeli authorities, independent of the rabbinic and halakhic definitions of Jews, are applying their own rules as to who can access the country through the Law of Return, which gives every “Jew”, including any recognised converts (of any stripe), the right to take up Israeli citizenship.

Ironically, Israel’s Law of Return took Hitler’s Nuremburg definitions of a Jew to determine Israeli citizenship rights under the Law of Return. But an Abuyadaya Jew, who suffered Idi Amin’s anti-Semitism yet stood firm, might reasonably ask what the difference is.

Oddly, some Israeli authorities seem reluctant to accept the claims of these newly emerging African and Asian communities. Can’t think why.

German dictionary changes definition of ‘Jew’ after complaint from local Jewish community
Government advances conversion reform that seeks to curb rabbinate’s control (Times of Israel)

PART 1: Where does Israel lie in the hearts and minds of Diaspora Jews?
PART 2: The future looks Haredi but where do the rest of us fit in?

PART 3: Women’s status will define whether Jews are a classical or modern people

Artwork: Avi Katz

About the author

Clive Lawton

British-born Clive Lawton is co-founder of Limmud worldwide, and an internationally renowned educator in diversity issues and interfaith activity. He is currently CEO of the Commonwealth Jewish Council and was CEO of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks' Jewish Continuity initiative.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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