Monique Susskind Goldberg
What makes a Jew Jewish
Question from Iael, the new director of the Kishinev Hillel, and a young Jewish woman, who after learning about her grandparents' connection to Yiddishkeit spent a year officially converting to Judaism.
What makes a Jew a Jew? How important is it for a Jew to be halachikally Jewish? And beyond halacha, how can we define Jewishness?
The subtext for this question is another question: If a child is born of an intermarriage, why should there be a different status attributed to the child whose mother is halachically Jewish versus the one whose father is halachically Jewish?
This question is very relevant for the Jews of the Former Soviet Union, many of whom may only recently (not only 20 years ago, but even today!) have learnt that they have Jewish roots, although most only partially. A vast majority of individuals in this region, who identify as Jewish, may not necessarily be halachically Jewish.
Looking forward to receiving your responsa.
Kol Tuv v'chag Sameach!
Kitra (She'elot V'Tshuvot project from Kishinev)
To answer the question "what makes a Jew a Jew?" different aspects of the matter can be taken into consideration.
From the halakhic (the Jewish Law) point of view, there is a clear cut answer: a Jewish person is one who has a Jewish mother or a person who was converted to Judaism (including mikvah for men and women and circumcision for men).
It seems that the origin of the fact that according to halakha the mother is the one who transmits being Jewish to her children is that one always knows the identity of one’s mother, but this is not necessary true for the father, especially in the past when there was no proper registration nor methods of communication as we have today.
Recently, the Reform Movement in the U.S. has accepted as a Jew also a person whose father is Jewish (patrilinearity).
Another way to define who is a Jew is a negative one. Anybody whom anti-Semites consider as Jewish is Jewish. The Nazis murdered any person who had at least one Jewish grandparent. This is the reason why the State of Israel decided from its very beginning that any person who has one Jewish grandparent has the right to return to Israel and receive citizenship.
This, by the way, has created great tension between the Interior Ministry in Israel and the Rabbinate, especially concerning the Jews from the Former Soviet Union, who although they are recognized as Jewish by the Interior Ministry, many of them are not considered Jewish according to halakha and thus by the Rabbinate.
There could also be a more philosophical approach to the question. One could claim that whoever feels as a Jew, believes in Jewish values and behaves as a Jew should be considered Jewish. This reminds of the attitude of Ruth the Moabite saying to Naomi: "thy people shall be my people and thy God my God" (Ruth 1:16).
The last approach is very beautiful, but not practical in terms of survival of the Jewish people. We can also not depend for our survival on anti-Semites telling us who is Jewish. It seems thus that there is no avoiding a formal conversion, which should be as meaningful as possible for the person converting who has decided that he/she wants to be part of the Jewish people and its destiny.
Rabbi Monique Susskind Goldberg
Eve of Pesah 5770