Rabbi I Have a Problem

Is the halachic definition of who is a Jew outdated?

An Orthodox and a Reform rabbi debate issues in contemporary Jewish life


QUESTION:  If more than half the people who went on aliyah last year under Israel’s Law of Return are not halachically Jewish, doesn’t this render the traditional definition of Jewish status obsolete and it isn’t time for a radical rethink?

Rabbi Brawer: One might approach the matter of Israel’s Law of Return by recognising that standards of halachah and standards of citizenship need not necessarily be aligned. One may recognise that there are individuals who, according to the strict interpretation of halachah, are not considered Jewish, but who very much identify as such, and have much to contribute to the Jewish people and the state of Israel. 

While it is only right that halachists be guided within the framework of halachah, one must at least recognise that there are other non-halachic frameworks that set out to define Jewishness. 

The state should not be put in a position to enforce halachah, nor should halachah be placed in a position in which it must bend its principles to comply with the needs of the state. The question of halachic status should be settled by halachic experts. The question of citizenship should be defined by the state.

And it is not just the state of Israel that adopts the broadest definition of Jewishness. Many Jewish institutions, such as Birthright tours, federations, Jewish community centres and Jewish schools welcome all self-identifying Jews. Is this dichotomy of identity tenable in the long term? It is hard to know. The reality is that we currently have concentric circles of Jewishness and broad umbrella Jewish institutions welcome the widest possible circle.

I have spoken out against conversion policies that I believe are unnecesary and at times cruel’

Having said this, I think the issue of conversion is pertinent. In many cases, the standards demanded by some rabbinic courts are far more stringent than they need be. I have spoken out publicly against conversion policies that I believe are unnecessary and at times cruel. I am critical of the lack of transparency and accountability in many a conversion process. I believe a prospective convert should be told at the outset precisely what the process entails, how they will be assessed and how long it ought to take. I feel strongly there should exist an independent panel of expert rabbis and lay leaders to whom a prospective convert might turn should they detect abuses in their conversion process. 

A more flexible approach to conversion might go some way to narrowing the gap between definitions of Jewishness. At the same time, I believe conversion is a most serious matter and requires a robust procedure. Invariably there will be a significant gap between a halachic conversion and other, broader definitions of Jewishness.

Rabbi Brawer is Neubauer chief executive of Hillel, Tufts University

Rabbi Romain: 

 Your question highlights two black holes in modern Jewish life. 

The first is that there is a wide discrepancy between Jewish status and Jewish identity. The current definition is that someone has Jewish status if they have a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism. 

But there are many who consider themselves to be Jews, even though they only have a Jewish father or grandfather. They had a Jewish upbringing, or sense of heritage, and identify as Jewish.

Quite apart from the Nuremberg argument -— if they were good enough for Hitler to murder as Jews, why are they not good enough for us to let them live as Jews? There is a more fundamental issue: why would we want to deny them their Jewishness?

In addition, at a time of low numbers and rising antisemitism, is it not in our interest to welcome those with Jewish family connections and be as inclusive as possible of our own relatives?

The second black hole is that the state of Israel recognises these people as Jewish for purposes of citizenship. They can become members of Knesset and fight in the Israeli army, but the religious authorities do not accept them as Jewish and will not marry or bury them. 

It is hard not to see this as a terrible stain on religious thinking, lacking both compassion and common sense. It also ignores the fact that a Jewish father can transmit his love of Judaism, as much as a mother can.

They can become members of Knesset but the authorities will not marry or bury them

What is remarkable is that the matrilineal definition of Jewish status is not original to Judaism, but a later development.

In the Bible, Jewish status was patrilineal, which is why it mattered not that Joseph married the daughter of an Egyptian priest or Moses married that of a Midianite priest (and why priestly descent went through the father’s line, and why your Hebrew name was after his name, not your mother’s, as still happens).

It was only in rabbinic times that the definition was altered to the female line, because of the needs of the time back then. If we can have had one massive change in Jewish status, we can have another today: that you are Jewish if you have one Jewish parent, of either gender.

This has now been adopted by Progressive movements world-wide. It recognises the reality of modern Jewish life and should be emulated by other groups too.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue 

If you have a problem to put to our rabbis, please ring 020 7415 1676 or email with details

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