What Makes a Jew a Jew?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Two more Jewish readers continue to debate that question—raised by Abby, the young Catholic-turned-Jew, and then complicated by Lekha, the young Southerner with a Jewish father and Hindu mother. First up is Esther, an Orthodox Jew who is “very normal, but you’d describe me as ‘ultra’ because of the way I look and because I don’t have a TV”:

Jews are Jews by way of being born to a Jewish mother or by converting and following the Torah.

I think some of the people who are writing in and saying they “converted” to Judaism are saying they are Jewish, but at the same time, their lifestyle and practices reject the most important parts of Judaism, so I’m not quite sure why they would expect others to embrace them as fellow Jews. Someone who converts to Judaism but by word and deed refuses to embrace real Jewish practices (eating kosher, belief in God, belief in the Messiah’s anticipated arrival, fasting on fast days, learning Torah on a regular basis, saying blessings before eating, and on and on—there are hundreds of commandments!) is naturally going to be viewed as an inauthentic outsider.

To those who have shared their stories, please understand that God made some people Jews and some people non-Jews. Non-Jews can lead good holy lives; God does not expect them to become Jews, and Jews don’t either. Maybe this is hard for followers of other religions to understand because it is so different than other religions. For example, Christians believe that their religion is the right path and universal, but Judaism is unique in that we believe that everyone is equal in the eyes of God, and not everyone has to follow our religion—only the members of the Jewish family do.

And here’s Evan Kominsky, a senior at Washington University in St. Louis:

I was raised in a Jewish household and went to a Conservative synagogue. If you asked me how I would label myself today, I would reluctantly say Orthodox. I say reluctantly because I firmly believe a Jew is a Jew if they have a Jewish mother or converted according to Jewish law. All of these other divisions are extremely harmful to the cohesiveness of the Jewish people.

One of the hot topics nowadays (or at least on college campuses) is how people “identify.”

At first I heard it applied to sexual orientation, gender, or political stance. But I have increasingly heard people apply this paradigm to religion and even race. To me, the sentence “I identify as Jewish” is bizarre. Identity has nothing to do with it. As your reader Alex pointed out, it is the same as saying “I identify as Korean,” regardless of one’s actual heritage. I think this stems from a larger trend of radical individualism that is such a prevalent attitude nowadays.

It pains me to hear about those in the Jewish community who feel excluded. And this is certainly something that needs to be addressed. But the tension described by readers Abby and Lekha between their Jewish identity and their beliefs is an outgrowth of this philosophy, which, when taken to the extreme, falls closer to the antithetical side.

In Jewish practice, there is a balance between the rights and experience of the individual and the obligations that the individual has towards the community. When you swing too heavily to one side or the other, problems start to arise. If you view the “strict religious expectations of what Judaism is” as rules that are meant solely to help the individual connect to God, it’s no wonder they are left by the wayside when they don’t jive 100 percent with how you relate to God.

But there is another aspect. Take for example the commandments surrounding the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher). They are given no explanation in the Torah. Later commentators have explained them in context, adding depth and breadth to their significance, but at their core, they are not meant to be understood by human logic. Were each person to say, “I don’t relate to these laws, so I am not going to follow all of them,” the concept of community would be destroyed. No one would be able to eat at each other’s houses.

Another example is Shabbat observance. Jewish law prohibits driving on Shabbat (due to the prohibition of lighting a fire). The collective observance of this law ensures that all members of the Jewish community live within walking distance of the synagogue, and thereby each other. Setting aside the philosophical reasons for this law for the moment (there is a lot of rich material here), the moment people began to privilege their personal feelings to whether or not they relate to a law over the needs of the public, the communal structure of living next to the people you pray with and go to school with and socialize with collapses.

There is a lot to be said here, but the main point I want to get across is that when experiencing a tension between what you believe and what “traditional” Judaism mandates, instead of automatically criticizing what to you seems restrictive, perhaps it would be beneficial to turn a critical eye to the individualistic tendency that idolizes personal preference as the supreme value.

Update from another reader, Jon:

There is so much more nuance to Jewish identity than the strawmen and facile explanations of Jewish law that some of your readers are offering. By one version, you can stick a Post-It on your head that says “I’m Jewish” and you are; by another, unless a certain select set of rabbis signs off on your conversion or your ancestors, you aren’t.

The latter is only the case if you accept one interpretation of Judaism as the only one and assume that the people who have interpreted them have made no mistakes. Under this interpretation, people who have fulfilled the requirements for conversion even under the auspices of the Haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate in Israel can have their conversions annulled decades later, even if most of their ancestry is Jewish—something which simply is not in the rabbinic sources regarding conversion rites and amounts to as much of an innovation as anything else. Also under this version, people whose ancestry may be unclear due to war or other tragedy may have to convert—in some cases even from communities that have been Jewish from time immemorial, simply because they aren’t on the right lists.

Under the former version, the Post-It one, people are expecting to have everyone accept them as Jewish no matter how little of the various traditions he accepts. In a different way, this too is asking your liberal interpretation of Judaism to be accepted by all. And while I agree that this seems to mesh with people feeling at liberty to pick their identities regardless of actual facts and expect everyone to agree, the difference here is that conscience or beliefs are at least part of being Jewish—and those can change, even if who your parents are cannot. We ought to make that distinction.

Finally, while you can cite important central distinguishing rituals like kashrut, shabbat, and circumcision, anyone who thinks that these are the only obligations of a “traditional” Jew is being just as selective as any reformer. There are responsibilities to the community and to the “stranger” as well. And being a “traditional” Jew alone does not give you a carte blanche to all walks of Jewish life. Indeed, the majority of the population of the State of Israel is secular. One could argue service in the IDF and an Israeli passport is just as much a symbol of Jewish peoplehood as anything any rabbi could issue. Do these secular Jews who eat non-kosher food and turn lights on and off on Saturday not count? If they do, why doesn’t a convert who is more observant? Who’s to say?

The answer is: each different group will have its own standards for acceptance. Failing to recognize all of these different Judaisms, all of these different ways of being Jewish, are problems both the recent converts who think they’ve checked all the boxes and the haredim who think they alone hold the spiritual keys to Jewish peoplehood share.

All in all, however, this is a luxury that Jews can only afford in relatively safe times. Our enemies have never made such distinctions, so we should probably all give each other a break. It’s one thing to build a fence around the Torah to protect it from false change, another altogether to build a fence to keep genuine believers away.

Here’s one more Jewish reader, Steve, with “yet another perspective on the ‘Who is a Jew?’ question”:

I had a good laugh when I read “As your reader Alex pointed out, it is the same as saying 'I identify as Korean,' regardless of one’s actual heritage”—since I am an Orthodox Jew, as is my Korean-born wife, an Orthodox Convert completely accepted by my “ultra-Orthodox” cousins with absolutely no thought that she doesn’t “look Jewish.” You’d get a blank look from them if you mention “cultural appropriation.”

My wife is still very much a Korean-American, but now she is also 100% Jewish—as Jewish as Golda Meir. Indeed, I kid her that she should have taken the name Golda when she converted, as my Jewish name is Tovye and we have five daughters between us …

You’re probably realizing at this point that this conversation is a perpetual motion machine. I think it’s so fascinating because this is one of those places where the Western Liberal Tradition meets Torah and neither one is backing down.