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Book: The Insider/Outsider Debate

Chapter: Chapter 12: Who is a Jew? New Approaches to an Old Question

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.27473


Who is a Jew? The answer to this question may seem obvious. Surely Jews know who is an insider, and who is an outsider. Yet, the modern Jewish community is deeply divided over this question. According to traditional rabbinic law, a person is Jewish if he or she is the product of maternal descent. In other words a person is a Jew if that individual’s mother is Jewish, and she is Jewish if her mother is Jewish, and so on through the generations. In addition, it is also possible to become Jewish through an elaborate process of conversion. Hence according to the tradition there are two differing ways of determining who belongs to the fold.

Yet in recent times, the Jewish Reform movement (which is the largest Jewish religious body world-wide) has decreed that a child whose father is Jewish is also Jewish as long as the child has performed timely acts of identification such as attendance at synagogue services or bar or bat mitzvah. Thus an individual is deemed to be Jewish if he or she is born either of a Jewish mother or father is Jewish. Not surprisingly Orthodox Judaism has rejected this new definition of Jewishness and regards a child of paternal descent as a non-Jew unless the mother is Jewish.

Added to this confusion is the fact that there currently exist within the Jewish community a wide variety of movements with radically conflicting ideologies all claiming to be authentic interpretations of the tradition. This includes two movements, Reconstructionist Judaism and Humanistic Judaism, which are both non- theistic in orientation. The existence of Israel with millions of secular Jews who have rejected the cardinal tenets and practices of the faith further complicates the issue of who is an insider and who is not. This chapter seeks to explain the complex nature of Jewish life today and offers a new interpretation of Jewishness in the modern world.

Chapter Contributors

  • Dan Cohn-Sherbok ( - dcohn-sherbok) 'St Mary's University College, London'