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Who is a Jew?

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor S. Appell
A Jewish prayer shawl, or tallit

According to the Torah, one is a Kohen, a Levite or an Israelite. Kohanim (plural of Kohen) and Levites are descendants of Aaron, the High Priest. Much of the work of the priests involved sacrifices made at the Temple. As a result, the Kohanim and Levites had certain privileges and certain restrictions. Among the restrictions was that Kohanim could not come into contact with a corpse unless it was of a close relative, lest they be rendered impure. Today, some Jews whose last name is Cohen, Kahn, or something similar and who believe they are descendants of the priestly class may still observe certain restrictions by, for example, not entering cemeteries. 

Reform Judaism is a practice dedicated to the religious equality of all Jews and does not differentiate between Jews based on ancestry. Therefore, Reform Jews - even if they believe they can trace their lineage to the priestly class - do not typically observe the practice.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Mark Washofsky
children forming a Jewish star (Magen David) with their fingers

Reform Judaism accepts in broad outlines the traditional definition of Jewish status: to be a "Jew" one must be a member of the Jewish people, a status obtained either through birth or conversion. Jewish identity is not determined purely by the individual. One does not become a Jew merely by declaring, "I am a Jew" or "I accept the Jewish religion." One must either be born a Jew or become a Jew through a process recognized and administered by the community.

According to halachah (traditional Jewish law), Jewish status is determined on the basis of matrilineality; that is, the child of a Jewish mother is a Jew, even when the child's father is a gentile.The offspring of a gentile mother is a gentile, even if the father is a Jew. Prior to the Rabbinic period (70 - 500 CE), we find little trace of the principal of matrilineal descent. The Bible in fact seems to recognize a purely patrilineal descent, regardless of the identity of the mother.

In 1983 the Central Conference of American Rabbis adopted the Resolution on Patrilineal Descent. According to this resolution, a child of one Jewish parent, who is raised exclusively as a Jew and whose Jewish status is "established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people" is Jewish. These acts include entry into the covenant, acquisition of a Hebrew name, Torah study, bar/bat Mitzvah and confirmation.

Topic: Who is a Jew?
Answer By: 
Rabbi Stuart Federow

My husband and I are in the process of adopting an African American baby boy. We had him circumcised by a doctor -- as he was already 2 months old, my husband was concerned about safety. Must he really undergo a conversion ceremony to be Jewish?

Yes, he must undergo conversion to be Jewish. The reason is quite simply that the conversion ceremony is the "naturalization" ceremony that makes one a "citizen" of the People of Israel. Without it one would not be considered to be a Jew, in the same way that one who immigrates to the U.S. is not considered a citizen of the U.S., until he or she is naturalized. Similarly, you may get rights and privileges, palimony and the like, if you were not legally married to your husband, but without the legal marriage you would not be his wife.

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Answer By: 
Rabbi Peter J. Haas

"I understand that my Jewish faith comes by way of my mother and not my father. If this is true, why do we trace our heritage through Abraham and not Sarah? I have a Jewish mother and a Christian father. What am I?"

As you may know from watching the news, the issue of who is a Jew is a hotly debated one nowadays. There is no simple answer.

Traditionally, the definition is a double one. Your status as a Jew depended on the status of your mother: if she was Jewish you were Jewish and so on. But your tribal affiliation (Priest, Levi, Benjaminite, Judean,...) was determined by the father. Why matters evolved this way is entirely unclear. These laws as such are spelled out fully only in the time of the Mishnah (around 230 CE). It is not necessarily the case that these laws were in operation in just this way back in Biblical times, let alone the time of Abraham. The question is moot in any case since both Abraham and Sarah were "Jewish."

In 1983, the Reform Jewish Movement decided that it would accept as Jewish anybody who has one Jewish parent (i.e. mother or father) and who was raised Jewishly. This policy of "patrilineality," as it is called, is one of the points of disagreement between traditional and Reform Judaism since some people can now be considered Jewish by one movement but not the other. If the person in question is a woman, then the disputed status would presumably be carried forward into the next generation, etc.

As to your case, because your mother is Jewish, you would be considered Jewish according to halacha (Jewish law), and so by all Jews (unless you openly declared otherwise). If you consider yourself a Christian, say, and act accordingly, then you would be considered a Christian by Reform, but still Jewish by Orthodox standards.

In the end, there is no universally agreed upon answer among Jews, and in some cases other groups have other answers entirely.

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