WHO IS A JEW?
The Jewish people is a religio-nation, meaning that it is a people that consists of two coexistent and intertwined components: Ethnicity and Religion. Consequently, the Jewish people constitutes both an ethnic nation and a faith community. However, for full Jews (i.e., those descended from both a Jewish mother and a Jewish father), the former component of Jewish peoplehood is involuntary and immutable, while the latter component thereof is voluntary and mutable.
It is a unique collective, in that it is the only religio-nation born in Antiquity that, despite being dispersed throughout much of the World for the greater part of its history, continues to exist Today.
The Jewish people is comprised of:
(1) the descendants of:
(a) the eponymous Hebrew tribe of Judah, and
(b) the Hebrew tribe of Benjamin -- the descendants of the Hebrew tribe of Benjamin being the product of collective intermarriage between the surviving male members of the Hebrew tribe of Benjamin and some female members of the Hebrew tribes of Manasseh (from the City of Jabesh-Gilead) and Ephraim (from the City of Shiloh) (see Judges 21:1-23), and
(c) the Hebrew tribe of Levi, which (per the deathbed declaration of Jacob in Genesis 49:5-7, per God’s Declaration in Numbers 18:20-24 and per the lottery conducted by Joshua for that tribe in Joshua 21:1-40) was not allocated a separate tribal territory within the Land of Israel, but was instead allocated 48 cities located throughout the Land, including within the territory of the tribe of Judah (see Joshua 21:4 & 21:9-16), and
(d) the Hebrew tribe of Simeon, which (per the deathbed declaration of Jacob in Genesis 49:5-7 and per the lottery conducted by Joshua for that tribe in Joshua 19:1) was allocated a separate tribal territory completely enclosed with the territory of the tribe of Judah; and
(2) those Gentiles who have converted to Judaism and their Jewish progeny.
Although not an ethnic Jew, a Gentile nonetheless becomes part of the Jewish people by self-identifying as a Jew and by simultaneously joining the latter’s faith community (i.e., acceptance of the God of Israel as the one and only Deity in the Universe and the Truth of His Torah). This two-component formula for becoming part of the Jewish people was first uttered by Ruth, the Moabite ancestress of biblical Israel’s King David (and of the future Messiah):
“And [widowed] Ruth said [to her widowed mother-in-law Naomi], ‘Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back from following after you; for, where you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people are my people, and your God is my God.’” (Ruth 1:16)
This means that a person may be a Jew via ethnicity or faith or both. That being said, since conversion to Judaism was usually rare throughout History, only a small minority of the Jewish people are Jews by faith only. Moreover, since religious Jews are also minority among the Jewish people, the vast majority of contemporary Jews are Jews by ethnicity only.
The ethnic-religious duality of Jewish identity means -- uniquely -- that an ethnic Jew who later repudiates Judaism (or even the Existence of God) nonetheless continues to be part of the Jewish people, as such an apostate nonetheless remains an ethnic Jew. This duality distinguishes Jews from Christians, Muslims and adherents of other religions, precisely because the latter lack a unifying ethnic component (i.e., the latter are merely followers of a religion, not members of a religio-nation). So, while the Jewish apostate may continue to be identified (and to self-identify) as a Jew, the Christian apostate and the Muslim apostate can no longer be identified (or self-identify), respectively, as a Christian and a Muslim.
Although intermarriage between members of the Hebrew tribes and Gentiles is prohibited by the Torah (see Deuteronomy 7:3-4) and, consequently, also by normative Judaism, when such a union does happen a question arises as to whether the offspring thereof is nonetheless to be recognized as an ethnic Jew. In such a case, the Orthodox branch of Judaism (which, until several hundred years ago, constituted the entirety of Judaism) has traditionally recognized as an ethnic Jew the child of a Jewish mother (i.e., matrilineal descent) regardless of the child’s spiritual beliefs or lack thereof (e.g., the child adheres to another religion or is an atheist), but not the child of a Jewish father (i.e., patrilineal descent) regardless of the child’s spiritual beliefs (e.g., the child adheres to Judaism). However, I disagree with this formula, as the child of a Jewish father in such a forbidden union is as much a (partial) ethnic Jew as is the child of a Jewish mother in such a forbidden union. Rather, I believe that the child of such a forbidden union ought to be recognized as an ethnic Jew if and when such a child self-identifies as an ethnic Jew, but not otherwise. This means that, in the case of intermarriage, the Jewishness of a child of a Jewish mother ought not be automatically accepted; and that the Jewishness of a child of a Jewish father ought not be automatically rejected. While such a formula is considerably more complex than a bright-line rule which accepts matrilineal descent and rejects patrilineal descent, it properly includes those people as ethnic Jews who self-identify as such (even if their Jewish parent is male), and it properly excludes those people as Jews who do not self-identify as such (even if their Jewish parent is female).
Moreover, at the dawn of our history as a nation, none of the female progenitors of the Hebrew tribes were Hebrews (e.g., Tamar, who married Judah, was a Gentile). For this reason, the Jewish people are ethnically Jewish only by virtue of patrilineal descent.
Consequently, although a child of both a Jewish father and a Jewish mother is automatically and involuntarily an ethnic Jew, a child who is descended from only one Jewish parent ought to be able to voluntarily become an ethnic Jew by means of such child’s acceptance of that status.
This proposed formula is not to be confused with the formula that applies to full Gentiles who wish to become Jewish by virtue of joining our faith community, as they must not only self-identify as Jews but they must also accept the God of Israel as the one and only Deity in the Universe and the Truth of His Torah.
© Mark Rosenblit