The first point I would make is that “Jewish” is not a nationality. My nationality is American; my religion is Jewish. Nationality -- the status of belonging to a particular nation-- implies citizenship, whether by birth or naturalization.
Religion isn’t limited to national boundaries. It is a particular system of faith and worship, including belief in and worship of a supreme being or a personal god. Often it develops as a system of institutionalized attitudes, beliefs, and practices, and a moral and ethical code concerning the conduct of human affairs, but one’s religion does not or should not depend on one’s citizenship or where one lives.
The nationality/religion question becomes more complicated when you consider Israel, Established In 1948 as the homeland for the Jewish people, Israel is a nation compounded of Jews of varying ideologies and practices, plus non-Jews of varying ideologies and practices. Under what is called the “Law of Return,” Jews from all over the world who want to live in Israel can be accepted as citizens after a three-month residency. Non-Jews can apply for citizenship, too—a difficult but not impossible process, which requires living and working in Israel for three years but does not require belief in, or practice of, Judaism. So, not all Israelis are Jewish and certainly not all Jews are Israeli. Most Jews living outside Israel honor and support Israel as a politically independent, secular, democratic nation, but they may disagree with Israeli politics and actions and even religious practices, just as Jews living in Israel may. In Israel, as in the United States and other countries around the world, there is a great variety in the practice of Judaism. Perhaps in a future column I will try to identify some of the “branches” of Judaism and describe some of the varied practices in order to explore what Judaism, is, but for now I would like to touch upon the seemingly simple question of who is a Jew.
The original definition of Jew is simply any person whose mother is (or was) a Jew. This definition says nothing about what a person believes in or what person does in life. A newer definition also recognizes as a Jew a child whose father is Jewish, if the child self-identifies as Jewish. By definition, a Jew is also any person who has gone through a formal process of conversion. A person who converts to Judaism is a Jew just as a person born Jewish. The seemingly simple question, Who is a Jew?, becomes quite complex depending on who is answering it, in part because different branches of Judaism have different standards. Orthodox Judaism, for instance, recognizes only matrilineal descent while Reform Judaism recognizes both matrilineal and patrilineal descent. Also, the various branches have different requirements for conversion. Volumes have been written on the subject and courts have dealt with the question, particularly as it applies to granting Israeli citizenship. The Pew Research Center has sponsored lengthy global studies of Jews and Judaism and has concluded, among other things, that American and Israeli Jewish communities do not always agree about what it means to be Jewish. In one of its surveys, Pew categorizes “Jews by religion” and “Jews of no religion” –the latter being persons who identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing” but have a Jewish parent or were raised Jewish or consider themselves Jewish in some way—perhaps only culturally. Pew also studied non-Jews of Jewish background—people who do not consider themselves Jewish despite having a Jewish parent or having been raised Jewish. That person might be considered Jewish even if he or she does not practice Judaism or identify himself or herself as a Jew, and that person’s children can be regarded as Jewish if they choose to be.
In that first article I wrote for this newspaper, I wrote “Judaism is a religion, a philosophy, and a way of life.” To answer the question “Who is a Jew?” I would say it is not so much a simple matter of genealogy as it is a matter of the commitments and choices one makes in life. Converts to Judaism often identify themselves as “Jews by choice.” I like to think that born Jews too are “Jews by choice.” Judaism is a choice one makes about what one believes and how to live one’s life, whatever one’s age or wherever one might be living.