A crowd in downtown Vancouver. (Photo: Wikimedia)
By Rabbi Ari Enkin

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, rabbinic director, United with Israel

Let us explore the complicated and controversial question of “Who’s a Jew?” First, it would be worthwhile to understand what the word “Jew” means.

Origins of the Words ‘Jew’ and ‘Judaism’

The original name for the people we now call Jews was “Hebrews.” The word “Hebrew” (in Hebrew, Ivri) was first used in the Torah to describe Abraham (Gen. 14:13). The word is apparently derived from the name Eber, one of Abraham’s ancestors. Another tradition teaches that the word “Hebrew” comes from the Hebrew word ever, which means “the other side,” referring to the fact that Abraham came from the other side of the Euphrates or to the fact that he was separated from the other nations morally and spiritually.

The word “Jew” (in Hebrew, Yehudi) is derived from the name Judah, which was the name of one of Jacob’s 12 sons. The word Judaism literally means “Judah-ism,” that is, the religion of the Yehudim. Other sources, however, say that the word Yehudim means “People of God,” because the first three letters of Yehudah are the same as the first three letters of God’s four-letter name.

Who’s a Jew?

A Jew is any person whose mother was a Jew or who has gone through the formal process of conversion to Judaism. It is important to note that being a Jew has nothing to do with what you believe or what you do. A person born to non-Jewish parents who has not undergone the formal process of conversion is still a non-Jew even if he or she believes in the Jewish religion and observes Judaism meticulously. So, too, a person born to a Jewish mother but who defines himself as an atheist and never practices the Jewish religion is still a Jew. From here we see that Judaism is both a religion and a nationality.

Although Judaism is defined by one’s mother, tribal affiliation follows the father. For example, if a man is a Levite, his son will be considered a Levite no matter from which tribe the mother descends. So too, if either parent is subject to some kind of genealogical disability, such as being a mamzer (an illegitimate child), that status is passed on to their offspring in perpetuity.

Conversion

In Judaism, the laws of conversion are based on the classical sources of Jewish law, especially regarding discussions in the Talmud, and on the law as codified in the Code of Jewish Law (the Shulchan Aruch). The basic requirements for conversion are education and acceptance of Judaism and the commandments, circumcision (if male), and immersion in a mikvah (bath used for ritual immersion). If a male is already circumcised, a drop of blood is drawn.

Orthodox authorities require that conversions be performed in accordance with traditional Jewish law and recognize only those in which a convert accepts and undertakes to observe Jewish law. Because rabbis in the other movements do not require such a commitment, Orthodox authorities do not generally accept those performed by non-orthodox rabbis.

It is interesting to note that Syrian Jewish communities do not normally carry out conversions, particularly in cases when it is suspected that the conversion was done for the sake of marriage. Nor do they accept such converts from other communities or the children of marriages involving such converts.

Ethnic Jews

“Ethnic Jew” is a term generally used to describe Jews who do not necessarily practice Judaism but still identify with the heritage and with other Jews culturally. Other terms include “non-observant Jew,” “non-religious Jew,” “non-practicing Jew” and “secular Jew.” Ethnic Jews are generally cognizant of their Jewish background and may feel strong cultural, rather than religious, ties to Jewish tradition and to the Jewish people. Like those of any other ethnicity, non-religious, ethnic Jews often assimilate into the surrounding non-Jewish society but choose to remain affiliated with the Jewish community in others ways, especially in areas of Jewish culture.