Who is a Jew?

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”) is 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 comes from the word “eyver,” which means “the other side,” referring to the fact that Abraham came from the other side of the Euphrates, or referring to the fact Abraham was separated from the other nations morally and spiritually.

Another name used for the people is Children of Israel or Israelites, which refers to the fact that the people are descendants of Jacob, who was also called Israel.

The word “Jew” (in Hebrew, “Yehudi”) is derived from the name Judah, which was the name of one of Jacob’s twelve sons. Judah was the ancestor of one of the tribes of the land of Israel, which was named after him. Likewise, 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 G-d,” because the first three letters of “Yehudah” are the same as the first three letters of G-d’s four-letter name.

In common speech, the word “Jew” is used to refer to all of the physical and spiritual descendants of Jacob/Israel, as well as to the patriarchs Abraham and Isaac and their wives, and the word “Judaism” is used to refer to their beliefs. Technically, this usage is inaccurate, just as it is technically inaccurate to use the word “Indian” to refer to the original inhabitants of the Americas. However, this technically inaccurate usage is common both within the Jewish community and outside of it.

 

Who is a Jew?

A Jew is any person whose mother was a Jew or any person who has gone through the formal process of conversion to Judaism.

Detailed analysis of the many issues, some of which are quite controversial even within Judaism, is beyond the scope of this web site. 

One of the special features of the Jewish Community of Queensland is that it has maintained an enviable degree of harmony among the various streams of Judaism. The Queensland Jewish Board of Deputies, as a secular roof body, operates on as inclusive a basis as practicable.

Nevertheless Jewish history has developed some basic tenets for determining who is a Jew, and an introduction to these tenets follows.

A person whose mother is not Jewish is required to convert to Judaism to be considered Jewish. Thus, a person born to non-Jewish parents who has not undergone the formal process of conversion but who believes everything that Jews believe and observes the laws and customs of Judaism is still a non-Jew.

This attitude has been held since the earliest days of Judaism. In the Torah (the Jewish Bible, called by Christians the “Old Testament”) there are many references to “the strangers who dwell among you” or “righteous proselytes” or “righteous strangers.” These are various classifications of non-Jews who lived among Jews, adopting some or all of the beliefs and practices of Judaism without going through the formal process of conversion and becoming Jews. Once a person has converted to Judaism, he is not referred to by any special term; he or she is as much a Jew as anyone born Jewish.

Although all Jewish movements agree on these general principles, there are occasional disputes as to whether a particular individual is a Jew. Most of these disputes fall into one of two categories.

First, Orthodox Judaism maintains that a person is a Jew if his mother is a Jew, regardless of who his father is. The North American Reform movements, on the other hand, consider a person to be Jewish if either of his parents was Jewish and the child was raised Jewish. Thus, if the child of a Jewish father and a Christian mother is raised Jewish, the child is a Jew according to the Reform movement, but not according to the Orthodox movement. On the other hand, if the child of a Christian father and a Jewish mother is not raised Jewish, the child is a Jew according to the Orthodox movement, but not according to the Reform movement! The matter becomes even more complicated, because the status of that children’s children also comes into question.

Rabbis of different movements adopt different approaches to conversion. Many Orthodox rabbis do not acknowledge the validity of conversions by the more liberal movements. In addition, Orthodoxy does not accept the authority of Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist rabbis to perform conversions.

All movements however approach conversion with the same basic requirements, including a real and lasting commitment to Jewish practice and observance.

For more information, visit: www.jewfaq.org/whoisjew.htm