Giyur -- גיור --
Who is a Jew?
By Rabbi Shlomo Nachman © 12.29.2010 (last updated 11.13, 2014)
People are/become Jewish in one of two ways:
Both types of people are fully Jewish as affirmed at Leviticus 16:29, Zechariah 14:9, etc. as well as through the rulings of our various sages including both Rashi and Rambam.
- According to standard Rabbinic Judaism, the largest segment of Jews by far, those who are born of Jewish mothers are Jews (and hence automatically members of the extended family) from conception to death and beyond. Like Karaite Jews, some of the newer non-Orthodox Rabbinic sects also accept as Jewish anyone whose father is Jewish even if the mother is not (some add the father must be religiously Jewish).
- Those who formally convert into Judaism through a recognized beit din or religious court become Jews upon leaving the waters of the mikveh (circumcision and other requirements must be met prior to this). All true converts enter Judaism through the House of Judah/Benjamin. Generally one enters through one of the recognized Rabbinic movements (see below).
There are caveats to consider however. Determining who is and who is not accepted as Jewish can be complicated:
- According to Karaite Judaism (a now small ancient non-Rabbinic sect that emerged from the Sadducees) Jewishness (membership in the Covenant) passes only through the father, not the mother. Hence they do not accept as Jewish those whose fathers are not Jewish regardless of the mother's status. This teaching is actually in harmony with the Tanach but the Rabbis later ruled, changing the requirements. This change is usually dated to the days of Ezra and the Great Assembly.
- For the most part Karaite converts are not accepted as Jews by Rabbinic Judaism and vice versa (however Karaites themselves are accepted as Jewish by Rabbinic Jews if their mothers are halachically Jewish as defined by the Rabbinic sect under discussion. Karaism is also of the House of Judah which is, until Messiah comes and re-establishes the divorced Ten Houses, the totality of the Jewish people. There is little association between Karaism and the rest of Judaism.
- Despite the historically held requirement of maternal lineage, much of Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Judaism (see below) now says that Jewishness passes through the mother, however those with Jewish fathers who are raised as Jews, can also accepted as fully Jewish and have no need to formally convert (but may if they desire for greater acceptance). This in part is because these movements, generally speaking, do not view the Jews as a covenantal people as historically conceived. This doctrinal shift is largely the result of assimilation. These groups generally view Judaism as a religion among many others rather than as the unique Covenant expressed in Torah and historic Jewish Tradition.
- According to the traditional sages of Israel every Jew who has or will ever live was personally present at Mount Sinai (in some form) and personally embraced his/her obligation to observe the conditions established in Torah when it was revealed. This is understood in two basic ways:
1). Some believe that Jewish souls reincarnate (through a process known as gilgul neshamot) and that all converts were among the Jews at Mount Sinai who embraced the Torah, regardless of their present birth details;For this reason it can be said that one can not technically "convert" into Judaism. Those Gentiles who feel compelled to enter the Covenant are actually returning home to their people rather than converting from without. True conversion to Judaism then is the recognition of an authorized Jewish beit din (or religious court) that a repentant Jewish neshama (or soul) is returning to the Covenant of the children of Israel. A non-Jewish neshama can not therefore 'convert' to Judaism as they do not have this 'divine spark'. Those wishing to convert and following up on it should assume they have the 'Jewish spark' and that this is what led them to request conversion. Being born into a non-Jewish family does not necessarily mean one is not a Jewish soul. For various reasons souls sometimes take birth outside the Covenant. Conversion or gerut/gerus is therefore the formal recognition of the return of an exile, not the admittance of a Gentile into the Covenant per se.
2). Other authorities explain that within each Jewish soul is a 'Jewish spark' and that knowing those who would eventually convert HaShem placed this essential 'spark' within them at their conception.
Of course not everyone born of Jewish mothers (or fathers) practices the religion of Judaism (nor practices it 'properly'). Such people are still accepted as fully Jewish however due to their association with father Avraham (Abraham) and the Covenant HaShem established with his and Sarah's descendents through Isaac and his son Jacob/Israel. Jews are in the Covenant because of their connection to Avraham and Moshe not because of any personal merit. For born sons and daughters of Jacob membership in the extended family is no more a choice than our children chose us as parents. For converts, or 'Jews by Choice' this point can be (and is) debated. Yet the 'spark' within such people attests that they too are drawn into the holy fire witnessed by Moshe on the Sacred Mount.
Likewise gerim (converts) do not always practice the holy religion properly, however once they leave the waters of the mikveh they are Jews in every sense of the word. Concerning converts Rambam wrote:"Loving the convert who has taken refuge (lit., 'came and entered') beneath the wings of the Divine Presence [comprises] two positive obligations, one because he is included in 'fellowship' (and so is included in the obligation to love one's fellow as himself (Levit. 19:18), and two because he is a convert and the Torah said, 'You shall love the convert' (Deuteronomy 10:19). [The Torah] commanded to love the convert as it commanded to love G-d (lit., 'His Name'), as it is stated, 'And you shall love the L-rd your G-d' (Deut. 6:5). G-d Himself loves converts, as it is stated, '...and loves [the] convert'" [Source of this quote.]
Once formally, genuinely, converted ones status as a Jew can never be revoked by anyone. HaShem makes people Jewish, not human courts. Despite this, excommunications are sometimes performed, especially by the Haredim (Ultra Orthodox). Most commonly it are converts who are expelled. The argument being that they did not sincerely convert. These excommunications should be viewed as disfellowshipment from ones particular community or sect, not from the Covenant itself. One who is Jewish is eternally Jewish regardless of acceptance or rejection by religious authorities. For this reason, in part, Judaism has historically discouraged conversion. For more on the difficulty of conversion see here.
Different movements have different requirements for conversion and the recognition of it. Before seeking admittance into a conversion program one does well to research these requirements and related issues carefully. Conversions are not all the same. A sincere and genuine convert through the Reform, Conservative or Orthodox (etc) movements is a Jew, however acceptance by the various courts and sects as a Jew is sometimes a different matter. The differences between the Rabbinic sects are vast.
Determine which form of Judaism fits you best, which synagogue you plan to mainly associate with, whether you plan to have children etc. (an Orthodox conversion is particularly important for those who plan to have children that may one day wish to receive an Orthodox Jewish education, marry an Orthodox person, etc.). Do not rush into conversion; do your homework. Decide which movement is best for you first. Many converts go through conversion processes two, three, or more times before achieving the recognition they desire. Preparation can save a lot of time, money and stress. Not to mention disappointment. Imagine, one converts and lives as a religious Jew for thirty years. As they are preparing for their inevitable end they seek to purchase a burial plot in an Orthodox Jewish cemetery and are denied because 'they are not Jewish!' This happens.
So strong is the anti-convert sentiment among some Jews that prior to August 1, 2007 the Karaites had not admitted gerim for the past 500 years! Facing the near extinction of the sect they now accept them. Be aware that those who convert through the Karaism are not accepted as Jewish by most Rabbinic authorities. Likewise, those who convert through one of the non-Orthodox Rabbinic movements (such as Reform, Reconstructionist, the independent so-called 'post-denominational' congregations, Jewish Renewal, Conservative etc.) will not be accepted as Jewish by the Orthodox community. Many who convert Orthodox are not accepted by the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox)! Anyone who converts Orthodox will be accepted by all non-Orthodox movements. Decide whose acceptance you want before beginning the lengthy and often costly conversion process.
Judaism is more than the religion of the House of Judah. It is the life of the whole House of Israel. It is membership in the Sacred Covenant made between HaShem and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jewishness is not the observance of its mitzvoth (laws) and Traditions. Judaism is most accurately defined as an extended family rather than as a religion. Hopefully Jews will choose Judaism for their religion, but many don't. Once one is Jewish one remains Jewish for all time, even if one is sometimes likened to the crazy uncle living in the basement (I speak from experience hehe)! There are no 'ex-Jews' nor 'half-Jews'. One is either Jewish or one is Gentile. Both are good by the way. Be you!
So we still have the question: Who is Jewish?
Judaism is not a race. As I discussed in my Roots of Judaism study numerically most Jews today are still Ashkenazim although this seems to be changing. Israel is moving towards a more Sephardi foundation. The Ashkenazim are descended from the 'Japhethites' not Semites (in other words, they are mainly descendents of Noah's son Japheth rather than Shem), nonetheless they are accepted as full members of the Covenant despite the claims of certain enemies of our People about the 'Khazar Jews' and "non-Semitic Jews." The presence of non-Semitic Jews therefore goes way back and it can include you as it does me (I'm of Welsh decent).
It is important to understand that no one is Jewish because of race, ethnicity, personal righteousness nor level of Torah observance. We are Jews solely because HaShem chose us according to His Will at Sinai to be of the Covenant, either through our mothers or through formal conversion.
No one can enter the Family without the active consent of the elders of the people and the Will of HaShem. But who among our elders has the authority to make the needed decisions and rulings? What happens if one is accepted for formal conversion by a beit din but one is not actually Jewish, i.e. one was not personally present at the Sacred Mount as described above? If there is no 'Jewish spark'. There are so many questions! Sadly Judaism is possibly more divided today than ever before on this important issue. There is no Jewish Pope and even the two Orthodox Chief Rabbis sometimes have their own agendas that are not consistent with the best interests of our people. All humans are fallible. The existence of movement-based politics and occasionally seemingly extremist rulings is causing serious injury to the Jewish people and those seeking to convert. But don't let that stop you! Our extended family may be dysfunctional at times, but it is ours!
If one is accepted into the family by a beit din of Klal Israel it is a blessing to the person in every case. One who is allowed to enter the mikveh should consider him/herself fully Jewish in every sense regardless of the affiliating movement or other considerations. Such a person should leave no quarter for doubt. Those seeking association in a particular movement or synagogue will need to meet the requirements of that group for acceptance of course, but conversion is awarded not from the rabbis seated on the beit din but from HaShem Himself through them. HaShem speaks through the Beit Din. Doubt is destructive to spirituality. Fully own your Jewishness once you attain it (even you choose to seek acceptance from other battei din later on for greater acceptance).
Frankly it appears that for many rabbis keeping people away from HaShem is now regarded as a virtue! Don't give up. If they refuse you go back again and again! The common and needless hurtles placed before many perspective converts is a shame, but if they are overcome these hassles can strengthen ones resolve to convert and to live as a Torah Observant Jew. Judaism is not a missionary religion true, but neither should it be an intentionally exclusionary one.
If one is not able to meet the hurtles of conversion don't worry. The Noahide Path is a fully authorized form of Derech HaShem (the Way of God). There is only One God and He accepts everyone who comes to Him whether Jewish or non-Jewish. For information on the Noahide Way go here.
'Becoming Jewish' requires meeting certain conditions and acquiring formal admittance from a recognized beit din (Jewish religious court). One can not simply decide to 'be Jewish'. Believing what Jews believe does not make one Jewish. Observing Torah does not make one Jewish anymore than moving into someone's house uninvited makes one a member of their family. There are requirements and approval needed for this adoption.
Are you interested in conversion to Judaism?
Rebbe Aryel Nachman Ben Chaim of the House of Seven Beggars, the founder of Der Alte Weg Chassidus, assists Gerim in a traditional Jewish conversion. I recommend his program, classes, and services highly:
For more information visit http://sevenbeggars.com
All true Jews are equally Jewish regardless of possible religious affiliations or movements. These divisions are useful as they enable Jews to connect with like-minded sisters and brothers and acquire doctrinally consistent instruction. Unfortunately the movements can also become divisive when one places itself above its peers as the 'true path'. As with denominationalism in other religions, this divisiveness happens all too often in Judaism.
By the authority of halacha (Jewish law), all Jews are required to accept all born and convert Jews as Jews regardless of their movement etc. The difficulties arise when determining who is and is not a true convert. Can a non-observant non-Orthodox rabbi really authorize the entrance of a person into the Covenant? How about a non-observant Orthodox rabbi? Who determines observance levels? Where is the line drawn and by whom? HaShem is One and Judaism should be one, and yet some Jews are quite sectarian in their religious beliefs. In other words, its politics as usual.
Some rabbis justify their exclusionary spirit by charging that other Jews are not halachically correct in their observances. This charge fails to appreciate the historic diversity of Jewish thought and practice and even the diversity that exists among the Orthodox themselves. Diversity is a great Jewish strength, not a weakness. According to the rabbis the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE mainly because of Jewish sectarianism. As we pray for the building of the Third and final Temple. history is in this sense repeating. This divisiveness is causing grave harm to born Jews, converts, and potential converts alike. It is also fueling anti-Semitism by presenting the Jewish people as petty and self-condemning people who "eat their own" as a commentator recently said on my Facebook. The final section of this study will focus on the principle Jewish Movements.
Who then is a Jew?
One is a Jew if:
- One is born of a Jewish mother.
- One formally converts through a recognized Jewish beit din (religious court). Those who are considering conversion have many things to consider as discussed:Why do you want to convert? Conversion is not necessary for most people. See here
Do you understand and accept that conversion will impact every area of your life? See here
Are you prepared to embrace a Torah observant life as you grow in your understanding and emuna (active faith)? See here
Which Movement best fits your desired practice of Judaism?
Do you have a Jewish support system in place?
Are you really prepared to join an extended family that historically and presently is so despised by so many? (see here and here)
Are you really prepared to become a servant of HaShem? See here
Are you truly prepared to say:"Do not entreat me to leave you, to return from following you, for wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God.Do you understand the nature and purpose of the Eternal Covenant?
Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. So may the Lord do to me and so may He continue, if anything but death separate me and you." -- Ruth 1:16, 17
Do you understand the requirements and blessings it brings to those who enter it?
What is a Jew?
Go to: Part 1 -- Who Is A Jew?As always, I invite you to Contact Me with questions or thoughts.
Go to: Part 2 -- Our Roots
Go to: Part 4 -- Our Movements
Go to: Part 5 -- Why Be Jewish? With Rabbi Meir Kahane (ZK"L)
Go to: Part 6 -- By the Numbers
Contact Rabbi Shlomo
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Rabbi Shlomo Nachman