Who is a Jew? (Nasso – 06/11/22)
Who is a Jew?
This question has been raging since the 1980s. Whose conversions count, do we include patrilineal lineage, are the Ethiopian Jews indeed Jewish? Yet historically this question begins much earlier.
Dr. Andrew Tobolowsky asks, “Did Israel Always Have Twelve Tribes?
The Bible presents Israel as having twelve tribes from both northern Israel and southern Judah. In older northern lists, however, the southern tribes do not appear, and the full list seems to have developed in Judah, after the destruction of Israel. Moreover, the idea that the tribes are descended from Jacob developed even later.”
We were always taught that the Jewish people are comprised of twelve tribes descending from Jacob and his four wives. Ten of those tribes were lost when the Assyrians conquered the northern country of Israel in 722 BCE, but numbers of them fled south to join Benjamin and Judah in Jerusalem and its surrounding cities. Even though we were subsequently exiled by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, remnants of all of the tribes survived. We’re collectively called Jews because the vast majority of the survivors were from Judah.
My first question on this tenet began when I read “Exodus” by Dr. Richard Elliot Friedman. He posits that the Levites are not descendants of Jacob’s third son, Levi, but a collective of various spiritual disciples of Moses. They subsequently became the priestly class of the northern country of Israel. As Tobolowsky suggests, their inclusion into Jacob’s family developed afterward.
Tobolowsky brings many proofs from the Bible where tribes are omitted from the count. When Deborah and Gideon rally Israel to fight against its enemies, only certain tribes are listed. Likewise, when Moses blesses the Children of Israel upon his death, he omits the tribe of Simeon.
I believe Tobolowsky might indeed be correct. Based upon archeological findings in the north and south of Israel, Finkelstein and Silberman conclude in “The Bible Unearthed”, that the two Jewish nations of Israel and Judah were always independent. The Book of Kings’ claim that they were originally one country under David and Solomon, but split afterward, is lacking evidence. However, it is true that when the Assyrians conquered Israel, many of them fled south to Judah for refuge. Perhaps in order to strengthen this new composite nation, a lineage was proposed that made us all one large family.
This new genealogy, though, is just a piece in the long story of “who is a Jew”? In the Bible, Judaism is transmitted through the father. All the kings had numerous foreign wives and their children are considered Jewish. We never find the word “conversion” in the Bible; it’s only first mentioned in the rabbinic writings in the first or second century of the first millennium. Around this time, the rabbis instituted another major change: Judaism would now be defined by matrilineal descent.
Defining who is a Jew continued to evolve through the centuries. Nine hundred years ago it was asked if the Karaites were still Jewish. Hundreds of years earlier they had segregated themselves from the main body of Jews to follow a literal understanding of the Bible. Nonetheless, the rabbis decided that we must accept them as Jewish.
Five hundred years ago it was asked if those generations of Jews of Spain and Portugal who had converted to Catholicism should be considered Jewish upon their return to Judaism. Again, the rabbis welcomed them with open arms.
In the last century, the rabbis of Israel granted Ethiopian Jews the Right of Return. Even though they practiced a very different style of Judaism, they were considered Jews by being descendants of the lost tribe of Dan.
More recently, people living among the India/Burma border were let into Israel for they claim to be from the lost tribe of Menashe. Nowadays, Israelis come in every shape, size, color, and background. In America, one out of every ten Jews is not white.
There has been much outrage lately with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel refusing the conversions of all rabbis except the most extremely religious. Yet what we have been witnessing is that there is not one monolithic definition of Jew – it has been fluid throughout the ages. Reform Judaism started recognizing patrilineal descent. Some people are Jewish by faith, by birth, or some combination of the two. Others are born Jewish but don’t identify as Jewish while there are idealists who decide to join the Jewish family. Should people who convert to Judaism be held to a higher standard of observance than those who are born Jewish?
There’s obviously no conclusive definition of who is Jew. As Judaism moves into its fourth (or possibly fifth) millennium, for us to continue to be impactful we need as many devotees as we can garner. As Jews and Judaism continue to evolve, we should welcome with open arms all who claim or want to be Jewish.