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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

When am I not what I am?

I have been following this discussion and this follow up over at It has been interesting and I see Meryl's point; her argument is highly compelling since the groups she refer to are clearly outside of the Jewish faith. I'm all for freedom of expression but one must have respect for other cultures and traditions. At least one must in my world. Anyway, it threw up an interesting question as a complete sidebar.

Being a Jew seems fascinating to me insomuch as it encompasses two facets: one is the 'race' or ethnicity of being Jewish and the other is the religion. But how are the two intertwined?

One can convert to Judaism and become Jewish (as far as my limited understanding tells me). But what about if an ethnic Jew decides to convert to Buddhism, Christianity or whatever? After they convert are they still considered Jews by the Jewish community or are they something else? If so what? I cannot see this being the case since your ethnicity is not a badge, it is part of what you are whether you make a big deal of it.

For example I am a White Briton of mixed Irish, Scottish, Welsh and anglo-saxon heritage. For simplicity lets call me anglo-saxon. Now I was raised as a Roman Catholic and though I do not attend mass and even have days of severe agnosticism I have not been excommunicated so far as I know. Does this mean that when I was baptised I became a Roman? No. I am clearly still anglo-saxon and will be until the day I die, even if I actually move to Rome I will never be able to adopt that ethnicity.

So my question really is can there be a Christian Jew, or a Buddhist Jew? Or perhaps I am misunderstanding the whole deal. It occurs to me that you can have a semitic Christian, i.e. the ethnicity is not Jewish (though the shorthand is used) but rather it is semitic and Jew relates only to the faith? Except it relates to the twelve tribes of Israel.

Okay I have confused myself again. Can anyone explain the concepts to me in simple terms that I can understand?


Anonymous said...

I am generally woefully ignorant of such issues, but it is my (likely fundamentally flawed) understanding that being a Jew refers to the religion, not the ethnicity. I am certain that throughout history, they have often been interchanged, or the usages have changed. Just my 1.5 cents.


Sabba Hillel said...

Kav, the modern analogy of citizenship as well as membership in a family can perhaps be used. When someone is born a German citizen, one remains a German citizen until one explicitly renounces it. In German law, I believe that the children of German citizens remain German forever. German residents can have children in Germany but the children are not German citizens (unlike the US).

The definition of a Jew is someone whose mother is Jewish according to this definition or someone who has converted to Judaism according to Jewish law. Technically, all the Jews became converts at Mount Sinai when they changed from a family of twelve brothers descendants to a nation of twelve (thirteen) tribes. Note that this is the first case of recursion (preceding C and C++ by 3,000 years.

The messy-antics are the equivalent of citizens who have explicitly renounced their citizenship, like Americans who defected to the old Soviet Union (analogy used deliberately).

However, they can return and "get their citizenship back" if they repent and return. An example could be those Jews who succumbed in Spain after 1492 and converted but returned after managing to escape to Amsterdam. They remained tainted by what they had done but were able to return. The descendants of those who remained Catholic (but attempted to remain "Jews in hiding") are Catholics with some odd customs, such as lighting candles in the basement Friday night. Francisco Franco was a member of such a family.

When such Jews (known as Conversos) attempted to return after having escaped from Spain, they often had to go through a "conversion" in order to prove their sincerity. The messy-antics would probably have to first prove that they are Jews according to halacha (Jewish law) and then prove their sincerity before being accepted back.

One problem would be the requirement to prove descent from a Jew in the strict maternal line.

Kav said...

Just to be absolutely clear, I was not trying to suggest that messianics had any legitimacy to their claims to be Jewish.

So if I understand it properly the ethnicity is not correctly described by 'Jew', rather the religion is and it is intimately tied up with the belonging to the original tribes. yes? If someone converts they give up the right to belong to the 'tribe' (my terminology might not be good) and as such are no longer Jewish even though they share an ethnicity with many people who are jews. Yes?

Sabba Hillel said...

Sort of. Someone who converts to Judaism is considered like someone who becomes a naturalized citizen. He has all the rights and responsibilities of that citizenship. As such, he is as much a Jew as someone who is "born Jewish". Someone who attempts to convert to another religion, is still considered Jewish in the sense that a defecter to another country is considered a citizen of that country. However, he loses certain of the privileges of that membership just as a felon loses the right to vote. He still has all the responsibilities of being Jewish so whatever he does that a Jew may not do but a nonJew may is still considered a sin. An example would be eating at McDonalds. It is a sin for a Jew to eat nonkosher food but a nonJew has no such requirement.

If he has children with a nonJewish woman, then the children are not Jewish in any sense.

I hope that this is somewhat clearer.

Kav said...

Actually it is, thank you very much.

hrun said...

Kav, I have to say that I do share your original confusion. I certainly have heard Jews use the term Jewish not just to describe their reloigious affiliation but more akin to a racial term (e.g. used along the same line as Hispanic or Asian). However, I know believe that it is not so much used as a description of race or ethinicity, but as a general description of a cultural background. As it turns out, sometimes (even though I am not religous at all) I also use religion to define myself culturally- realizing that Christianity probably was a major influence on my culture where I grew up.

In the end, these all encompassing terms like Jewish, Christian, Hispanic, Asian, ... encompass such a wide range of things that they have become (at least to me) next to meaningless. For example, what does it mean that I have a friend who was born to a Spanish Mother and Korean Father, raised Catholic and then converted to Judaism before marriage. I guess in the end the easiest is just to call her 'American'. ;)

Sabba Hillel said...

The definition of a Jew is someone whose mother is Jewish according to this definition or someone who has converted to Judaism according to Jewish law.

In the case that you describe, the best analogy would be citizenship. The following example ignores many of the actual laws of the states involved for use as an analogy. It also ignores the concept of dual citizenship, which many states forbid. If she had been born in Spain (Spanish by birth), moved with her parents to Korea (become Korean upon immigration) and finally become an American citizen by naturalization, she would then be an American. Now consider if America never recognized renunciation of citizenship. Someone who attempted to renounce citizenship would, as an example, still be required to serve in the army if their were a draft.

hrun said...

Sabba, I was not necessarily looking at this from the point of accuracy or legality. As far as legal/regligous concepts are concerned my friend is an American citizen and has dual religions. Judaism accepted her as a convert which makes her Jewish. Yet, once baptized you remain Catholic until you die or are excommunicated. It is debatable whether her acts actually excommunicated her. For example, in some schools of thoughts the commitment of certain egregious sins (like conversion to a different religion) automatically excommunicates you (statim, ipso facto) whereas others think that a 'judge' actually has to declare you excommunicated. In the latter case, my friend remains Catholic to this day (of course while commiting multiple mortal sins on a daily basis which will certainly land her in hell unless she repents in time).

What I was talking about was more of how people themselves use the term on a casual basis to describe themselves.

Moebius Stripper said...

Regarding the religion-or-ethnicity question: when my grandfather's (Jewish) family fled Poland in 1934, their immigration forms listed "HEB", rather than "POL", under nationality. If this sort of thing was widespread, it's hardly surprising that Judaism is viewed in ethnic/national terms as well as religious ones. Even though it's possible to be both Jewish and Polish, it's quite clear that those two aspects of one's identity were perceived as being at odds with one another seventy years ago - and to a great extent, today.