Who is a Jew?

Dictionary Series - Religion: Jew“Who is a Jew?” would seem an easy question to answer. After all, it is pretty easy to define who an Australia is: a legal citizen of Australia. This is pretty much the same for most countries.

An Israeli is a citizen of Israel. So, are all Israeli’s Jewish people? Not at all. Some 25% are gentiles(1)around 20% Arab and some 4-5% others. Israeli holds to the view that all Jews everywhere are Israeli citizens by right. The “Law of Return”

4B. For the purposes of this Law, “Jew” means a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion.”

The rights of a Jew under this Law and the rights of an Oleh under the Nationality Law, 5710 – 1950, as well as the rights of an Oleh under any other enactment, are also vested in a child and grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew, except for a person who has been a Jew and has voluntarily changed his religion.

Israeli immigration laws will accept an application for Israeli citizenship if there is proven documentation that any grandparent—not just the maternal grandmother—was Jewish.

Why were gentiles invented? Someone has to pay retail.

erica’s best-known comedians have been Jewish. And so important is humor to Jewish culture that a landmark study on American Jewish identity in 2013 found that 42 percent of American Jews consider “having a good sense of humor” to be “an essential part of what being Jewish means.” (In contrast, only 19 percent said observing Jewish law was essential.)

the intermarriage rate is at 58 percent, up from 43 percent in 1990 and 17 percent in 1970. Among non-Orthodox Jews, the intermarriage rate is 71 percent.

is the basic question about Jewish identity and one which there is no commonly agreed answer. Rabbinic (Orthodox) Judaism defines a Jewish person as one who has a Jewish mother or one who converts to Orthodox Judaism (usually not any other form of Judaism), The problem with this is that most Jewish people are not Orthodox Jews.

The question is based on ideas about Jewish personhood which is influenced by cultural & traditional factors, family background, ties with Israel, experience of antisemitism, spiritual as well as religious, political, genealogical, legal and personal dimensions.


The term “Jew” is derived from the name of Jacob’s fourth son, Judah (Hebrew Yehudah). The word in Hebrew seems to be mean “to praise’ (Genesis 29:35, 49:8, Romans 2:29). It earliest use was likely to describe his descendants (as one of the twelve tribes of Israel).

On his deathbed, Jacob assigned Judah the role of leading Israel (Genesis 49:8-12). This prophecy that was fulfilled around 1000 BCE when all twelve tribes submitted to the reign of King David of the tribe of Judah. Tragically after his death of his son, King Solomon, the nation of Israel split into two kingdoms (I Kings 12; II Chronicles 10). The northern kingdom became known as Israel, while the southern kingdom became known as Judah. After this time, the term “Jew” would have properly described those of the southern kingdom (which included the tribe of Judah).

In the 6th century BCE, the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria were exiled permanently from their land (II Kings 17). This left the kingdom of Judah as the only remaining land of the Abraham’s descendants. Since those times, all the people of Israel became known as Jews.

So, who is a Jew? 

Generally speaking, as we can see above, the word “Jew” is used to refer to the physical descendants of Abraham.

Added to this is the ability to convert to Judaism.  Each branch of Judaism has their own ideas of what this consists of and may not accept the converts of other branches. In regard to lineage, below is an overview of most of the major views.

In regard to lineage, Orthodox Judaism relies on the Mishnah to resolve this issue. This is the first written source for halakha (Code of Jewish Law). It states that the status of the offspring of mixed marriages was determined matrilineally (by the mother). In other words, you are Jewish if you have a Jewish mother.

This view has been a part of Judaism since Roman times and other views only emerged in the last few centuries. Historian Dr Shaye J. D. Cohen (Shaye J.D. Cohen (1999). The Beginnings of Jewishness. U. California Press. pp. 305–306), believes that in the Scriptures, the status of the offspring of mixed marriages was determined patrilineally (by the father). He suggests that Mishna may have been influenced by the Roman law which dictated offspring would follow the mother (see Mater semper certa est).

Dr Arnold Fruchtenbaum, a Messianic Jewish scholar, also holds to the same view as Dr Cohen:

In the Scriptures it is not the mother who determines Jewishness but the father; consequently the genealogies…list the names of the men and not the women, except in cases where the mother was notable in Jewish history.

(Dr Arnold Fruchtenbaum, Hebrew Christianity (1983) Ariel Ministries Press, 8)

Conservative Judaism and Reformed Judaism (often called ‘Liberal’ or ‘Progressive’) usually accept a person as Jewish if they have a Jewish mother or an Jewish father. That said, they expect such a person to also have a recognisable commitment and identification with their Jewish identity.

Messianic Judaism

Not surprisingly, Messianic Jews also hold a range of views on exactly who is Jewish.

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1 around 20% Arab and some 4-5% others
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