Who is a Jew?

Dictionary Series - Religion: JewBy Brad Burman | 3 Jan 2024

“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. About 73% are considered Jewish. Some of citizens 21% are Arab or Palestinian who share the same full legal rights as all other Israelis. The rest are also Gentiles, from a variety of background.

Israel enshrines its view that Jews all over the world have the right to become citizens in Law of Return. This law, passed in 1950 in memory of the Holocaust, allows every Jew the right to “return” (make Aliyah) to the State of Israel as a citizen. Of course, non-Jews (Gentiles) can also apply to become citizens, but not under the Law of Return. For its purposes, a Jew is:

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.

Yet this definition is not the one that Orthodox Rabbinic Judaism agrees with. It defines a Jewish person as one who has a Jewish mother or one who converts to Orthodox Judaism (no converts from any other form of Judaism). This has led to lots of issues in the state of Israel as, for example, the The Israeli Chief Rabbinate controls marriage law. You can be a citizen under the Law of Return (a Jew) but denied the right to a legal wedding. Messianic Jews, like myself, brought up in the Jewish community with all Jewish family cannot return under the Law of Return, as this is a change in religion.

Yet, my local Orthodox Rabbi tells me I am still Jewish (by halakha – religious law) but need to repent and he certainly rejects Messianic Judaism as a legit practice. His view has been the historical one. Though in Israel and elsewhere, attitutes even on this are changing.

America’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.” Only 19%  said observing Jewish law was essential, yet this has been a common Orthodox Jewish view. The basic question about Jewish identity and one which there is no commonly agreed answer.

History of the Term “Jew”

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 (1 Kings 12; 2 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 (2 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. What is acceptable Jewish lineage is also a debated topic.

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

Messianic Judaism

Messianic Jews also hold a range of views on exactly who is Jewish. The oldest modern Messianic organisation, the International Messianic Jewish Alliance (established 1925), which had its origin in the Hebrew Christian Alliance of Great Britain (established in 1866), accepts a standard similar to the Law of Return. We accept a person also who has, or had, at least one parent or grandparent who is identifiably Jewish and include also the current spouse. For Messianic Jews this works practically in our time in history (after the Holocaust).


The question is based on ideas about Jewish personhood which is influenced by cultural, traditional factors, laws, genetics, theology, family background, ties with Israel, experiences of antisemitism, spiritual as well as religious, political, genealogical, legal and personal dimensions. In part the question of who is Jewish is about who is asking and for what purposes. It is a very complex topic which this short article has bearly scratch the surface of. For some people, like myself, it touches on my sense of self and personhood. I hope to explore this topic further in future posts.

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