Judaism: Race, Religion, or Ethnicity?

Every so often I get this question. Usually, I am asked simply whether Judaism is an ethnicity or a race. One person phrased it to me this way:

I am under the impression that «being Jewish» relates both to ethnicity (as in, someone is born Jewish), as well as a religion (as in, I converted to Judaism and therefore I am a Jew). Which is correct?

What I cannot understand is: who cares? Why do people want to know? Of what relevance is this issue to being Jewish?

The Mesilas Yesharim, a seminal work in Jewish philosophy, has a chapter called «The Obligations of the Human in This World.» He does not mention race or ethnicity even once in the entire chapter.

The fact is that as Jews, whether one is descended by maternal lineage from those who stood at Mount Sinai and accepted the Torah from Hashem, or whether one is a proper, full convert, or whether one is maternally descended from a proper, full convert, we are required to fulfill the Commandments of the Torah to the best of our abilities, and thus achieve self-actualization, holiness, and closeness to Hashem.

Words like «ethnicity,» «religion,» or even «race» are completely irrelevant to our obligations in this life. That’s not the path to pursue. What is important is each individual’s personal relationship with Hashem, and our relationship with Hashem as a People, as well as our relationships with our communities (roughly in that order).

I would hope that if you read the articles found on my web site, you will begin to have some sort of an understanding of what it means to be Jewish.

Why do so many people ask about race? A Jew could also be someone who converted to Judaism. Proper and true converts to Judaism are accepted as full Jews. Thus, there are Jews who have been Black, Asian, whatever. I know some of them myself. Furthermore, there are many Jews from many backgrounds and many «races,» and often they don’t look at all like people expect Jews to look (whatever that is). It doesn’t make a bit of difference. Race isn’t a factor in being Jewish.

And if you go back far enough, we all come from the same Adam and Eve. So «race» is at best an artificial concept.

Aren’t there enough race troubles around the world? The counterfeit distinctions of race have led to the extremely dangerous misconception of one «race» being better than another, and this has caused more pain in the world than probably any other failing of humanity. Can’t we get past that issue already?

Let’s focus on what the Torah tells us to do, and not on irrelevant concepts.

Sooner or later, though, someone is bound to ask, «What about Amalek? Doesn’t the Torah command us to kill them out? Isn’t that racial? Isn’t that commanding us to perform the evil of genocide?»

The answer is no. The Commandment to kill out Amalek is not racially based. In the first place, there have been Amalekite converts to Judaism, as we find in the Bible. In the second place, the Commandment to kill out the nation of Amalek is a Commandment of self-defense. The Amalek nation dedicated themselves to destroying the Nation of Israel (on religious grounds, mind you — they were militant atheists). Throughout the generations, Amalek has attempted again and again to kill all of us. Haman, during the Babylonian exile, attempted to eradicate all the Jews of the world, and he was given the power and authority by the Persian-Median Emperor (see the Book of Esther). Haman was a descendant of Agog, King of Amalek, and he inherited their national hatred of the Jews.

There are those who argue that the Nazis were the descendants of Amalek. It can certainly be said that they were the «spiritual descendants» (for lack of a better term) of Amalek.

Amalek wanted to destroy the Jews, and all and any knowledge of Hashem in this world. They have tried this time and again. Nevertheless, the Talmud tells us, the grandsons of Haman the Amalekite studied Torah in the Talmudic Academies of Bnei Brak (a city in Israel). They were not killed, they were not ostracized, though they came from Amalek, our ancestral enemy. Jews have never been very good at carrying a grudge.

What about the Commandment not to marry a Gentile? Isn’t that racially biased? Again, the answer is no. It seems that way, at first glance, but let’s examine what the Torah says about marrying a Gentile.

When Hashem your G-d brings you to the land you are going to inherit, and many nations fall before you: the Hittites, the Gersonites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Prezites, the Chivites, the Jevusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you; Hashem your G-d will hand them over to you, and you will strike at them. You must shun them utterly, you may not sign a treaty with them. You may not marry them. Do not give your daughter to a Gentile’s son, and do not take his daughters for your son. For if you do they will remove your sons from worshiping Me, and they will worship other gods. The result will be that Hashem will be angry with you and he will destroy you quickly…. For you are a holy nation [i.e., exclusively] for Hashem. Hashem your G-d chose you from all the nations on the earth, to be His special people. Hashem desired and chose you not because you had greater numbers than all the other nations, for you are the smallest of all the nations. It was because Hashem loves you, and because He kept His promise to your forefathers, that Hashem took you, with a strong hand, and rescued you from slavery, from the clutches of Pharaoh the king of Egypt.

— Deuteronomy 7:1-8

Read it carefully, as the Torah is meant to be studied. The point I wish to focus on is the verse that says that if we intermarry, our spouse will draw us away from Judaism. This is why marrying a true and proper convert is permitted, in most cases, because the convert is dedicated to Hashem and Judaism, and thus will not try to seduce us away from Judaism. A convert is a Jew. A Gentile, however, i.e., someone not born to a Jewish mother and who has not converted, might draw us away from Judaism.

So race is not an issue at all. We, as Jews, have a purpose to fulfill on this earth. We have obligations. The most optimum environment in which to perform those obligations is within the context of a Jewish marriage. Both spouses must work together to fulfill the purpose of their existence. If one member is not sincerely religious, the other spouse will at best fail to reach his or her potential. Most likely, he or she will find it impossible to fulfill those obligations as necessary.

Judaism teaches that the soul of one person is only half a soul. When a man and woman marry, they form one complete soul. That way, the soul finds its purpose.

What happens when one half is working in another direction? Can you imagine a car on
which each of the wheels are trying to travel in different directions? Can you drive a car like that?

Another aspect highlighted in the passage from Deuteronomy I quoted above is the concept of our being the Chosen People. What does that mean, really?

Well, G-d created mankind because G-d wanted to give good to someone. G-d wants to have a relationship with a creature that works hard to achieve good. G-d did not want to give away something for nothing, so G-d created humanity with the ability of free will, and put him in this universe, where he has the opportunity to sin and the opportunity to do good.

But people did not want to do good. G-d offered the Torah to all the nations, and they all refused it. Many individual people among the nations did not refuse — they are those who get reincarnated so they can get the chance to convert to Judaism. But on the whole, the nations refused the Torah. The Children of Israel wholeheartedly accepted the Torah. So we were given the responsibility of the Torah. We were chosen to become servants to G-d. It may be hard work, but it makes us holy.

But the main point is that anyone can become chosen, by assuming the responsibilities of the Commandments, just as we did. Is this racism? How could it be racism if we allow anyone to join us and become equally chosen? The Nazis did not let anyone become a member of the so-called «master race.» One had to be born to it. That was racism. Refusing to hire someone simply because they are dark-skinned is racism.

Saying that we accepted a responsibility and were as a result chosen to fulfill that
responsibility, and allowing anyone else to accept the responsibility as well, is not racism. It is easier to become Jewish than it is to join some unions. In Judaism, the entrance requirements are tough, but everyone who is sincere, has no ulterior motive, and commits themselves to the full Torah is allowed in.

Furthermore, the Torah has strict Laws about how to treat a convert. By Law, we are required to love a convert, and if we mistreat a convert (or anyone else who has had a difficult life), it is even worse than mistreating anyone else (which is also a sin, of course).

Furthermore, some of our greatest Rabbis have been converts and children of converts. For example, the great and famous Rabbi Akiva, one of the most pivotal Rabbis in the entire Talmud, was the son of converts. The incomparable Unkelos was himself a convert, and he wrote a translation of the Five Books of Moses that is considered one of the most important commentaries on the Torah ever written. While we have been chosen, so is everyone who is dedicated to Hashem and undertakes to serve Hashem as the Torah instructs. Our being chosen also includes anyone and everyone who chooses Hashem, no matter what nation he or she comes from. And a non-Jew who keeps the Seven Noahide Commandments is also loved and accepted by Hashem, even without the responsibilities of being «chosen.»

Judaism teaches a complex way of life, but there is a great tendency to try to adapt from other religions and other belief systems. Where it does not contradict Judaism, there is no problem. Consequently, Jews use computers, and Jews have joined a wide variety of careers. We are not Amish; we are permitted to use electricity. But we are human, and humans enjoy wandering and learning. We are therefore often tempted to adapt foreign modes of thought as well, modes that contradict the teachings of Judaism. Therefore, to some extent we are forced to be exclusive, to live in our own neighborhoods, to do our own thing, so as not to be exposed to that which would offend us or tempt us. Nevertheless, we can cloister ourselves only so much. We have to live in the world. So we spend our formative years in as Jewish an environment as possible, thus granting ourselves as solid a Jewish foundation as we can. This is a strong antidote against the depravity and lax morals that can be found in certain areas of most cities.

So, in short, the answer to the question stated at the beginning of this article is: who cares? But if you really need an answer, it is not racial. Judaism is something we are proud to do, not something we are proud to be. Judaism is our opportunity to attain holiness. What difference does it make if it’s a culture, ethnicity, or race? It is completely irrelevant.

If this subject concerns still anyone, I want to demonstrate to you that you really have nothing to be worried about. It has been a long time since I first placed this article of mine on this web site, and I have received only one disagreeing letter about it. When you read the letter, you will see that the people who consider Jews a race and disdain converts are not exactly the highest quality of people. Take a look at what this «human being» wrote me. (I have edited the profanity, as I found it offensive, but I have not touched the letter in any other way.)

With all due respect….Youre full of ****!……We Jews who can claim direct descent (and prove it through dna tests) from ancient Israelites are a well-defined racial group!!! furthermore the U.S. Supreme Court has even recognized us as a racial group,look it up!!! You must be just another dumb convert…who’s got not one!!! not one drop of Semite Middle Eastern blood!!! i p*** on free loading gold digging converts like you!!! and you must look like gomer pyle,not as a classical Judean,dumb*ss!!!

Now, obviously, we can’t take seriously anyone who writes or talks like that. It stands to reason that a group of people who have had, for over three thousand years, such a high rate of exclusive marriage within the group is going to have a higher tendency of the same DNA. It could very well be that we do. But that’s the result, not the reason for marrying within our faith! Our reason is because of the Commandment in the Torah, as I explained above. Furthermore, to hate a convert violates an additional Commandment in the Torah. If I were truly a convert, that writer would be violating both the Commandment of loving fellow Jews, as well as the Commandment not to disdain a convert.

It is evident to me that this person has no interest in the Torah and the Commandments. It’s also interesting that he quotes the U.S. Supreme Court, as if that’s some sort of convincing Jewish source.

Let me make this clear: Nowhere in the Torah, neither in the Written Torah or the Oral Torah, is there any indication that a Jew with so-called «pure» Jewish blood and DNA is in any way more meritorious than a true convert or the descendant of true converts. There is no such thing. It is not your blood or DNA that matters. It is what you do, and what you believe, not who your parents were. Either type of Jew can achieve the same level in the World to Come, depending on what they do in this world, not who they are.

To stress the point: we do not keep Judaism because we have a racial identity as Jews. If anything, we probably shouldn’t have a racial identity. We should have a religious identity. We keep Judaism because Hashem commanded us to. And He commanded us to teach our children to do so as well. And so while being Jewish can be inherited, one can become Jewish as well. Only idiots like that can think that this makes Judaism racist.

If someone reading this disagrees with me, for some reason, I’d welcome a polite letter to that effect, explaining any valid reasons. So far, all I have received on this point is complete drivel.

Was King David Jewish?

Believe it or not, I keep hearing from people who insist that according to Jewish Law, King David was not Jewish. They offer no proof of their statement, but they serve this up as «evidence» that Jewish Law has changed over the centuries.

I’ve already dealt with the second issue, and I have shown that Jewish Law has not changed, in my article, «Has Judaism Changed?«

I cannot imagine why people believe that King David would not be Jewish as defined by Jewish Law, as they have never offered me any logic to prove it. They simply make the statement and refuse to back it up with anything. For the most part, people simply tell me «Read the Bible, and you’ll see.» As if I’ve never studied the Bible before!

So it makes it a bit difficult for me to focus on any specific point. However, I will demonstrate that King David was indeed Jewish. If anyone has any questions involving a specific point in this subject matter, I would welcome it being sent to me so I can refute it as well and add it to this (or a new) article.

Before I begin, I want to point out that absolutely none of what I write here is my own opinion. Throughout this article I am citing the Talmud and the Rabbis of the Talmud. None of this is my own interpretation, and none of this did I think up on my own, unless I explicitly say so.

Okay, so let’s begin by defining the word «Jew,» as understood now, and as understood in ancient times. Jewish Law defines a Jew as one of three things:

  • Someone who is matrilineally descended from Jacob (AKA Israel) and any of his wives,
  • Someone who has properly converted
  • Someone who is matrilineally descended from a proper convert.

Was this always true? Ever since the Torah was given to us, it has been true. (See my article, «Who is a Jew?» for my discussion of that subject, and the proof that this is from the Torah.)

What about before Hashem gave us the Torah? Was it different? Many Jewish Laws were not in effect before we received the Torah at Mount Sinai, so we cannot always draw conclusions from what happened during the time of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.

Which brings up another question: Were the Patriarchs Jewish? And did the Matriarchs convert to Judaism before marrying the Patriarchs?

Let’s see what the Torah says about it. We find that when Hashem told Abram (before
Hashem changed his name to Abraham) to leave his birthplace Haran, the Torah tells us: «Abram took Sarai his wife, and his nephew Lot, all their belongings, and all the souls they had made in Haran; they left to go to the land Canaan, and they arrived at Canaan» (Genesis 12:5).

What are those «souls they had made in Haran?» Were they in the soul manufacturing
business? They had no children yet, so it can’t mean that. Three chapters later, in Genesis 15:3, Abraham says to Hashem, «You have given me no children yet….»

So who were those souls? It means, the Talmud tells us, the people they had converted to Judaism. Since Abraham and Sarah — the verse says the souls they had made in Haran — had brought them into Judaism, the Torah considers them to have «made» them.

Perhaps Judaism was not yet family based, but that was then, and didn’t include the future. Hashem had just promised Abraham that «I will make you into a great nation, and I will make your name great, and you will be a
blessing» (ibid., verse 2). And in Genesis 17:7, Hashem tells Abraham, «I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and your children afterwards, for all generations, an eternal covenant, to be your Power (G-d), and the Power of your descendants after you….» There are other examples of this, but this will do for now.

So, we see that Hashem promised Abraham that his descendants would be the Chosen People. The future certainly was to define Jews as either descendants of Abraham (plus converts that joined their descendants).

Why Abraham? «For I will bless you, and increase your descendants like the stars of the
sky… Because you obeyed Me» (Genesis 22:18). More importantly, «Abraham will be a great and mighty nation…For I know that he will command his children and his household after him to obey the Way of Hashem, that they will do charity and justice…» (ibid., 18:18-19).

So, Abraham made sure the religion was maintained, and that his children and all the
members of his household, the «souls they had made in Haran,» would keep the
Commandments that G-d had given him.

Which Commandments? Well, Hashem told Isaac, the son of Abraham, «And I will increase your descendants until they are as many as the stars of the sky, and I will give your descendants all these lands, and all the nations of the land will be blessed through your descendants. Because Abraham obeyed Me, and he kept My Decrees, My Commandments, My Regulations, and My Torahs» (ibid. 26:5-6). That’s quite a lot. It doesn’t seem to mean one or two little rules. In fact, the Talmud teaches us that Abraham fulfilled all of the Torah, including the Oral Torah, and even the decrees of the later Rabbis. This is alluded to by the fact that the Torah says that Abraham kept Hashem’s «Torahs,» in plural. This refers to both the Written Torah and the Oral Torah (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma, 28b).

Abraham was quite obedient. He kept all of the Torah! And he commanded his children after him to do the same.

Which is not to say that Abraham and all our Patrairchs and Matriarchs were «Jewish» per se. His exact status, and the status of all his family and descendants until the Torah was given to us, is not too clear. (In fact, the Rabbis teach us that this question was hotly disputed between the twelve sons of Jacob.) One thing is certain: the Rabbis teach us that when we stood at Mount Sinai and accepted the Torah, we all became Jews, so to speak (though the term «Jew» did not come into use until at least six hundred or so years later). Our lineage is important, but that’s not all that makes us Jews. A gentile who fully and properly converts to Judaism is also called a descendant of Abraham and Sarah, and one of Israel, without question.

Some people have asked me, «How can it have been possible for Abraham to know what the Torah says before it was given?»

They forget that Abraham was a prophet also, and that Hashem spoke to him often. The Torah was not created by Moses, but by Hashem. The Talmud (Nedarim 39b) teaches us that Hashem created the Torah before creating the world. King Solomon, in Proverbs (8:22-27), tells us this, when he speaks of the Torah:

Hashem created me at the beginning of Creation, long before His other deeds. I ruled
from the earliest times, before the earliest things on earth. Before there were deep seas,
I was created…before the mountains were set, before the hills, I was created….Before
the earth was made…when the sky was prepared, I was already there…

Therefore, we see that the Torah existed in the time of Abraham as well, and that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob kept the Torah.

So, did the Matriarchs convert before the Patriarchs married them?

Since we know that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, all kept Hashem’s Commandment, it seems rather unlikely that the Patriarchs married unconverted Gentile women. The Torah says that all their households kept the Way of Hashem. It seems more likely that all their wives also converted and observed whatever Commandments Hashem had given Abraham. At any rate, the Matriarchs were no more or less Jewish than the Patrairchs were.

Moreover, we find that Sarah was on a higher level than Abraham was. When Sarah said that Hagar and Ishmael were destroying Isaac, and should therefore be sent away, Abraham did not want to do it. However, Hashem told Abraham, «Whatever Sarah your wife tells you, obey her voice…» (Genesis 21:12) The Talmud teaches us that «her voice» (when it should have said «obey her» — see the Sifsei Chachamim on Rashi, Genesis 21:12, s.v. «Obey Her Voice») means the voice of Hashem that speaks through her (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 69b). This means, says the Midrash, that Sarah had a greater level of prophecy than Abraham did (Midrash Tanchumah Exodus 1:1).

Obviously, Sarah was fully «Jewish,» or whatever passed for that in those days. She was a very holy person, and was even a greater prophet than Abraham! (Prophecy does not come easy. Only people on a very high spiritual level can become prophets.)

 So before the Torah was given, it doesn’t really matter, pragmatically speaking, whether being Jewish was passed along via the mother or the father. In all cases, the fathers and
mothers were as Jewish as anyone could be at the time, and they were fully obedient to
Hashem’s Torah. Being «Jewish» was passed down by both parents.

For we have to consider, what made Abraham Jewish? Even if you believe that Jewishnesswas passed along patrilineally, you would still have to ask «how did Abraham become Jewish in the first place?» Whatever that process was, it was the same for Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, the Matriarchs. However it was that Abraham became «Jewish,» that’s how Sarah became Jewish. Thus, Jewishness could just have easily passed down by matrilineal descent, even then. It is really a moot point, since we have seen that the Matriarchs were considered as Jewish as the Patriarchs, no more, no less.

Let’s get a little closer to King David himself. King David was a descendant of Judah, the son of Jacob, on his father’s side. (Otherwise, he could not have been the king that started the royal dynasty. King Saul was a temporary king, and not the head of the royal dynasty.) Was King David Jewish? After all, he had Gentile ancestors. King David was a descendant of Ruth, who was born a Gentile, and married a Jew.

Let’s review the history. As the beginning of the Book of Ruth tells us, A Jewish man named Elimelech took his wife Naomi and their two sons from the land of Israel to the land of Moab. There, in Moab, the two sons married Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. Before long, Elimelech and his two sons died.

Ruth and Naomi went to the Land of Israel. There, Ruth met Boaz, and they got married.
They had a son named Oved. Oved had a son named Jesse, and Jesse had a son named David. That David later became the King David. So, King David was also descended from Gentiles. 

Was King David Jewish?

Some people argue that if Ruth was not Jewish, neither were her children, and therefore King David was not Jewish.

The first and obvious problem with that argument is that Ruth was not King David’s mother. She was his great-grandmother. Let’s assume for now that she did not convert to Judaism. If her son Oved married a Jewish woman, then his son Jesse was Jewish anyway. Even if Oved married a Gentile woman, if their son Jesse married a Jewish woman then their son David was still Jewish!

So even if Ruth did not convert, you still have to prove that King David’s mother was not
Jewish. So far, no one has furnished me with any proof of this at all. It does not matter at all whether Ruth converted, if King David’s mother was Jewish.

But let us consider: did Ruth convert? Well, first of all, it’s pretty logical to assume that she did, since the Torah explicitly forbids us to marry Gentiles who have not converted. In Deuteronomy 7:3 the Torah tells us, «Do not marry with them; your daughter you may not give to a Gentile’s son, and you may not take a Gentile’s daughter for your son.» Why? Because, says the Torah, «For he will take your son away from Me, and they will worship the gods of others…» (ibid., verse 4). (See my article, «Judaism: Race,
Religion, or Ethnicity?
» for further explanation of this Commandment.)

Note, by the way, that the Torah’s prohibition against marrying a Gentile applies to both a Jewish man marrying a Gentile woman, and a Jewish woman marrying a Gentile man. Both are forbidden.

So we have no reason to assume that Ruth didn’t convert. Boaz, the leader of his generation, would not have married a Gentile woman who had not converted. Remember, Ruth went to Boaz because he was the next closest relative to her dead husband, and therefore it was his obligation to marry her to give her the children her dead husband never gave her (Ruth 2:20; 3:3; 3:12; and Chapter 4). But if she had not been Jewish, Boaz would not have had such an obligation at all!

However, since there are people who, for no clear reason, still insist that Ruth did not convert, I will demonstrate from the Book of Ruth itself that Ruth did convert.

In Ruth 4:11, it says:

And all the people at the gate as well as the Elders were witnesses, and they said, May Hashem let this woman who is joining your household be like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built the House of Israel, and may you do great things in Efras, and be considered significant in Bethlehem. And may your home be like the home of Peretz son of Judah and Tamar, from the offspring that Hashem will give you from this young woman.

Note that the Elders of Israel were among the witnesses. They witnessed and approved of this marriage. Moreover, they obviously expected that Hashem will favor that marriage. Would they have felt that way if Ruth had not converted to Judaism? If Boaz was transgressing the Torah’s Commandment against marrying a Gentile woman, would they have blessed the marriage? Would they have blessed her to become as great as the Matriarchs Rachel and Leah? It seems rather clear that Ruth converted to Judaism. Therefore, any children she had were Jewish. This is my own observation and the logic is inescapable.

Some argue that «there was no conversion process back then.» I must wonder how they know this. They simply mean to say that they do not believe that the Laws of Judaism existed back then, and therefore it was okay to marry Gentile women. This entails ignoring the Torah’s Commandment not to marry Gentiles.

Not only that, but the great people of Jewish history certainly did not consider it permitted to marry unconverted Gentiles from any other nation.

Let’s take Moses, for example. Moses was married to an Ethiopian woman, Zipporah. Yet when the soldiers brought back Gentile women from Midian, Moses got angry at them (Numbers 31:14-15). What was the difference? The difference is that Zipporah converted to Judaism.

How do we know that Zipporah converted? Because we know that she kept the
Commandments. When Moses failed to circumcise his son because he was afraid that the traveling would kill him, what did Zipporah do? «Zipporah took a (sharp) rock and cut off the foreskin of her son…» (Exodus 4:25). Evidently, Zipporah was an observant Jew.

Intermarriage is also mentioned in 1 Kings, Chapter 11:

King Solomon loved many Gentile women, such as the daughter of Pharaoh, Moabite,
Amonite, Edomite, Sidonite, and Hittite women. They are Gentiles, about whom
Hashem told the Children of Israel «Do not intermarry with them and do not let them
intermarry with you, for they will surely influence you towards their religions.» Those
are the people that Solomon clung to in love. He had seven hundred queen-wives, and three hundred concubines, and these women influenced him.

When Solomon grew old, his wives influenced him towards their gods, and thus his
heart was not complete in his service of Hashem, as his father David’s was….

Hashem said to Solomon, Since this is the way you are, and you have not fully obeyed
My covenant and My Laws that I commanded you, I shall tear part of the kingdom
from you, and I will give it to one of your subjects. I shall not do this in your lifetime,
for the sake of your father David. I shall tear it away from your son.

We see here that the prophets considered what King Solomon did, in marrying Gentile
women, to be a sin. Had they fully and properly converted, they would not have influenced him away from Hashem. (Bear in mind that the Talmud says that King Solomon never actually worshipped any idols, but since he did not stop his wives from doing so when he could have, Hashem considered it as if it were King Solomon’s own sin.)

Even back then, evidently, there was a process of conversion. Thus we have
amply proven that Ruth was a convert, just like Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Bilha, and
Zilpah. And as I said above, in any case the nationality of Ruth would not have thrown into question the Jewishness of King David, who was her great-grandson.

I wish to reiterate that absolutely none of what I wrote here is my own opinion. Everything in this article I took from the Talmud and otheR Rabbinic Writings from over a thousand years ago. None of this is my own interpretation, and none of this did I think up on my own, unless I explicitly said so.

Who Is a Jew, According to the Torah?

How do we define who is a born Jew and who is not? If one of your parents is not Jewish, are you still Jewish?

Before I continue, I want to make clear that I am referring to the Chidren of Israel; also called the Israelite Nation; AKA the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; in other words, the descendants of any of the Tribes of Israel. I am not using the term «Jew’ to mean «from the Tribe of Judah.» When I say in this article that someone is a Jew, I mean that he or she is, according to the Torah (i.e., what we call Jewish Law or Judaism), a descendant of any of the Tribes of Israel. When I say someone is not a Jew, or is not Jewish, I mean that the Torah, by which I mean Jewish Law, does not consider that person to be a member of our Nation.

This subject is hotly debated among non-Orthodox Jewish groups, but I don’t really intend to discuss the politics of it very much. I want to simply explain the Orthodox stance, and demonstrate that it is and was the original Jewish definition.

Before I begin, I want to point out that absolutely none of what I write here is my own opinion. Throughout this article I am citing the Talmud and the Rabbis of the Talmud. None of this is my own interpretation, and none of this did I think up on my own, unless I explicitly say so.

So do not write me and insist that I am creating my own interpretation of the verses. I am telling you what the Rabbis say in the Talmud, and how they proved the meanings of the verses.

In any case, look at the verses and think about what they mean. Read the logic I cite here from the Rabbis. Don’t focus on personalities. You’re not liking a conclusion is not a good enough reason to ignore the logic and attack people.

Now let’s discuss the subject.

The original and current Jewish definition of a born Jew is someone whose mother is Jewish. Even though the Torah forbids a Jewish woman to marry a Gentile man, if she does, her children will still be Jewish.

The Torah also forbids a Jewish man to marry a Gentile woman, and if he does, his children by that woman will not be Jewish.

This annoys a great many people who wish to consider themselves Jewish, despite their non-Jewish mother. It is not my intention to annoy anyone. It is my intention to explain Judaism, and not to rationalize any dilution or changes in Jewish Law.

Please understand: if you are in that position, I hear your pain, and I understand and feel it. In no way do I claim that you do not have a Jewish heart, or Jewish feelings, or perhaps even the potential of a Jewish soul. I cannot know these things.

The question of being a Jew, however, is not the same thing, unfortunately. Having a Jewish heart and Jewish feelings does not make someone Jewish. One has to be Jewish according to Jewish Law.

A young woman (I’ll call her Sheila) wrote me a while back, complaining about this concept. Her father is Jewish, but her mother is not. She demanded that I prove that the Torah attaches a persons Jewish lineage to the mother. Here are her arguments, and my responses to them.

Sheila wrote me: I am VERY upset to hear that people who are Jewish only by their father’s side are not considered by the Orthodox to be Jewish, when in the Torah it firmly states that the father is the leader of the house and all the stories in Torah talked about Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, Moses, etc.

There is no indication in the Torah that the Leader of the household passes along nationality. Tribal affiliation, yes, that was passed down by the father, but not nationality. Let me demonstrate.

Were the Matriarchs Jewish? The answer is yes. (Of course, the word «Jewish» is not exactly the right word to use, since the word «Jew» came about only later, because of the Tribe of Judah, but never mind that for now. «Jewish» is the easiest term to use for this discussion, so we’ll use that word.) The Matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Bilha, and Zilpah, were all just as Jewish as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

What made Abraham Jewish? What made Sarah Jewish? Abraham’s father and mother were not Jewish. Sarah’s father or mother were not Jewish. What made Abraham and Sarah Jewish?

Abraham and Sarah were both Jewish because they converted.

Okay, then why was Isaac Jewish? Was it because his father was Jewish, or because his
mother was Jewish? How can you tell? Does it make a difference, if they were both Jewish?

You might ask me, who says that Sarah was Jewish? It’s pretty logical that Sarah was just as Jewish as Abraham, but in case you’re not convinced, read my article «Was King David Jewish?» where I explain it in detail. You’ll find the link below.

For that matter, why wasn’t Ishmael Jewish? His father was Abraham. Yet only Isaac became the ancestor of the Jews. Was it because Isaac’s mother (Sarah) was Jewish, and Ishmael’s mother (Hagar) was not? No, that is not the reason. It was because Isaac chose to serve Hashem, and Ishmael did not.

But according to you, Sheila, since you say that being Jewish is passed along by the father, Ishmael should also have been Jewish. Yet he was not. Apparently, being Jewish was passed along some other way. Was it through the mother? No, it wasn’t that either, and I’ll prove it.

Let’s look at the next generation. Why was Jacob Jewish, when Esau was not? They both had the same mother, and the same father! The reason is because Jacob served Hashem, and Esau did not, and thus Hashem chose Jacob, but did not choose Esau.

All of Jacob’s children served Hashem, and therefore Hashem chose all of them.

So we see that the Biblical stories of our ancestors do not show that Jewishness was passed along by the father or by the mother. There is no evidence of it at all.

When we, the Children of Israel, stood at Mount Sinai and accepted the Torah, we accepted new Laws that we had never been expected to keep until then. And from then on, Jewish lineage was passed down by the mother, whether or not one accepted Judaism. (And I will
prove that below, with Hashem’s help.)

As to the stories in the Torah, there are stories of the Matriarchs as well. Our Mother Sarah, exactly like our Father Abraham, was a convert to Judaism. So was Rebecca, because her parents were not Jewish.

So why do most of the stories focus on the men? It is not because they were the carriers of Jewish nationality. It was because the stories that the Torah wants to teach us most often happened with the men. But there are plenty of stories about the women as well.

The stories of the Torah are not there to tell us simply how we are descended from Jews. That is not important, because we could all just convert if we wanted to. Besides, a simple lineage chart would suffice. The stories are there to teach us lessons, not to tell us how we are descended from Jews.

The stories also teach us that we will always carry the merits of our ancestors. Plus they give us object lessons to try to emulate.

Sheila wrote me again: Nowhere in the Torah does it state that only the mother is the passer of the Jewish blood.

And where does it say that the father is? But I shall demonstrate, with Hashem’s help, that the Torah does say that the mother carries the Jewish lineage.

In the Book of Ezra we learn that a large number of Jews left Babylon to go up to Israel to rebuild Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. Some time later, Ezra the Scribe came up as well. When he arrived, he bagen to teach Torah and the Torah’s Laws to the people. He was told that a number of Jews had married non-Jewish women. When Ezra spoke to the people about this, they repented, and agreed to send away their wives and the children they had had with those wives. This is what the people told Ezra (Ezra 10:2-3):

«We have transgressed against our G-d by marrying women who are foreign to the people. But there is still hope for Israel despite this. Let us now make a covenant with our G-d to expel all these women and those who have been born to them, in accordance with the bidding of Hashem and those eager to fulfill our G-d’s Commandment, and let the Torah be obeyed.»

And indeed, the non-Jewish women and the children they had with them were all sent away. Now, if those children had been considered Jewish, why would they send them away? They sent them away because they were not considered Jewish, because their mothers were not Jewish.

When the Torah speaks of the Law against marrying a non-Jew (Deuteronomy 7:3), here is what the Torah says:

Do not intermarry with them; do not give your daughter to his son, and do not take his
daughter for your son.

For he will cause your son to turn away from Me, and they will worship the gods of others….

Now, that second verse is strange. The first verse gives the two possible examples: your daughter may not marry a Gentile man, and your son may not marry a Gentile woman. Both are forbidden, and both are mentioned in the first verse.

But the second verse cites only one example. «For he will cause your son to turn away from me….»

Okay, so which example is the Torah talking about? Let’s try them in order.

Number 1: Let’s say your daughter married a Gentile man. So why does the Torah say «He will cause your SON…» Who is the son? Shouldn’t it say «He will turn your DAUGHTER away?»

Okay, so let’s try the second possibility: your son married a Gentile woman. Again, why does the Torah say «HE will turn your son away?» It should say «SHE will turn your son away from Me….»

So we need to understand this. Who is this «he,» and who is this «son?»

Well, what does the Torah means when it uses the word «son?» Let’s look at some examples:

Exodus 2:18. «And they came to their father Re’uel.» But they were the daughters of Jethro! (Jethro was also known as Chovev, as we see from Judges 4:11.) Why does the Torah call them the daughters of Re’uel? Because, explains the Talmud, Re’uel was Jethro’s father (Numbers 10:29), and we often find that the Torah calls a grandfather a father, and a grandson a son.

Genesis 20:12. «Furthermore, she is indeed my sister, my father’s daughter, though not my mother’s daughter, and she became my wife.» Abraham was explaining that he had not lied. But was Sarah really his father’s daughter? In fact, Sarah was his niece, the daughter of his brother. Therefore, Sarah was the daughter of Terach, her grandfather. So in a sense she was Abraham’s sister.

And this is why Abraham told his nephew Lot «we are brothers…» (Genesis 13:8). The grandson of my father is like the son of my father. And that makes him my brother.

Genesis 29:5. Jacob asked the people of the city «Do you know Lavan the son of Nachor?» But Lavan was the grandson of Nachor, not the son of Nachor! Lavan was the son of Besu-el, who was the son of Nachor. In fact, Rebecca, Lavan’s sister, told Eliezer «I am the daughter of Besu-el, who was the son of Milkah the wife of Nachor» (Genesis 24:24). So why did Jacob call Lavan the son of Nachor, when Lavan was the grandson of Nachor? Because a grandson is considered like a son.

But is this true of all a person’s children? What if you your daughter marries a gentile man, and has a son. Is that child also considered your son?

Well, the Torah seems to say that it is. Where? In the verse we started with, in Deuteronomy 7:4. The Torah says «For he will cause your son to turn away.» Who is «he?» Who does it mean by «your son?»

«He,» explains the Talmud (Yevamos 23a; Kiddushin 68b), means the Gentile son-in-law. Your son means your daughter’s son. Since your daughter is Jewish, her daughter is Jewish. But your Gentile son-in-law might turn your grandson away from Hashem. In other words, if you let your daughter marry a Gentile, your son-in-law will cause your grandson to turn away from Hashem.

But what if it’s your son who married a Gentile woman? Well, the Torah does not say «she will turn your son away from Hashem.» The Torah does not warn us that the Gentile woman will turn the Jewish man away from Hashem. Why not? I’m not sure, but perhaps it’s because if your son marries a gentile woman, he has already turned away from Hashem!

Okay, but what about your son’s children? Won’t their Gentile mother turn them away from Hashem? The answer is that the children of a Gentile mother are not Jewish in the first place, so the Torah is not worried about them being turned away from Hashem.

To make it clear: why doesn’t the Torah say «she will turn your son away from Hashem?» Why isn’t the Torah worried that your Gentile daughter-in-law will turn your grandson away from G-d? The answer, says the Talmud, is because the son of your Gentile daughter-in-law is not Jewish, and he is not considered your grandson (or son) at all.

Sheila asked: Do you decide what G-d accepts??

To which I responded: Of course not. We follow what the Torah teaches.

And Sheila wrote: But, men in power have decided to take away some of the laws of Torah.

And I answered her: But that doesn’t make sense. If it were because men wanted power, then they would have given themselves the power of lineage. Instead, according to you they gave the power of Jewish lineage to the women!

Sheila wrote: I want to be Jewish for no other reason except than because I believe it and feel it stir in my heart.

Good, that is a beautiful thing. Then do it the right way. Do it the Torah way.