who is a Jew?
WHO IS A JEW?
Jews are an ethnoreligious group, a tribe, and a nation originating in the Land of Israel, descended from the ancient Hebrews and Israelites. This is verifiably true per 3000 years’ worth of archeology, a plethora of genetic studies, and thousands of years of historical record. An ethnoreligious group is an ethnic group unified by a common religion.
Much like other Indigenous tribes worldwide, Jewish peoplehood, tribal identity, nationhood (not to be confused with nationality), and religion/spirituality (Judaism) are inextricable from each other.
Judaism is the ethnic religion of the Jewish People. It is comprised of the ancient beliefs, mythologies, and laws of the Jewish tribe.
Judaism is an ethnic, rather than universalizing, religion. Ethnic religions are religions that are specific to a particular ethnic group. Universalizing religions are religions that transcend ethnic, tribal, cultural, and national affiliation. Two examples of universalizing religions include Christianity and Islam. Universalizing religions spread via colonialism, imperialism, and proselytization.
Jews don’t proselytize. The only reason you can find Jews in nearly every corner of the globe is that foreign empires displaced an Indigenous population. This displacement(s) is something that Jews have in common with other Indigenous Peoples.
You can be Jewish one of two ways: (1) you were born Jewish, or (2) you converted to Judaism. I’ll get more into this in an upcoming slide.
WHO IS NOT A JEW
For a multitude of reasons, including colonialism, the appropriation of the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”), imperialism, Christian supremacy, and more, various groups worldwide have claimed Jewish, Israelite, or Hebrew descent. This is inherently problematic for a plethora of reasons — including the erasure of actual Jews and appropriation of Jewish culture, history, and identity — and a huge topic that I simply can’t address in a single post.
Some groups that claim Israelite descent who are verifiably not descendants of the ancient Israelites, include, but are not limited to:
- Messianic Jews
- Black Hebrew Israelites (of note: BHIs are not the same thing as Black American Jews. Black American Jews are Jewish, period)
- Latter-Day Saints
Of course, it’s very possible for people belonging to these groups to have real Jewish ancestry. But that’s not what makes you Jewish (or “Israelite” or “Hebrew”). Like every other tribe, Jews have strict parameters for membership that must be respected.
According to Halacha (Jewish law), Jews who abandon Jewish observance by choice become “meshumadim” (an example being Messianic “Jews” of Jewish ancestry). This does not apply to atheist Jews, as Judaism permits atheism (in fact, about 27% of American Jews and 20% of Israeli Jews consider themselves atheist or agnostic).
Though still considered Jewish for purposes of lineage, those who abandon Jewish observance by choice cannot claim any privilege pertaining to Jewish status.
DETERMINING WHO IS JEWISH
According to Halacha (Jewish law), Jewishness is passed down through the mother. This, however, was not always the case: before Roman times, patrilineal descent was the norm. In fact, priestly status (Kohanim) is still passed down through the father.
The reason for the switch from patrilineal to matrilineal descent is a matter of debate. Oral tradition tells us that the reason for matrilineality is that “one always knows who the mother is,” especially in light of the pervasive sexual violence against Jewish women through the millennia. Another theory is that, since Roman society was highly patrilineal, the switch to matrilineality was an act of Jewish rebellion.
Today, the Reform movement accepts patrilineal descent, so long as the person was raised Jewish. Some other groups have traditionally practiced patrilineal descent, such as the Beta Israel (who presumably disconnected from the rest of the Jewish community before matrilineal descent became the norm) and Karaite Jews. Karaite Judaism emerged as a movement within Judaism in the ninth century. Egyptian Karaites are accepted as Jews by the Conservative movement since 1984, and Karaites are eligible for Israel’s Law of Return. Rabbinic opinion is that Karaite Jews born of a Jewish mother are considered Halachic Jews. Some Israeli Sephardic Chief Rabbis, including Ovadia Yosef and Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, encouraged marriages between Karaite Jews and Rabbinic Jews to assimilate Karaites into “mainstream” Judaism.
As a tribe, nation, and ethnoreligious group, Jewish identity is much more complicated than that of members of other religious groups, and it’s not a simple matter of belief. By contrast, a Christian is a person who believes in the religion of Christianity and a Muslim is a person who believes in the religion of Islam.
BLACK JEWS ARE JEWS, PERIOD
Like all other Jews, there are two ways in which a Black person can be Jewish: (1) they were born Jewish, or (2) they converted to Judaism. Being a Black person does not automatically make you Jewish or mean that you have Jewish (or “Hebrew” or “Israelite”) ancestry.
There are, of course, specific Jewish communities and sub-ethnic groups that are Black, most notably (but not limited to), Ethiopian Jews (also known as “Beta Israel”). Ethiopian Jews have a well-documented history that long predates the arrival of European Christian missionaries. In modern times, genetic testing has indicated that the Ethiopian Jewish community can trace its roots to a few Jews from about 2000 years ago. While DNA is not what “makes you Jewish,” it can be helpful in tracing ethnic origins and cultural continuity. After centuries of isolation and limited contact with the rest of the Jewish community, in 1973, citing an earlier 16th century rabbinic ruling by David ben Solomon ibn Abi Zimra, the Israeli Rabbinate officially ruled that Ethiopian Jews are indeed Jewish.
Another Black Jewish ethnic group is the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda. This group originated with Semei Kakungulu, who, in the 1910s, after reading the Torah, came to believe that the Five Books of Moses were really true. In 1920, a man named Yosef, who was likely of Ashkenazi background, taught the community about Judaism. Abayudaya records indicate that Yosef was the community’s first Jewish contact. Since the early 2000s, the Abayudaya community has formally converted to Judaism via the Conservative and Reform movements.
Not all Black Jews are African Jews. There are Black Jews in the United States as well, for example, who are just as Jewish as non-Black Jews.
Like all other communities, the Jewish community is not exempt from perpetuating anti-Blackness. Black Jews report frequently being doubted, suspected, and/or invalidated. This is unacceptable, and as a community we must always hold ourselves to a high standard and do better.
WHAT ABOUT HEBREW/ISRAELITE ANCESTRY?
The Hebrews were a loose confederation of tribes over 3000 years ago. They later went on to found the Kingdom of Israel in 1047 BCE. The only direct genetic and cultural descendants of the ancient Israelites are Jews and Samaritans.
Having extremely distant “Hebrew,” “Israelite,” or even “Jewish” ancestry doesn’t make one Jewish (or a Hebrew, or an Israelite). For example, it’s estimated that about 20 percent of Spaniards have a small amount of Sephardic ancestry, but that doesn’t make them Jewish. Only 0.2 percent of the Spanish population is Jewish. Similarly, it’s estimated that about 10 percent of Latin Americans have a small amount of Sephardi ancestry. That doesn’t make them Jewish either. Only about 380,000 people in Latin America are Jewish, out of a total population of 656,098,097 (another 370,000 or so Latine Jews live in the United States).
Judaism is a closed practice. Jews don’t proselytize. Our goal is not to “get as many Jews as possible.” Having extremely distant Jewish ancestry from hundreds or thousands of years ago doesn’t make you Jewish (or “Hebrew” or “Israelite”) any more than having a tiny percentage of, say, African ancestry doesn’t make a white person Black.
For a tribe that fought so hard to preserve our identity amidst thousands of years’ worth of colonialism, imperialism, genocide, and more, this cultural appropriation is not only offensive, but inherently violent.
WHAT ABOUT CRYPTO JEWS & BNEI ANUSIM?
The terms “Crypto-Judaism” and “Crypto-Jews” describe Jews that were forcibly converted to Christianity or Islam but continued practicing Judaism in secret. Jews have been forcibly stripped from their Jewish identity in multiple places and at various points throughout history; however, “Crypto-Judaism” is most often associated with the Jews that outwardly practiced Catholicism but privately continued practicing Judaism in the aftermath of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. Bnei Anusim, translating to “children of the converted ones,” are the descendants of these Jews, many of whom, in recent years, have sought to formally reconnect with their Jewish heritage.
It’s important to understand that Crypto-Jews practiced their traditions in extreme secrecy. This secrecy resulted in the meshing of old Jewish traditions with the local cultures. For example, in Bolivia, when Crypto-Jews lit candles on Friday evenings, they did so to “mourn the deaths of close relatives,” rather than to observe Shabbat. Oftentimes, this secret Jewish heritage was passed down through surnames (e.g. Sión, meaning Zion). However, Sephardic historians and Crypto-Jewish expert Genie Milgrom warn that having a traditionally Sephardic surname down your family tree does NOT necessarily mean that your family was Crypto-Jewish. Nor does a small amount of Jewish DNA necessarily amount to Jewish or Crypto-Jewish ancestry.
According to Halacha, Jews who abandon Jewish observance by choice become “meshumadim” (an example being Messianic “Jews” of Jewish ancestry). Though still considered Jewish by lineage, they cannot claim any privilege pertaining to Jewish status. Anusim, by contrast, qualify as Jews for all purposes, including privileges, such as participating in a minyan.
I have two posts dedicated to Crypto-Judaism: AN INTRODUCTION TO CRYPTO-JEWISH IDENTITY and THE CRYPTO-JEWS OF ASIA & NORTH AFRICA.
IS THIS NOT GATEKEEPING?
Yes, it is. And it’s not a bad thing. Gatekeeping closed practices is how many tribes and marginalized peoples have been able to preserve and guard their identities in the face of colonialism, imperialism, genocide, and more. For Jews, it is not different.
Jewish identity is communal, meaning that it’s dictated by the Jewish community. You simply can’t wake up one day and decide that you are Jewish, even if you decide that you believe in Judaism.
In a world dominated by universalizing religions — about 31 percent of the world is Christian and 24 percent of the world is Muslim — it can be hard for people to grasp this concept. For universalizing religions, converting people to their belief system has historically been a core part of their purpose. That’s why universalizing religions spread through proselytization, imperialism, and colonialism.
But Judaism is not a universalizing religion. It’s a closed ethnic religion.
What is a closed practice? A closed practice is a cultural or spiritual practice that is limited to people of a certain ethnic, racial, cultural, or tribal identity. In order to practice it, you must be a part of a specific group, either through birth or initiation (in the case of Judaism, that initiation is known as “gyur”).
WHAT IF I WANT TO RECONNECT?
Many people have distant Jewish ancestry. If you are interested in reconnecting, there’s a way to do so respectfully, and that begins with engaging with the Jewish community at large. Claiming Jewish (or “Hebrew” or “Israelite”) identity and going off to do your own thing is not only disrespectful, but also cultural (and identity!) appropriation, because, once again, Judaism is a closed practice. It’s even worse when such people negate the Jewish identity — or the Hebrew or Israelite ancestry — of real Jews.
The proper term for “conversion” in Hebrew is “gyur,” roughly translating into the process during which a foreigner comes to reside among the Israelite community. In other words, conversion to Judaism is more of a process of naturalization (almost like an ancient equivalent to an immigrant becoming a citizen of another country) than a simple change of religious beliefs.
However, it’s very important to know that the process of naturalization into the Jewish nation and tribe is predicated on accepting the Jewish belief system.
The basis for this “litmus test,” for lack of a better term, is found in Megillat Rut 1:16: “But Ruth replied, ‘Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.‘“ Rut — or Ruth in English — is considered the first convert to Judaism.
For Bnei Anusim, the process of “converting” to Judaism is considered not so much a process of conversion, but rather, a process of formal return to the ways of the tribe.
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