Who - or what - is a Jew?


Let us think this one through. "La Esperanza" was one of the colonies set up by the Alliance Israelite Universelle headed by Baron Maurice Hirsch, and the name was chosen after the song "Hatikvah" (the hope, or in Spanish – La Esperanza). The last name, Kirschner, is a Central European Jewish name, and the historical circumstances appear to point to the fact that Kirschner’s grandparents were Jewish. Yet shortly after arriving in Argentina, his family left the colony for the city and lived as practicing Catholics. Their son was raised in the Catholic faith.



Madeleine Albright discovered that she was a "Holocaust baby," given away to a non-Jewish family, but she personally was never involved with Jewish life. Senator John Kerry has a Czech-Jewish connection. Apparently, his grandfather changed his name from Fritz Kohn to Frederick Kerry just before immigrating to America. They lived as practicing Catholics and distanced themselves from their Jewish origins as much as they could. Their descendants for the most part did not know of the Jewish connection.


These stories all pose the same question, Are these people Jewish? The answer is complex and simple at the same time. According to Halachic Rule, to be a Jew means to be "the child of a Jewish mother, or a convert to Judaism, who is not practicing another religion." This rule is followed by Orthodox and Conservative congregations and has been adopted with a modification to include patrilineal descent as a standard by the Reform Movement. In the three cases, there was an active practice of another religion, so from a strictly legal standpoint, these people were not Jewish. Can we, however, accept that their descendants are banned from the Jewish people?


At Passover, we read from the Hagaddah a portion which states that, "In each generation each person must see him or herself as coming out of Egypt," and it is also said that we receive the Torah in each generation. What does all this mean? It means that each generation must appropriate the Jewish heritage and make it its own. Without this pre-requisite of commitment and acceptance, there is no Judaism. So if my father chose to abandon Judaism, does that put me outside the pale?


There is, however, another way to look at the issue. We are shaped not only by heritage, but by experience. This is the age-old argument of "Nature vs Nurture" To be Jewish means to be born into it, but also to be inducted through education into it. Hence the Halachic rule contemplating both situations: Jew by Birth and Jew by Choice. The problem arises, though, when people actively abandon Judaism. In these cases, individuals go the extra mile to cut the connection. In other words, they will actively distance themselves or even attack Judaism. The case of Daniel Burroughs, an Orthodox Jew who became the Grand Dragon of the New York Ku Klux Klan, is a case in point. People who actively abandon Judaism are in my opinion less likely to transmit love of Judaism and the Jewish people to the next generation (after all, it is hard enough for committed Jews to do it).


Another layer of the problem is that Judaism demands action, not just belief. And action demands commitment and not just adherence. To be Jewish demands one to be truly active and to participate in Jewish life. It is only through the Jewish environment of activism that the values can be made real.


So Mr. Kerry, Ms. Albright, and Mr. Kirschner: I am flattered that there is some distant genetic connection between me and you, and I am delighted that that does not seem to constitute an obstacle for your political careers. I have to say, however, that you are not Jewish because being Jewish is not a right of birth but a right of choice; the choice to be active and the choice to accept the mandate to improve the world in the context of Jewish values.


We are all, in my opinion, Jews by choice, whether born into it or not. And it is a wonderful choice, isn't it ?


Add Comment