My recent column on how some religions define membership by blood and others define membership by belief raised a great many questions — many about who is Jewish.
Q: After reading today's God Squad (Aug. 24), I'm wondering if you would call the Blood Religions a race? Are Jewish people considered a race since they are Jewish by having a Jewish mother? Thank you. — M
A: This is a great question that I have never had a chance to answer. Many non-Jewish people, and even Jewish people, have the mistaken view that Jews are a race. Jews are not a race. Jews are part of the only blood religion in the world that also welcomes converts. There are Ethiopian Jews, who are black, and European Jews, who are white, and there are Jews of every race who converted to Judaism.
I must also further complicate the definition of who is a Jew by explaining that since 1983, the liberal movement in Judaism, called Reform Judaism, passed a resolution that departed from the inherited Orthodox Jewish definition of being Jewish only through one's mother. In that resolution, the Reform movement declared that a person with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother could be considered Jewish and not in need of a formal conversion ceremony if that person was raised Jewish and identified as a Jew through public acts like joining a synagogue. However, the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism has rejected this resolution and requires formal conversion for anyone without a Jewish mother.
This resolution introduced a great dispute in Jewish circles not just about who is Jewish at birth but also who is Jewish for the purposes of marriage. Jews who support the practice of endogamous marriage, in which Jews are encouraged to only marry other Jews, now have to check out the bride or groom to see if they are Jewish by the traditional definition (mother is Jewish), or if they claim Jewish identity through the new hotly debated patrilineal definition. It is a big theological and ritual and sociological mess. Adding to the mess is the Law of Return in the State of Israel, which affirms the right of a Jewish person to immediately claim Israeli citizenship at any time. The State of Israel must now decide whether to grant citizenship to those who claim to be Jewish but only through their father. At the moment, anyone who claims to be Jewish for the purposes of becoming an Israeli citizen will be accepted as Jewish by Israel.
The main point here is that no matter how one comes out on the matrilineal versus patrilineal debate, there is the option for anyone who wants to become Jewish to convert.
Q: Dear Rabbi Gellman: I am a Jewish attorney who handles many adoption cases. Some of my adoptive-parent clients are Jewish as well. Your recent column led me to think about my Jewish clients (especially where the adoptive mother is Jewish) who adopt children who were not Jewish at the time of their birth. For all civil legal intents and purposes these children are considered as the children of my clients once the adoption is finalized. Does Jewish law afford the same "right" for these adopted children to be considered Jewish "automatically" upon their adoption? Or would some form of conversion process be deemed necessary for the children to be Jewish? Do similar rules apply in other mainstream religions? Thank you for your thoughts on this. — D, Commack
A: One of the problems of blood religions is that you cannot decide to join them (except Judaism) and you cannot be adopted into them. Blood is blood. If you are not born into a blood religion you cannot join it. Judaism, which is your question, departs from other blood religions in that it allows converts, but with regards to infants, Judaism requires a conversion ceremony to welcome and certify that the adoptive infant is Jewish.
The ceremony of conversion for an infant involves taking the infant to a ritual bath called a mikvah and immersing the child in the water (a mixture of regular water and rainwater). Prayers are said for the infant that would be said by an adult convert to Judaism. Then the infant (like an adult convert) is given a Hebrew name, which has three parts. There is the first name then there is the word ben or bat, depending on gender, then the father's and mother's first name in Hebrew. In the case of all converts there is obviously no Hebrew names for the parents and so for all converts the parent's Hebrew names are "Abraham our father and Sarah our mother." That's it. Anyone interested?
SEND QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad at firstname.lastname@example.org or Rabbi Marc Gellman, Temple Beth Torah, 35 Bagatelle Rd., Melville, NY 11747.