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What is a Jew?

by Rabbi Mendy Hecht

  

Library » Jewish Identity » Who/What is a Jew? | Subscribe | What is RSS?


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All peoples of the world know who they are—they’re forthright about it. Koreans are Koreans, Norwegians are Norwegians, and Hyphenated-Americans are Hyphenated-Americans.

But what are Jews? “Who—or what—am I?” is a question every Jew has asked at least once in his lifetime. And sadly, they have reason to, because instead of definitions, they have doubt. Is being Jewish a race? Religion? Tradition? Ethnicity? Nationality? Geographic origin? None of the above?

Here’s what a Jew is: a Jew is a spiritual state of being. A Jew is any human being who has a Jewish soul, regardless of his or her race, lifestyle or professed religion. This soul is possessed by any man or woman who was born to a Jewish mother or has converted to Judaism according to the dictates of Jewish law.

You could try as hard as you can to be just like your neighbors—you’re still Jewish. You could “convert” to Christianity, or run off to India to “become” Buddhist—you’re still Jewish
You can be as hip as Jerry Seinfeld, as religious as Moses, as left-wing as Barbra Streisand or as conservative as your uncle Irving—you’re still Jewish. You could be an environmentalist, an industrialist, a fundamentalist—you’re still Jewish. You could try as hard as you can to be just like your neighbors—you’re still Jewish. You could “convert” to Christianity, or run off to India to “become” Buddhist—you’re still Jewish.

You could even become an anti-Semite—you’re still Jewish. (Shocking but true, Jews have done that too—ever hear of Bobby Fischer?) You could be Caucasian, Hispanic, Irish, Norwegian, Hyphenated-American; whatever. No matter who you are or what you do, if you’ve got that Jewish soul, you’re Jewish. And nothing you do or decide to be can destroy that Jewish soul.1

See also Can you describe the Jewish soul?

Footnotes

  • 1. Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 44a: "R. Abba b. Zabda said: Even though [the people] have sinned, they are still [called] 'Israel'. R. Abba said: Thus people say, A myrtle, though it stands among reeds, is still a myrtle, and it is so called."

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COMMENTS

Real definition of a Jew

Posted by: Maff Wiz on Oct 27, 2004

A Jew once told me that any person who has a Jewish mother or converts under proper halachah is considered Jewish. In another article you mention that it is one's spirituality which characterizes one's Jewishness - yet, Atheists can be Jews. So who is mistaken, the Jew who advised me, or A-M?

Editor's Comment

Both are true! One who is born to a Jewish mother or converts properly automatically possesses a Jewish soul -- which is the spiritual essence of a Jew.

To the subject of what a jew is or what is it to be a jew.

Posted by: Alberto (Baruch), Miami, FL on Feb 14, 2005

A "jew" is not a race, nationality, ect. just like it says on the site.

Jews are a Tribe. A blood pool. A bloodline would more decribe a family. It's like asking what is it to be an Aztec. is it a religion? race? nationality? ect? no its a trbe that has its culture and religion. That is what being a jew is. A tribe that has a culture and religion/belief. We are NOT just a religion. Unlike these other groups of people, that were paganists that came from all these different places, and just learned a new religion they liked and believed. Then taught their children it and passed it down to the people of today. (example. christians and muslem).

We were here before, during and after as jews,or israelites if you would like to say. We saw all these groups go through their changes in beliefs and watched them create new religion after new religion. From the paganists of the past we read about in books, to the religions of today.

Please send me feedback on my views.

Thank you

Editor's Comment

Well said.

christianity??

Posted by: Irene on Aug 21, 2005

You could “convert” to Christianity, and still be Jewish? If you convert doesn't this change what you believe and who you are? Is this something new? How can you be Christian and Jewish both? I thought those that became christian were no longer Jewish. Can someone explain this concept. Thanks!

Editor's Comment


State of being jewish

Posted by: Erik Watropski, Reseda, Ca, USA on Oct 09, 2005

the bloodline of a jew cannot be refuted only denied by the individual (as in the B. Fischer case), you cannont take away that which comes from within your very blood and soul. And the sad thing is, that for many years I was in denial/ignorance of whom I was. After many years of studying I came to realize the importance of my lineage, and more importantly the need to see that all Jewish people realize the same fact. The fact that you cannot deny that which you are, no matter how hard you try or alienate yourself from the Jewish community.

For me myself it was very hard in my early years to understand it all, what with being raised in Los Angeles. I alienated my roots to my current dismay and regret but when the reality of heritage and the history that follows I feel I am now a stronger beleiver in the knowledge of ones self than I could ever have been before.

PS. Nice Article.

hmmm...???

Posted by: Erik Watropski, Los Angeles, Ca, USA on Oct 09, 2005

"christianity?? Date Posted: Aug 21, 2005

You could “convert” to Christianity, and still be Jewish? If you convert doesn't this change what you believe and who you are? Is this something new? How can you be Christian and Jewish both? I thought those that became christian were no longer Jewish. Can someone explain this concept. Thanks"

^^^isnt that a oxymoron? To be christian is to except Jesus as g_d and your saviour as the Messiah...??? Sounds contradictory to Judaism to me. Correct me if im wrong here...???

But in fact a Jew who converts over to Christianity in his mind, is only in denial or hiding or maybe just ignorant of his/her heritage. You cannot take away what you are only hide from it and pretend to be somehting other than embrace the greatness of the Jewish heritage and bloodline of Abraham and Moses, and Isreal, and David and so on that one carries.

my humble opinon, is that all Jewish people should cherish their great heritage and convenant with G_d...!!!

If being Jewish "is a state of being"...

Posted by: Anonymous on Oct 12, 2005

Then why is it such a lengthy process for those who were not born into a Jewish family to convert to Judaism? It seems that it's a race, if you are automatically Jewish just because your parents are.

Editor's Comment

It takes several years of acclimation and study to become a naturalized USA citizen -- but one born to American parents is automatically granted citizenship!

Jewish Soul

Posted by: Moshe G, Miami Beach, FL on Sep 21, 2006

I'm a little confused by this. In the opening paragraphs Rabbi Mendy Hecht states that a jew is a state of being. That a jew is one who posseses a jewish soul. Aterwards, it is also stated that this can be acheived by proper conversion. Is this possible? How does that work, the soul itself changes or transforms in a conversion?

Editor's Comment

Yes, upon conversion a convert receives a new, uniquely Jewish, soul.

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Philosophy » Soul

Moses
[Hebrew pronunciation: Moshe] Greatest prophet to ever live. Led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage amidst awesome miracles; brought down the Tablets from Mount Sinai; and transmitted to us word-for-word the Torah he heard from G-d's mouth. Died in the year 1272 BCE.