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Who is a Jew? 

Who is a Jew? – the question sounds simple, but the answer is a bit complicated. 

We could start with the basic etymological route and say, a Jew is a descendant of the tribe of Judah. After all, the name “Jew” derives from the name Judah. Or one could say, a Jew is a person from Judea, the geographical region named after the same tribe. 

However, the term “Jewish people” came to mean more than just one tribe or residents of one location. In Biblical times, it became synonymous with Hebrews or Israelites, which encompassed the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

In establishing a covenant (Genesis 17:7), God promised Abraham that He would make Abraham’s descendants as numerous as the sand or the stars in the sky. And He also promised that they would become priests and kings, and their family line would never disappear.

Jewish continuity then appears to be essential to God’s plan for mankind. The covenant with Abraham forms the foundation of Jewish identity and the eternal connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel.

Significance of Jews According the Bible

From very early on, the Bible makes it clear that the Jews were God’s chosen people. God called them to follow His laws, settle in His chosen land, and worship His name. Later on, He also wanted to reveal Himself to the world through this very people.

The Psalms underscore the importance of the Jewish people and the significance of their presence in the land of Israel. 

For example, Psalm 122 calls for blessings and prayers for the peace of Jerusalem, signifying the hope for the Messiah. This psalm also encapsulates the belief that the coming of the Messiah is closely linked to the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral land.

The prophets, too, spoke of the day when the Messiah would come to Jerusalem, a city thriving with Jewish life. In a way, if the Jewish people didn’t exist today, would we be able to make sense of God’s promises and His plan of salvation? 

Understanding the historical context of Jewish identity enriches our appreciation for the continued existence and unique heritage of the Jewish people today.

Jewish boy by the Western Wall

Jewish People in the Bible and Today

It has been a conundrum for years, answering the question of what it means to be a Jew. Is it an ethnic or religious affiliation, or is it a cultural heritage? 

In the modern era, the Jewish people were forcibly dispersed from their land and their place of worship. The holy Temple, which upheld their sense of belonging, was destroyed. But God has been faithful to His chosen people – the one true God who is not limited to a place nor by time. 

It is truly a miracle that the nation remained “Jewish” over the centuries. After the Romans took over the Jewish homeland in the first century, they exiled the Jews, who then settled among the nations. So by and large, anyone Jewish today is a result of those dispersed people having maintained their beliefs, culture, language, and even their bond to Jerusalem and the land of Israel.

Finally, when the State of Israel was established in the twentieth century, a new hope of restoring the one, unified Jewish people arose. It would bring the whole present-day people of Israel back to their ancestral homeland. 

But were the Jews around the world really so much alike? 

The Global Village of the Jewish People

When we speak of diversity in Israel, you may think of the obvious disparity between Jews and Arabs. But frankly, the Jewish people alone are as diverse as the nations they cohabited with for years past. 

There is a humorous expression in Jewish culture that says, “two Jews, three opinions.” Or maybe you’ve heard the joke about how many synagogues Israelites built in Egypt while living there? (At least two – because there always has to be one that you never set your foot in.) One has to have options!

But it is not just that Jews tend to disagree (as we know from as early as Genesis). The centuries of sojourning and learning in distant lands shaped a people with great diversity of thought. 

Is Being Jewish an Ethnic Identity?

Today, the Jewish people – both in Israel and in the diaspora – are a diverse and multifaceted community. It is essential to recognize that Jewish identity is not solely based on religion but also on historical, cultural, and ancestral ties. 

The history of the Jewish people goes back to the early 2nd millennium BCE (over 4,000 years ago). They began as a family. However as they grew, over the centuries, the Jewish population has experienced diaspora and dispersion, leading to various cultural and ethnic branches. 

European and Middle Eastern Jews definitely have their geographical and cultural differences. Nevertheless, both groups share a common heritage dating back to biblical times.

Here are some of the main ethnic Jewish groups you can recognize in Israel and worldwide. 

East Meets West

Ashkenazi Jews are one of the largest and most well-known Jewish ethnic groups. Post diaspora, they originated in Central and Eastern Europe. Ashkenazi Jews have contributed significantly to Jewish culture, literature, and scholarship throughout history.

Sephardi Jews trace their post-land-of-Israel roots back to the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). They were expelled during the Spanish Inquisition and settled in various countries across the Mediterranean. Sephardi Jews have distinct cultural and religious traditions that set them apart from other Jewish groups.

Mizrahi Jews are Jewish communities hailing from the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Central Asia. Mizrahi Jews have diverse cultural practices and have contributed significantly to the Jewish world.

Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews): Beta Israel is a unique Jewish community that took root in Ethiopia, whose members have faced historical challenges in gaining recognition from other Jewish groups. In recent decades, many Ethiopian Jews have immigrated to Israel and other countries.

We could continue naming other groups, like the Bukharan Jews (from present-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) or Romaniote Jews (with roots in Greece and the Balkans), but the list would have no end. 

Jews abroad

Who is a Jew according to modern Israeli standards?

In the State of Israel, which serves as the homeland for the Jewish people, defining Jewishness has legal implications. The Israeli government relies on the principle of “Halakha,” which is Jewish religious law, to determine a person’s Jewish status. 

According to this standard, a person is considered Jewish only if they were born to a Jewish mother or underwent a valid conversion to Judaism. That also applies to making aliyah (immigrating to Israel) and other legal purposes.

Ashkenazi or Sephardi Jews in Israel

In Israel, one important aspect of Jewish life is belonging to one of two teaching traditions from the above list: Ashkenazi or Sephardi. As we just mentioned, there are many other groups, but only these two are represented on a national level in Israel. They each have a chief rabbi. 

For years, Israelis have been trying to overcome this division, using the argument: “If we have one president, one prime minister, why do we have two chief rabbis?” But it is not easy to give up a long-standing tradition, especially when neither side is willing to submit to the other. 

The more religious, Sephardic side has long accused Ashkenazi Jews of allowing Israel to become secular. Therefore, they now fervently promote and defend the Jewishness of the country, even in politics. But one may wonder what that means. 

Can someone just claim to be Jewish?

Whether someone can simply claim to be Jewish is a complex and contentious issue. It may depend greatly on cultural, religious, and legal perspectives. Likewise, different Jewish communities and authorities have different criteria for determining Jewish identity.

But the most common way to trace Jewish descent is through the maternal bloodline.

In traditional Jewish law (Halakha), an individual is considered Jewish if their mother is Jewish, regardless of the father’s background. This principle is widely accepted among Orthodox and Conservative Jewish communities.

Jewish believers in Jesus tend to look at either the mother’s line or the father’s line. In the Bible, we know from the patriarchs that Jewish descent came through the father’s line.

Jewish men at the Western Wall

Jewish Conversion

Many Jewish communities accept individuals who have formally converted to Judaism through a recognized conversion process. This often involves a period of study, acceptance of Jewish beliefs and practices, and immersion in a ritual bath (mikveh).

The requirements for conversion can vary among different branches of Judaism. Most Messianic Jews discourage conversion to Judaism, just like Paul the Apostle did (Galatians 2-3).

In some more secular or cultural contexts, there are individuals who identify as Jewish without a direct family line. They do so based on cultural heritage, family history, or personal connection to Jewish culture, traditions, and values.

While this self-identification is meaningful to the individual, it it is not usually recognized as being Jewish, neither according to rabbinic nor legal standards.

Who is a Jew according to Biblical standards?

In the Bible, Jewish identity was closely tied to genealogy and religious observance. An individual was considered Jewish if they were a descendant of the ancient Israelites, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

Additionally, adherence to Jewish laws, customs, and traditions formed a crucial aspect of Jewish identity in the biblical context. Because of that, for example, someone like Ruth, who was a Moabite, could join Israel. 

Was Ruth Jewish?

Ruth not only married into a Jewish family, but told her mother-in-law, “your God will be my God” (Ruth 1:16). So she both “entered” into the Jewish genealogy, as well as adhered to the religious observance. 

Today, religious contexts somewhat follow that example. Rabbinic Judaism considers Ruth to be Judaism’s first convert. Nevertheless, decisions regarding Jewish status are often made by rabbis or religious authorities within specific Jewish denominations that have their own standards and criteria.

Jewish woman outdoors

Jewish Jesus and His Followers

With all this modern-day struggle of what it means to be Jewish in Israel, comes another big question that causes even more disputes. Namely, was Jesus Jewish? What about His followers? 

The simple answer is yes, Jesus was born into a Jewish family and raised in the Jewish tradition. The same could be said of His disciples and His first followers. 

Nevertheless, the answer to this question gets more complicated as the Gospel went out into Judea, Samaria, and “to the ends of the earth.” Now gentiles, the non-Jews, started worshiping the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The apostle Paul says they were “grafted in”. But if so – does that mean they became Jewish, too?

The answer is clearly no. Even Paul makes a distinction between Jew and Gentile. He wrote that both are part of the same body and enjoy the same promises of blessings (Eph 3:6). Yet, he still emphasized how Jews and Gentiles each have a different part to play in God’s perfect plan (Rom 11:12,15).

Thus, Jews do not cease to be Jews, and gentiles (Native Americans, Germans, Spaniards, etc.) do not suddenly become Jewish. They represent the nations that will be blessed, as promised, through descendants of Abraham (Gen 12:3). 

From Genesis to Today

Israel today remains as complicated as her people – ever since the days described in Genesis. But as complicated as they are, God knew this when He chose to make a covenant with his friend, Abraham. 

God knew who the Jews would be – the twelve sons of Jacob, the slaves in Egypt, the two nations of Israel and Judah. And yes, also the Jewish people in the diaspora and in the land of Israel today. He always knew.

Some of the data used in the article comes from Pew Research Forum from 2016:

All Israel Will Be Saved: Free PDF Download

The New Testament says that all Israel will be saved. How is that possible and what certainty do we have that it will come to pass?

 

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Estera Wieja
Estera Wieja is a journalist, book author and public speaker, focused on the topics of Israel, Jewish history, and Judeo-Christian culture. Born and raised in Poland, Estera is a regular contributor to "Our Inspirations" magazine in Poland. She holds a Bachelor degree in Communications and Media from Azusa Pacific University (California, USA), and a Master degree in Journalism from University of Warsaw, Poland. Estera has lived in Jerusalem, Israel for several years before joining the staff at FIRM in 2018.
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