Soc.Culture.Jewish Newsgroups
Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

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Question 10.9:
What does the word "Jew" mean?


There are at least two totally distinct meanings of the word Jew.

The one that is germane to most of the issues of SCJ is what might best be described as a "member of the Jewish people." The people who are generally considered to belong to this group are enumerated under the heading "Who is a Jew", below.

Although membership in "Am Yisrael," as we call the Jewish people, is determined by religious criteria, these criteria do not include the actual practice of Judaism. So Am Yisrael is truly a group of people who identify themselves as such, and not just a religion. Some people refer to Am Yisrael as a nation.

Because many people have joined Am Yisrael through conversion over the years, Jews are not, at this point, a single ethnic group, any more than the French people. There are Jews of several different ethnicities, as described elsewhere in this FAQ.

Nevertheless, there is an group that, for better or worse, is often described as Jews: the descendants of the ancient Hebrews, many of whom were dispersed across much of the earth during Roman times. And the vast majority of Am Yisrael belong to this group. To avoid confusion, we shall refer to this group as "descendants of the ancient Hebrews."

It is sometimes unclear whether a frequently asked question about Jews refers to Am Yisrael or to the descendants of the ancient Hebrews. We shall give separate answers in case of confusion.

In soc.culture.jewish, speaking as a Jew has the implication that one is currently Jewish, and not practicing another religion. Hence, a person born Jewish but practicing Islam should not write "I'm a Jew who accepts Muhammad's prophecy" but rather the more truthful "I'm a practicing Muslim of Jewish ancestry." Of course, Jews who practice other religions are welcomed and encouraged to return to practicing Judaism at any time.

The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

[Got Questions?]Hopefully, the FAQ will provide the answer to your questions. If it doesn't, please drop Email to The FAQ maintainer will endeavor to direct your query to an appropriate individual that can answer it. If you would like to be part of the group to which the maintainer directs questions, please drop a note to the FAQ maintainer at

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© (c) 1993-2004 Daniel P. Faigin <>