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Question 10.10:
Who is a Jew?


You had to ask this question? You really had to ask "who is a Jew?"?? Come on, couldn't you have asked a hard question, like whether Adam had a pippik or not? (pippik means navel, a/k/a 'belly button')

For thousands of years the answer was simply someone born of a Jewish mother, or someone who undertook a conversion, which involved accepting the yoke of the commandments, an immersion in a mikveh [ritual bath], and for men, circumcision, the latter two in the presense of witnesses. And then came modern times. Hooboy! You sure you aren't interested in Adam's pippik?

Anyway, then came modern times, and along came new answers. First the oldtimers complained that the newtimers weren't kosher to do a conversion and then the newtimers got newfangled about the yoke and/or the immersion and/or the circumcision and boy did the oldtimers really got unhappy with this and then the issue got more confusing when the Israeli government started guaranteeing automatic citizenship to Jews resulting in a play it by ear like no one who takes up other religions is accepted but the latest round of yelling was when the newtimers started accepting Jewish father and Jewish upbringing and at this point we give up and are asking all prospective posters of this question to first tell us whether Adam had a pippik.

The only thing that is universally agreed is that the practicing of other religions is the same as the rejection of Judaism.

Even within Orthodoxy the answer gets, uh, "flexible" at times. (You thought this was just newfangled vs oldfangled? Heh!) When the Nazis were trying to figure out whether to murder the Karaites quickly or slowly, they asked several Orthodox rabbis if the Karaites were Jewish or not. (You figured out the answer? Maybe you belong in yeshiva!) Nineteenth century Samaritan massacres by Islamic zealots were stopped when they got official word that Samaritans are Jews, i.e., people of the book. There have been conflicting answers regarding the Ethiopian Jews.

Another bit of Orthodox "flexibility" comes regarding Conservative conversions. Such a person (a sofek) is not counted as Jewish for anything positive, but is often treated as Jewish for things negative, just in case. Thus, a sofek may not be called to the Torah, or even be counted for a minyan, but would not be treated as a Shabbos goy. (He would be expected to do a divorce in the traditional manner, but this shouldn't be a problem, since as a Conservative he holds by that too.) Conservatives often act the same towards Reform conversions, and even within all three movements, there is often rejection of lenient leaning conversions.

Reform Judaism rules that the children of two Jewish parents are considered Jewish. Reform also rules that when one parent is Jewish and the other gentile, the identity of the child as Jewish must be established subsequently through Jewish education and positive Jewish acts such as Bar Mitzvah, Confirmation, etc. This is known as the "Patrilineal descent" ruling, because it considers the child of a Jewish father and gentile mother to be Jewish without a conversion ceremony, as opposed to "Matrilineal descent" in which the child of a Jewish woman is automatically Jewish, irrespective of paternity or subsequent practice. If you want to look at the text of the decision, which is a recurring debate topic on S.C.J, it may be found at the URL

While countless treatises have been written on this subject, some readers recommend the Chabad/Lubavitch booklet "Who is a Jew?" by R' J. Immanuel Schochet, available from SIE, 788 Eastern Pkwy, Brooklyn, NY 11213.

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 <>