Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Who is a Jew?

For those unaware of it, I recently started a blog related to exposing the tactics of “messianics jews” called Messianics Exposed (thus the link amongst those in the frame on the right). I made a post there recently which I have decided is relevant here, though slightly expanded on in terms of making it more universal though it is still very much focussed on what the “messianic jews” try to claim.

So, here is the question: Who is a Jew? On the surface, it would seem that it should be easy- surely a Jew is one who thinks he is a Jew? After all- some argue that if someone chooses to identify with, and take on the behaviours of, a group, they have the right to identify with that group. Others might be more restrictive and say- anyone that is going to be prosecuted for being a part of the group is surely part of the group and thus include anyone the Nazis would have prosecuted. The problem with both these simplistic approaches is that it ignores one very important factor, that of the definition from group itself! So, what is the Jewish definition?

Halachicly, Judaism defines someone as Jewish if their MOTHER (matrilineal descent) is Jewish or if they have a halachicly (according to Jewish law) valid conversion. Reform Judaism in the USA (outside of the USA most congregations follow the law of matrilineality) extends this definition a bit to include patrilineal descent to a limited extent- in other words, they only accept patrilineal descent combined with living a Jewish life and identification with the Jewish community (by Reform definitions, not Orthodox.) Thus the individual should observe life cycle events, be a member of community and such though there is no requirement for kashrut, tzitzit, tefillin etc). Since I am Orthodox, and this is an Orthodox blog, I am going to put aside the Reform in the USA’s recognition of patrilineal descent and just state that it is not accepted by Orthodox and leave it there (and if I have misstated it in anyway, I will welcome clarification from Reform readers and fix what I have stated. I do not pretend to be an expert on Reform or Conservative Judaism).

So, within Orthodox Judaism we have two definitions of a Jew- the one with a Jewish mother and the convert. Where do we learn this from? Matrilineal descent is learned from the Torah and we see it being explictly applied in the Tanakh. We learn it from the Torah in Devarim (Deuterenomy) Chapter 7

. You shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughter to his son, and you shall not take his daughter for your son. ג. וְלֹא תִתְחַתֵּן בָּם בִּתְּךָ לֹא תִתֵּן לִבְנוֹ וּבִתּוֹ לֹא תִקַּח לִבְנֶךָ:
4. For he will turn away your son from following Me, and they will worship the gods of others, and the wrath of the Lord will be kindled against you, and He will quickly destroy you. ד. כִּי יָסִיר אֶת בִּנְךָ מֵאַחֲרַי וְעָבְדוּ אֱ־לֹהִים אֲחֵרִים וְחָרָה אַף יְ־הֹוָ־ה בָּכֶם וְהִשְׁמִידְךָ מַהֵר:

Now, verse 3 explictly states that neither Jewish men or women can marry non-Jews. However, in verse 4 there is a concern that the husband of the Jewish woman will entice the children into leaving Judaism, but there is no reciprocal concern that the wife of a Jewish man will entice the children out of Judaism- why not? The children are not Jewish. Rashi addresses this here in his commentary on the Torah and it is discussed in the Talmud in masechta Kiddushin daf 68b.

Where do we learn this from in the Tanakh? In Sefer Ezra (the Book of Ezra) in Ketuvim, we read the following in chapter 10 (see the chapter further for details):

3. And now, let us make a covenant with our God to cast out all the wives and their offspring, by the counsel of the Lord and those who hasten to [perform] the commandment of our God, and according to the Law it shall be done.

AND

10. And Ezra the priest arose and said to them, “You have dealt treacherously, and you have taken in foreign wives to add to Israel’s guilt. י.
11. And now, confess to the Lord, the God of your forefathers, and do His will, and separate from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.” יא.
12. Then the entire congregation replied and said in a loud voice: “Yes! We must do as you say!

AND

16. The people of the exile did so. Ezra the priest [and certain] men, heads of the fathers’ houses after the house of their fathers, separated themselves, all of them [known] by name, and they convened on the first day of the tenth month to investigate the matter. טז.
17. And they completed everything concerning the men who had brought in foreign women, until the first day of the first month.

Now, we read that the men put the wives AND their children from those wives aside. The wives it can be easily understood that they were not Jewish- after all, it was only the non-Jewish women they were required to seperate from. The children are not explicitly stated. So why would the men seperate from them? If they were Jewish, they would be obligated to educate them as Jews, something that would be difficult to impossible if the children were put aside! The answer to that, is that these children were not Jewish and thus there was no obligation to educate them, or to bring them up as Jews!

Another less direct source goes even further back- to the time of Avraham! Where do we see that? Avraham had three wives and eight children. Hagar was an Egyptian and idol worshiper- Ishmael is not seen as Jewish. Keturah is not seen as being a complete follower of Avraham’s religious views and her children are not Jewish. Sarah is the only one of the three wives who completely absorbs Avraham’s faith and worships G-d in the same manner as he does- her son Yitzchak IS Jewish. Now, all eight children have the same father – but only one mother is considered Jewish, and only her son and his descendants are considered Jewish! Thus we can see that even in the time of Avraham, the father did not dictate the religion of the child, but the mother. If it had been the father, then all eight would have been amongst the patriarchs of the Jewish faith!

We see this with the two children of Yitzchak as well. Esav marries women that are not acceptable, that are idol worshippers – Ya’akov marries righteous women who takes up his beliefs and worships G-d as a Jewess. None of the children of Esav are considered Jewish- the children of Ya’akov are considered Jewish since his wives had all converted to Judaism! Again- it is the status of the mother that confers Jewishness to the children- not the status of the father!

Thus we have shown the first of these requirements is satisfied from the Torah and Tanakh. How about a convert? From where do we know that the convert is Jewish? Simply put- the Torah frequently includes the convert as a Jew- emphasising that they are part of the community (see below). Probably one of the earliest mentions of the convert as a member of the community is found in Shemot (exodus) Chapter 12

47. The entire community of Israel shall make it. מז. כָּל עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל יַעֲשׂוּ אֹתוֹ:
48. And should a proselyte reside with you, he shall make a Passover sacrifice to the Lord. All his males shall be circumcised, and then he may approach to make it, and he will be like the native of the land, but no uncircumcised male may partake of it. מח. וְכִי יָגוּר אִתְּךָ גֵּר וְעָשָׂה פֶסַח לַי־הֹוָ־ה הִמּוֹל לוֹ כָל זָכָר וְאָז יִקְרַב לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ וְהָיָה כְּאֶזְרַח הָאָרֶץ וְכָל עָרֵל לֹא יֹאכַל בּוֹ:
49. There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who resides in your midst.” מט. תּוֹרָה אַחַת יִהְיֶה לָאֶזְרָח וְלַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם:

Verse 47 states the entire community of Bnei Yisrael makes the the Korban Pesach (and the prior verses enumerated those excluded). In verse 48 it explictly expands the community to include the convert and verse 48 then again combines the two into a single unit by statiung that the law for a born Jew and a convert are identical- we do not differntiate.

When it comes to seeing this in the Tanakh, the most famous example is that of Rut, the ancestress of King David. How much more proof do you need than an explicit declaration that the ancestress of the line from which the mashiach will ultimately come is a convert! Even more, the Talmud in masechta Yevamos uses the speech by Rut to Naomi to derive the laws and requirements for a Kosher conversion! And thus the second way of being Jewish is enumerated and proven through the Torah and Tanakh.

Are there any other ways in which a person could be considered Jewish? From the Orthodox POV – NO. Thats it, these are the two only ways and no one else is considered to be Jewish (the recognition of Karaites as Jews is not a contradiction to this- but rather seen from the following angle- the original Karaites were Jews and until very recently did not allow conversion. Thus even though they recignise patrilineal descent, by default all Karaites also had matrilineal descent satisfying the Orthodox requirements. With the recent decision by Karaites to allow conversion, this stance may need to be relooked at since it raises two questions: One the validity of their conversions and the issue of patrilineal descent when the mother is the convert)

One often sees “messianic jews” making the claim that since they were born Jewish, they remain Jewish regardless of what religion they follow. They claim that regardless of what they do, they cannot loose their Jewishness. In essence, they insist Jews are a race, and one cannot loose ones race through converting to a new religion. Of course, the vast majority of people in “messianic jewish” communities have zero connection to Judaism- the estimates of people that are actually halachicly Jewish within their communities ranges from between 1% at the bottom end, to 9% at the top end. As always, there are a few communities with a majority of former Jews in their ranks, and others where no members have any real connection to Judaism. But what about that 1-9% of members that used to be classified as Jews? Are they members of a “Jewish race”?

You have to wonder where they get this idea of a Jewish race from. It is not from the Torah which has many stories of converts- from the time of Avraham where Eleizer his servant had converted, as had the hundreds of men and their families that served as Avraham’s battle with the five kings, to the leaving of Egypt where the eruv rav (“mixed multitude”) left Egypt with the Jews, but they had disappeared by the time the Jews entered Israel 40 years later. Where did they go? They either left the nation during the travels in the desert or converted to Judaism and joined with the tribes of those they converted under. The Tanakh has examples as well; the most famous being the conversion of Ruth (and which is used as the Talmud, in masechta Yevamos, as the template to teach us what a valid conversion entails). We even see that Moshe married a convert- Miriam complains about his Black wife, for which Miriam is punished with tzora’as; but we see that Tziporah had obviously converted and had been taught by Moshe as when G-d came to kill Moshe for not circumcising his sons Tziporah knew what to do (Shemot (Exodus) Chapter 4 v24-27).

The status of converts and their descendants as being the equal of every Jew is probably exemplified by the first verse of Torah that a child learns and which is sung joyfully at his upshiernes (a custom many have of only cutting a boy’s hair for the first time at age 3) from Devarim (Deuteronomy) chapter 33:

4. The Torah that Moshe commanded us is a legacy for the congregation of Ya’akov. ד. תּוֹרָה צִוָּה לָנוּ מֹשֶׁה מוֹרָשָׁה קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב

Why does it talk about the “congregation of Ya’akov (Jacob aka Yisrael aka Israel)? Simple- it is an all inclusive term for all that believe in G-d, convert and born Jew alike. It is not Bnei Yisrael that some could argue would be only those descended from Ya’akov! Similarly, we read in Devarim (Deuteronomy) Chapter 6 the most fundamental declaration of the Jewish faith

4. Hear, O Yisrael: The Lord is our God; the Lord is one. ד. שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֶחָד:

Again, it is Yisrael, the nation, not Bnei Yisrael, just those descended from Ya’akov. It is all inclusive, the entire nation is addressed; we are all equally required to recognise the uniqueness, indivisibility and singularity that is G-d.

So where does this idea of a Jewish race originate? It is not an old one, it did not exist in the times of the Temples or even through most of history. In fact, we can trace its origins mainly to the 19th century, and the works of the early proponents of racial theories in which different groups of people had different values due to their “race”. It was developed from here by the Nazi’s, and had the inevitable consequence of the holocaust. Why do I state that it was inevitable? There is an excellent chapter in the book “Hitler’s willing executioner’s” by Daniel Goldenhagen in which he traces the development of anti-Semitism from its early roots where it was based on religion, fear of the unknown and politics to racial anti-Semitism. In his book, Daniel Goldenhagen makes the point that in the past genocide was not the aim of anti-Semitism, the aim was conversion- getting them to be the same, to convert to the religion, to accept the ruling authorities (who frequently claimed divine right to rule). A person was seen as a human being first- their Jewishness something they could change. Racial anti-Semitism altered this equation- one cannot change ones race, thus merely converting the Jews was no longer an option, and if they were an inferior race bringing the entire of humanity down, the inevitable solution had to be genocide. Note: I am NOT calling “messianic jews” Nazis, merely stating that their seeing Judaism as being racial originated with Nazis.

So, if the “messianic jews” do not utilise the Nazi’s justification, what do they use? Here we see how they abuse Jewish sources to try and support their claim. They take a comment in the Talmud masechta Sanhedrin out of context- in reference to a passage in Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah)- the sages state that even when Israel sins, it remains Israel and does not loose its covenant with G-d. Their simplistic understanding of the text, and ignoring context and the rest of the law on this matter, leads them into a serious error here. How so? Yes- they remain Jewish- and if they do not repent they are PUNISHED! We see this clearly- the Jews were punished for their sinning by the Temple being destroyed, so an individual who sins and does not repent is punished. The last chapter of masechta Sanhedrin, Chapter 11 called chapter Chelek, starts with a Mishnah listing those who are punished with kares (in other words, are seperated from the community in this world and from G-d in the world to come, the worst possible punishment). This list includes a Jew who takes on any foreign beliefs as part of his serving G-d! It includes those who read the books of other religions to serve G-d, it includes those who deliberately misuse a knowledge of Torah to lead others into sin. In other words, there are multiple reasons why a member of “messianic judaism” would suffer from kares. The Rishonim (the Rabbis in the generation after the Talmud was sealed until the time the Shuklkhan Aruch was written) vary in how strictly we separate the people from the community. All place them outside of the community and unable to participate in the community in any manner whatsoever- but the ease with which they are allowed to rejoin the community is debated. Some allow them to return with a simple declaration and public acceptance of Judaism, some require mikvah and a declaration before a Beis Din (court) of at least three judges. The Rema in Shulkhan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 268:12) and the Rambam in Hilchos Avodas Kochavim rule the person completely separated from Judaism and thus needing a full conversion including mikvah and Beis Din before the person can return. In the modern era we generally rule according to HaRav Moshe Feinstein that in the modern era the vast majority of converts come from backgrounds devoid of proper Jewish education and thus we treat them as a “captured child” i.e. a child that was captured by non-Jews and grew up with no knowledge of Torah and is thus deemed innocent of transgressions of the law. Some still require mikveh and declaration before a Beis Din (though not a full conversion), but most just allow the person to repent and return to Judaism.

So, here is the crux of the matter- a Jew who converts to ANY other religion ceases to be a part of the Jewish community, ceases to be seen as Jewish and ceases to have any meaningfull connection to Judaism and the Torah. What does the verse in Yirmiyahu and the Talmud in masechta Sanhedrin teach? That the person retains a connection to the fact that they were Jewish- and are thus always JUDGED and PUNISHED as a Jew! Even if their new religion is 100% compliant with the seven laws of Bnei Noach and a non-Jew would be considered a ger tzedek, a former Jew in the other religion would be punished with Kares and not considered Jewish while alive! So, when “messianic jews” try to claim ‘once a Jew, always a Jew’, they neglect to mention the full extent of this law- and that they remain Jews only for the purposes of judgement and punishment!

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July 5, 2010 Posted by | Current affairs, Messianic, Other Torah, Talmud, Torah | , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

Parshas Hashavuah: Balak 5770

Question
In his first set of prophecies, Bilaam makes a prediction that shows the status of Jews and Israel in the world today. What is this prophecy?

This weeks Parshah Balak Bamidbar (Numbers) 22:2-25:9

ANSWER

The first prophecy that Balak makes is:

Bamidbar (Numbers) Chapter 22
7. He took up his parable and said, “Balak the king of Moab has brought me from Aram, from the mountains of the east [saying], ‘Come, curse Jacob for me and come invoke wrath against Israel.’ ז. וַיִּשָּׂא מְשָׁלוֹ וַיֹּאמַר מִן אֲרָם יַנְחֵנִי בָלָק מֶלֶךְ מוֹאָב מֵהַרְרֵי קֶדֶם לְכָה אָרָה לִּי יַעֲקֹב וּלְכָה זֹעֲמָה יִשְׂרָאֵל:
8. How can I curse whom God has not cursed, and how can I invoke wrath if the Lord has not been angered? ח. מָה אֶקֹּב לֹא קַבֹּה אֵל וּמָה אֶזְעֹם לֹא זָעַם יְ־הֹוָ־ה:
9. For from their beginning, I see them as mountain peaks, and I behold them as hills; it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations. ט. כִּי מֵרֹאשׁ צֻרִים אֶרְאֶנּוּ וּמִגְּבָעוֹת אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ הֶן עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב:
10. Who counted the dust of Jacob or the number of a fourth of [or, of the seed of] Israel? May my soul die the death of the upright and let my end be like his.” י. מִי מָנָה עֲפַר יַעֲקֹב וּמִסְפָּר אֶת רֹבַע יִשְׂרָאֵל תָּמֹת נַפְשִׁי מוֹת יְשָׁרִים וּתְהִי אַחֲרִיתִי כָּמֹהוּ:
11. Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed them!” יא. וַיֹּאמֶר בָּלָק אֶל בִּלְעָם מֶה עָשִׂיתָ לִי לָקֹב אֹיְבַי לְקַחְתִּיךָ וְהִנֵּה בֵּרַכְתָּ בָרֵךְ:
12. He answered, saying, “What the Lord puts into my mouth that I must take care to say.” יב. וַיַּעַן וַיֹּאמַר הֲלֹא אֵת אֲשֶׁר יָשִׂים יְ־הֹוָ־ה בְּפִי אֹתוֹ אֶשְׁמֹר לְדַבֵּר:

What in this is the answer to how he prophesies about the status of Jews and their nation throughout time?

9. For from their beginning, I see them as mountain peaks, and I behold them as hills; it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations. ט. כִּי מֵרֹאשׁ צֻרִים אֶרְאֶנּוּ וּמִגְּבָעוֹת אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ הֶן עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב:

The meforshim teach that Bilaam wanted to curse Bnei Yisrael- and each time he tried, his intended curse was turned into a blessing. Thus we see with this prophecy:
it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations. הֶן עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב:

His intention was to curse the Jews that they would be a lone without any allies and thus easy to defeat. We were to bereft of any friends and allies, no earthly powers would help us, and, similarly, no divine or supernatural powers would assist us. Instead, his blessing cemented the fact that while Bnei Yisrael would not have mundane allies and would always be treated as an outsider by the nations, they would be under the protection of G-d for all time would need no one else. Bnei Yisrael would never be ordinary, they would always be seen by everyone else as being apart, special. Nobody would treat us as they do other nations and peoples, but they would hold us to different standards, place us apart just a smountains and hills rise up from the surrounding area.

This has always been true and is just as true today- Israel and Jews are held to standards that are not applied to others, and any support they receive is based on how it benefits the person not because of their being any true rapport between their allies and themselves. we just need to read a newspaper or watch the news to understand the different standards Israel and Jews are held to compared to others.

there is another aspect to this- just as we would be apart from tohers, we would never assimilate or disspear becoming just another nation amongst many. We would always exist, always be apart, always keeping to the Torah- that which differentiates us form all other nations and endears us to G-d.

June 23, 2010 Posted by | Current affairs, Parshah, Torah | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Parshas Bereishis 5770- Justifications…

we have just come through Sukkot and Simchat Torah and start anew the annual cycle of torah readings.  This week we have possibly the most famous sentence in the Torah, the one that begins it all:

 בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱ־לֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ:In the beginning of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth. (Translation from online Judaica Press Tanakh at http://www.chabad.org)

following from this, we have the sequence of creation- a sequence that seems to stir contoversy over exactly how literal it should be- from the purely literal stance of the creationists, to the purely scientific stance that this first chapter alone disqualifies the book since it flies so hard on the face of scientific reality.  Of course, there are many people who find ways to get the science and the narrative here to relate to each other- Gerald Schroeder in “Genesis and the Big Bang” does an excellent job of that.

However, one wonders- why does the Torah start with such controversy? Rashi raises the question of why to start here- stating in the name of his father Rabbi Yitzchak thta it was necessary in order that the nations of the world could not afterwards state that the Jews were thieves- since if G-d is the creator and owner of the world, he has the right to dictate who should live where. 

At one level this makes sense- after all, don’t we see the exact issue being played out now in Israel?  Even with the fact that Israel is a country proclaimed by international law by the United Nations, you still get Palestinian radicals claiming that Israel is not the country that the Torah refers to, that the Temple mount is not where the Temple stood?  In essence, it seems that the Torah, written as a document for Jews is only truly believed by them- the Christians reinterpret and alter its meaning to suit their agenda, the Muslims claim it is corrupted whenever it doesn’t say what they want.  Given this, we cannot hold it up as proof of anything- the other nations of the world reject it!

Perhaps, the issue isn’t so much as having to justify it to others, but to get us to understand that ourselves.  We have the unfortunate situation where we see Jews attacking other Jews for political gain, to ingratiate themselves with others- whether it is the Norman Finkelstein’s of the world whose anti-semitic hype against the Jews just gathers steam as he is ever more cut off from the Jewish community- or a formally well regarded jurist being the titular head of yet another United nations sponsored anti-Israel witch hunt.  The outcome of the probe by Richard Goldstone was essentially written before he ever set foot in Israel, the terms of his mandate ensured it- yet he turned away from that and worried more about his image and international stature than any truth.

That is what starting the Torah at this point is telling us: it may be controversial- it may force us to have to study such texts in depth, struggle to reconcile the surface literal level with scientific reality- but it can be done.  Gerald Schroeder could do it with physics, Ramban could do it with far less understanding of modern science, but even the science of his day, mixed in with knowledge of the hidden midrashic and Kabbalsitic meanings, he derived lessons that could reconcile this passage to science.  It did not come easy to either man- for both it required an in depth knowledge of muliple areas of learning involving years of study and a passion for truth- yet we have their writings to show us that it can be done.

Unfortunately, the modern experience shows us that this delving for truth is too rare- too many people are willing to look at a surface image and make rash statements without regard for the truth.  Why did G-d start the Torah here?  So we could not be accussed of having stolen property form other nations- but this message is not just for the other nations, but it is for us as well.  For only when Jews realise that they have as much rights as everybody else- as much of a right to exist, live and be happy as everybody else and stop apologising for existing; for daring to be succesful, for daring to be happy and to protecting ourselves, can we truly be said to understand the message of Bereishis.

note:  As always comments, corrections and discussion are encouraged

October 15, 2009 Posted by | Current affairs, Parshah, Torah | , , , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments