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.


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!


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!

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

Parshas Ki Teitzei- the spoils of war…

Ths weeks parsha opens up with the law regarding a woman that a soldier takes captive during a war.  Lets think back to the time in which it was written- rape, pillage and plunder were common occurrences.  There are  more than enough descriptions in the writings throughout history- from then until the modern day, for that to be an accurate description.  Yet the Torah does not approve of such action and gives us this law.

How does this law counteract the “rape, pillage and murder” syndrome common to war? There was no battlefield rape- the soldier couldn’t just see a woman and decide he wanted to sleep with her:

וְרָאִיתָ בַּשִּׁבְיָה אֵשֶׁת יְפַת תֹּאַר וְחָשַׁקְתָּ בָהּ וְלָקַחְתָּ לְךָ לְאִשָּׁה  And you see a beautiful woman woman and desire her, and you want to take her as a WIFE.

So, the first thing the Torah is saying- you don’t get to just rape this captive woman- you have to make her a wife before anything happens.  However, it continues to say what he has to do BEFORE he can make her his wife.  He has to take her home, shave her head, not let her cut her fingernails, dress her in the clothes of mourning and give her 30 days (i.e. the shloshim period) to mourn her parents and family killed in the war.   The purpose behind this is clear- if the soldiers desire to take her  as a wife merely as a result of battle lust- it will pass in that time.  If it was merely because she was beautiful- he now gets to have to acclimatise himself to her while she is NOT beautiful- no hair, uncut nails, no make-up, eyes red and weeping from mourning, ugly clothes etc.  If it is only lust for her beauty, then it should pass during this time.  Additionally, it gives her a chance to acclimatise to her new surroundings, to mourn for what she has lost.  At the end of the period, he marries her and she becomes his wife.  If he does not marry her- he sends her off, free and with no obligations towards him.

To the modern eye- perhaps a fairly cruel fate- but consider it in context.  She has not been raped and left hurt on a battlefield.  She has not just been left without a family, house, money etc to support her- but brought into a family.  She has been clothed, fed and given time to mourn in a protective environment.  In all, a far better fate than generally awaited the captured women of other nations!

Now, as with many things in the Torah, there is what is permissable, and what is approved of.  In this case, we see something permissable, but not approved of.  How can we be certain of that?

Firstly, the Torah here seems to be intent on making sure she will be repulsive to him so that he will not go through with the marriage.  Evidently it would prefer the man not to take her as a wife, but it is trying to make the best of a bad situation: 

 וְהָיָה אִם לֹא חָפַצְתָּ בָּהּ וְשִׁלַּחְתָּהּ לְנַפְשָׁהּ וּמָכֹר לֹא תִמְכְּרֶנָּה בַּכָּסֶף לֹא תִתְעַמֵּר בָּהּ תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר עִנִּיתָהּ:  And IT WILL be, if you do not desire her and send her away wherever she wishes and you will not sell her.  You will not keep her a s a servant since you afflicted her. 

But it goes further- the very next law we are given is in regards to when a man has two wives, one loved and one despised- and the despised wife’s son is the oldest; then he cannot pass him over to give the first born’s double inheritance to the son from the loved wife!  Rashi states that the despised wife is this wife, the woman that he brought back from war- that eventually he will grow to despise her.  Also, the law of the wayward and rebellious son is next- and who is the rebellious son?  None other than the son of the woman he brought back from war!

From here we cam learn a principal from the Torah:  people will often endure harsh circumstances.  They will make the best of the place they find themselves in- but it does not mean that they will embrace it.  The woman has been taken captive, she endures through the 30 days and then consents to the marriage- what else could she do?  We are not talking about a period with social services and support structures for strangers- yet here she is, a stranger, in a different country with her family dead.  She endures- but is most likely going to be bitter- leading to a bad relationship with her husband and embittering her own son.

Contrast this to people who come into something voluntarily.  The Torah exhorts us to be good to the ger, to the converts- and mentions how they can be bad for us; not because they do bad, but because in their righteousness and eager embrace of the Torah, they make those born Jewish look bad in comparison!  The Ger tzedek is welcome and leads to good things and enhances us- he may cast a light that causes some of us to dim in comparison- but their mitzvot and behaviour add to the tally of the nation and are greater than any harm they might do.

Not so here.  The end result of this is the son that rebels.  A breakdown in the family, a blemish in the nation, an altogether unwanted result (and the chapter ends with the discussion of how you deal with the body of somebody sentenced to death- juxstaposing this to the rebellious son to teach us that such a son will eventually do something to earn himself the death penalty. The Torah is warning us- yes, you can bring such people in, but what will the end result be?  Do you want to be in the situation of living with a wife you despise?  A son that is a glutton, lazy and rebellious? 

Perhaps this answers the question that you see asked many times- why do Jews not seek out convert?  Why do we not see forced conversions in Jewish history to expand numbers?  I have written previously on the issue of conversions and why we make it difficult (, but here there is an additional reason.  Here we see a woman that is effectively in the position of a forced convert.  Perhaps she even becomes a genuine Jewess, but the reality is that there will also be that ember, that pain from being taken captive, being a captive of war.  Similarly, when someone converts only for marriage, or only because of some perceived benefit beyond that of being Jewish, is there not an ember of “I was forced into this?”  The person who converts solely because of marriage- do they not wonder what might have been if they had not converted?  Yes, many of them are genuine and become great assets to the community- but there is always the possibility of the other result- and thus the care that needs to be taken


As always:  corrections, discussion, comments etc are welcomed…

August 28, 2009 Posted by | Parshah, Torah | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Converting to Judaism- why so hard? Originally posted April 11, 2008

I have had a number of conversations with people over the years with them raising the issue of how difficult it is to convert to Judaism. Anti-Semites use this as a proof that Jews hate others- why else would we make it so difficult to convert? Some go so far as to claim that conversion is not allowed, or that converts are somehow inferior to those born Jewish. The reality- we are forbidden from treating converts any differently to those born Jewish and they are as holy as anyone else in Israel. You want proof? Ruth, the great grandmother of King David was a convert, a Moabitess- and from her we will eventually have the Mashiach, our ultimate redeemer.

So, whats the big deal? Why do Jews make it such a big deal to convert? Why the tradition of turning people away until we are certain they are genuine? You see- converting others isn’t just about them- it has implications to the person who does the conversion! Converting others to Judaism is actually a massive responsibility for the person who is doing the conversion- and an activity which can lead them to erring and sinning themselves! Why? There is a commandment “Do not place as tumbling block before the blind” Its easy enough to understand at a literal level, but at a deeper level it also means to not do something that will cause another person to err and thus be worse off than they were before.

Where this comes into play is as follows: Everyone, regardless of religion, has a path to righteousness and a place in the world to come. For the non-Jews, if they behave in a manner that is in line with the 7 Noahide laws, then they will be righteous and merit a place in the world to come- for Jews, it is through the 613 commandments.

So, coming back to the first point- what is easier, to follow 7 laws or 613 laws? Its a no brainer- 7 laws are much easier to follow. So, when we convert somebody, we are giving them an additional 606 laws that previously did not apply to them previously. Its not just a stumbling block- its a concrete barrier across the road! The person doing the conversion has to educate the convertee well enough that they will know enough about the laws to undertake to follow them, and know how to do so at a practical level- if they don’t, the person is going to err and thus the teacher is in violation of the commandment!

So making sure someone is serious about conversion is imperative. Turning people away, testing their commitment through lengthy classes and immersion into Judaism; testing their desire, and commitment thus becomes an essential part of the process- ensuring their, and their future teachers, spiritual health. If the person is not serious, and the teacher has not tested them, the teacher is in violation of the commandment and, additionally, has caused another person to sin. If the person is serious- then it is a massive mitzvah to bring them into Judaism.

June 24, 2008 Posted by | Other Torah, Torah | , | 4 Comments