Home » Religion and Jewish Thought, Yoram Symons

Who is a Jew and the Tyranny of Halacha

July 6, 2009 – 3:15 pm30 Comments

bangladeshi-jewsBy Yoram Symons

Most of us were raised to believe that you were a Jew because your mother was Jewish. That Jewish descent passes through the woman. And no doubt we have all heard the various reasons that rabbis and others have given for this over the years. My personal favourite is the one that says women are more spiritually advanced than men and hence the Jewish spiritual DNA can only be passed through them. I mean, obviously spiritual DNA can only be passed through women, why would we have ever thought otherwise?

On a more serious note, however, the idea of matrilineal descent has major ramifications for many Jewish people. In an era where more and more Jewish boys and girls are meeting people from outside of their culture, maintaining the racial and ethnic purity of the people has never been harder. And it is especially hard on the Rabbinate to try and enforce their notion of spiritual purity with very few punitive measures available to them.

But lets examine for a moment the origin of this matrilineal descent concept. Within the 4-cubit-wide confines of rabbinic logic, the source of all Jewish laws and customs is the Torah, as interpreted by the Rabbis of the Mishnaic period (i.e 200BC-200AD). And sure enough, the Mishna is quite clear on the matter. Kiddushin 3:12 states that to be considered Jewish one must be the child of a Jewish mother or a righteous convert. For the rabbi it is simple – case closed.

But for those of us who for whatever reason see it fit to doubt the reasoning of pre-industrial scholastic logicians who were part of a nationalist populist political movement arguably responsible for the two most catastrophic wars in Jewish history up until the Holocaust, well, we have to search beyond the Mishna and its peculiar methodology of Biblical interpretation.

A straight reading of the Torah leaves one with a fairly overwhelming impression that in Biblical and pre-Biblical times, all notions of tribal descent were passed through the father. There are numerous characters in the Bible, for example Judah’s sons, Ephraim, Menashe and the children of Moses who all had non-Jewish mothers and were all considered Jewish. The rabbis conveniently explain that all of their mothers converted to Judaism but as with most rabbinic statements, they bear little relation to any literal reading of the text and require the application  of the arcane science of drash to force those meanings out.

In addition to this is the overwhelming number of references to the father’s tribe being the most important, to all descent occurring through the patrilineal line, the generation lists that only mention fathers and the constant reference to the Gods of Forefathers, implying that tribe and religion are the domain of the male.

And this makes perfect sense. We know that the Biblical and pre-Biblical society was highly patriarchal, both for the Israelites and the Hebrews and for most people around the world at that time. If a Jewish man married a non-Jewish woman what was happening in effect was that the man was taking her into his tribe, she would be absorbed in to the new people, and thus her previous identity and her previous gods would be irrelevant.

What is equally clear to all historians of this matter is that at some point this changed and matrilineal descent took over as normative practice. There are a number of arguments put forward, each with greater or lesser degrees of evidence to back them.

There is the idea that it originated with Ezra, when he forced Jewish men to banish their non-Jewish wives. There is another idea that it was instituted after the Bar Kochba revolt as a leniency to the children of women raped by the Romans, so that an entire generation of children would not be lost to Judaism. There is a further idea that in contrast to paternal descent, maternal descent is certain and provable.

But the truth and historicity of any of these reasons is not the real point. The real point is that according to the best evidence that historians can bring up:

  1. Once upon a time Jews believed in patrilineal descent
  2. At a later period they changed to matrilineal descent
  3. No one has ever really understood exactly why this change took place

Despite the overwhelming historical evidence pointing to a tradition of patrilineal descent, the Halacha is steadfast in its exclusive acceptance of matrilineal descent.  As far as Halacha is concerned, if the Mishnaic sages interpreted a biblical verse in a certain way – then come hell or high water their interpretation will stand until the end of time.

What is important for us is the following: Why as a community do we allow ourselves to be bound by the interpretation and tradition of the Halacha? Why do we allow questions of such fundamental importance like “Who is a Jew?” to be arbitrated by a system that borders on the superstitious?

Being Jewish is not a superstition – it is a very real and powerful experience that transcends the narrow and stringent practices of Halacha. Most of us feel very comfortable being Jewish without keeping any real Halacha at all. The question of whether one can be Jewish without keeping the Halacha was answered long ago. The question now is slightly different:

Can a community claim to be Jewish without relying on the Halacha for definitions of its own Jewishness?

Even though most of us feel entirely Jewish as individuals without the need for any formal Halacha in our lives – we have left the ultimate Jewish character of the community entirely in the hands of the Halachists.

The Halachic system performed a great service to the Jewish people. Arguably it guaranteed the survival of the Jewish people for 2000 years without a homeland or a sovereign state of our own. Yet the great epoch of the Halacha is at an end. We may not be living in the era of redemption, but neither are we living in the Exile proper.

As a community we need to rethink our relationship to the Halacha. Instead of accepting it as a ruler and master, we should adopt it for what it actually is – a frame of reference. The word Torah etymologically derives from the word “hora’ah” or guidance. In the language of our most ancient forefathers the word Torah did not mean law but guidance.

If we saw the Halacha as a guide to our ancient traditions, rather than hard and fast law, we would be in a better position to fashion a Jewish experience that is congruent and consistent with the way we actually live our lives.

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  • Joel says:

    Thanks for your interesting post.

    For communities in Australia, your question raises interesting issues. For the State of Israel, your question raises more issues than one can fit in this comment box.

    For more, may I suggest visiting Religion and State in Israel.

    Religion and State in Israel is not affiliated with any organization or movement.

  • yoramsymons says:


    You are right about that – it would raise a whole heap of issues. But the discussion needs to start somewhere. The State of Israel and the entire Zionist movement effectively shifted power away from the Rabbinate, but did leave some key elements within its control. I do believe though that it is imperative for the continued relevance of our spiritual and cultural life that we develop an understanding of Judaism that is independent from the prescriptions of the Mishnaic rabbis and their modern adherents.

    Zionism in its purest sense is an entirely secular ideology. Some of Zionism’s inherent contradictions stem from the fact that the ideology is secular but Jewish people are an ethno-cultural group which by its very nature cannot be entirely secular. These problems are compounded when we equate spirituality to halacha. They are not the same thing. Yet the Rabbinate has been allowed to extend their exclusive mandate over key ethno-cultural issues despite the fact that the brand of spiritualism that it teaches is highly incongruent with the world views of most actual Jewish people.

  • Almoni says:

    This post is a bit strange–aren’t you away of the body of Reform Jewish thinking about the nature of Judaism that is 150 years or more in in ag now, not to speak of the extraordinary writings of Mordechai Kaplan for Reconstructionists, as well as Jewish humanists?

    I consequently find the post isolated from a lot of contemporary thinking and experience, even though I’m a bit out of date myself.

    All the more reason that we should have had an independent, non-orthodox seminary established a long time ago. I think it has been a real failure of ‘the community’ to establish its own independent group of religious or semi-religious or religiously fallen thinkers.

    Spoken from an unobservant but deeply interested perspective.

  • yoramsymons says:

    I’ll be the first to admit I am no great scholar of either Reform or Reconstructionist Judaism. Although I know enough to understand that the essence of my post was hardly an original thought. The real point of it is that here in Melbourne there is a Halachic Hegemony that has evolved for many different reasons. It is not that no one else has done any theoretical work towards a new understanding of Judaism – there has been much. My point is that here in Melbourne there is a feeling that Jewish authenticity derives from halachic authority.

    It is not enough for a number of theorists to do the work but Jewish people need to be empowered within their own cultural identity to challenge the rabbinic hegemony. And this is not just in Melbourne, but especially in Israel, where the authority of the Rabbinate reigns supreme on a number of key social issues. Again, it is not that others haven’t presented alternatives – its that an issue like this needs to get beyond theory.

  • Almoni says:

    A good point, but it comes down to leadership again, and when it comes down to the hegemony that exists, and the lack of challenge on the reform front, it’s a very closed circle.

    Theory shapes practice, you can’t get away from it. But that is another story.

    I wrote something about this years ago, and I am not saying where, about the long-term effects of such an absence, and it is still the case. Lubavitch saw and opportunity for promoting their version of religion and they have been very succesful, without adequate challenge from equally valid perspectives.

    It also reflects the comfort of the community, its parochialism and the lack of active grey matter, frankly.

    If you focus on educating accountants and doctors, well, don’t expect thought rebels. What a mean comment.

  • eli says:

    Not sure why you want to change the club rules that you are not interested in joining in any case. There are plenty of other clubs that play football and are still members of the league.Off course Collingwood and Carlton supporters think they are the only genuine teams and heir to the throne,but we all still love our football and remain passionate about the game.

  • Yoram,

    While tribal descent was (and still is, e.g. Kohanim and Leviim) patrilineal, the source for the transmission of the faith by the mother is in Devarim 7:3-4, in the prohibition against intermarriage.

    The prohibition is mentioned both ways (don’t give your daughter to a non-Jewish man and don’t let your son take a non-Jewish woman), but only in the second case is the reason given: “because she (your non-Jewish daughter-in-law) will lead your (grand)children astray”. This is a reflection of the woman’s traditional role in the home as the one who brings up the children and has a significant influence on their values system.

    You have not brought any evidence that the descent system changed at any point from one to the other; each method of descent served (and still serves) a different purpose.

    Also, you say that halacha developed only in the mishnaic period 200BCE-200CE. While this is the time that it was formally codified in a written form, there is again no evidence to suggest that it only started then. The decision to start writing down what was previously only taught orally was a significant one, but by no means the *start* of halacha.

    I don’t understand the link you seem to make between the society of “scholastic logicians” and responsibility “for the two most catastrophic wars in Jewish history”, or are you just having a go at Talmudists?

    Suggesting that halacha has had its day is a bit presumptuous; at least you give it some credit for keeping us together as a nation.

    Indeed, I question the strides that the Reform movement has made in guaranteeing Jewish continuity. There are plenty of non-Orthodox seminaries in Israel and the US. I doubt if the local Melbourne leadership has stifled them, and the large proportion of Jewish professionals is certainly not a factor. One of the pioneers of the conservative Kehillat Nitzan is Prof. John Rosenberg, who taught me computer science at Monash.

    Perhaps we should take a free market view of this? Over time, a market will decide for itself what works best. Simply on the basis of longevity, halacha has done a mighty fine job maintaining Jewish continuity. Other derivatives seem to have to keep reinventing themselves to remain relevant, and even then, struggle to with the job of continuity.

    If you seek to define Jewishness in an entirely new, exciting, and innovative way, then you will quickly dilute it out of existence.

  • The Goy Husband says:

    If the question is religious – which at heart it probably is – then the internal determination of theocratic leaders is the bench-mark standard. If the question is cultural or social, then prevailing levels of inclusion will reflect the broader political, social and class opinion leaders. If the tag is administrative, electoral or entitlement orientated, the broader non-Jewish community may seek to have a say about it. On balance, it is likely that the traditional approach has been successful in the face of the enlightenment, reform, social movement, economic freedom, globalisation and various other big picture trends. You cannot succeed in forcing change by mere legal or social policy dictatoral pronouncements – people must want or feel change before it can be most effective and inclusive. You don’t have to be Jewish to be a firm friend of the community and its interests.

  • yoramsymons says:

    Hey David,

    I knew you’d love this one.

    Let’s start at the start. Devarim 7:3-4.

    Your analysis is predicated on an assumption that the Torah is Divine in origin. I, however, do not share that assumption and see the authorship of the Torah in a very different light. This does not invalidate the Torah as a source of Jewish law and custom, but it does open up the question of dating. That is to say, just because a law is in the Torah does not necessarily mean that it is ancient in origin.

    According to Biblical Scholars the book of Devarim was composed in the late 7th century BC, during the religious reforms carried out under king Josiah, with later additions from the period after the fall of Judah to the Neo-Babylonian empire in 586 BC. (Christopher Wright, Deuteronomy NIBC, Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1996).

    Dating the book of Devarim to this period puts it squarely in line with Ezra’s ban on intermarriage. Although Shaye Cohen argues that matrilinieal descent was unheard of even in Ezra’s time, but more on Cohen a little later on.

    Furthermore, on the verses themselves, lets quote them in full, in their complete context:

    When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and shall cast out many nations before thee, the Hittite, and the Girgashite, and the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; and when the LORD thy God shall deliver them up before thee, and thou shalt smite them; then thou shalt utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor show mercy unto them; Neither shalt thou make marriages with them: thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. For he will turn away thy son from following Me, that they may serve other gods; so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and He will destroy thee quickly.”

    For a start they are in specific reference to the “Seven Nations” and not to any non-Jewish peoples.

    Second, the verses never explicitly state that the children of mixed marriages are not Jewish, it just states that the danger of mixed marriage is that the foreign parent will lead the child away from Judaism – clearly not a problem if the child of a non-Jewish mother isn’t Jewish to begin with.

    Third, the inference that it does refer to matrilineal descent is argued in the Talmud (Kiddushin 68b) and requires the use of Talmudic textual analysis. The analysis in question goes as follows:

    From where do we learn that “her child is like her” (ie matrilineal descent)? Rabbi Yochanan says in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, because the verse says: “For they will turn your son away from me.” He then derives that “your son” only refers to your son by an Israelite woman, but a son by an idol worshipper is not called your son.

    The logic of this piece is clearly predicated on a priori notions, ie the verse is read in such a way as to arrive at a predetermined conclusion, because the verse clearly makes no explicit reference to two different classes of “son”.

    To continue: Reading the rest of the Torah, there is a fairly sound inference to make that patrilineal descent was the norm. To quote from Shaye Cohen:

    “Numerous Israelites heroes and kings married foreign women: for example, Judah married a Canaanite, Joseph an Egyptian, Moses a Midianite and an Ethiopian, David a Philistine, and Solomon women of every description. By her marriage with an Israelite man a foreign women joined the clan, people, and religion of her husband. It never occurred to anyone in pre-exilic times to argue that such marriages were null and void, that foreign women must “convert” to Judaism, or that the off-spring of the marriage were not Israelite if the women did not convert.” (The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties)

    Moreover, I (and indeed others) would argue that the remaining patrilineal descent for tribal affiliations is in fact evidence of a prevailing notion of patrilineal descent for transmission of “Jewishness” as well.

    I stand by my remarks on the Halachic system. While much of the Halacha is constituted by arguably ancient laws and practices, it is the methodology of the Halacha that is contemporaneous to the Mishnaic period. The methodology of drash in particular is native to that period and was not a form of exposition prior to that. Thus learning out laws from biblical verses based on the laws of scriptural analysis utilised by the Mishnaic rabbis is again very different from a genuine historical source.

    I did use the word scholastic slightly out of context. Scholasticism refers to a Medieval school of thought but there underlying methodology was similar to Talmudic reasoning, in that it is a priori and deductive, not inductive like scientific reasoning. That is to say that a scholastic approach will accept a text as sacrosanct and begin its inquiry from that position, working to reconcile apparent contradictions within a text by demonstrating their ultimate compatibility. Inductive reasoning on the other hand will not begin with the assumption that the text is sacrosanct and will make it an object of inquiry.

    As for the two wars, again, slightly tongue in cheek, but only slightly. It is easily arguable that the Rabbinic class was a prime motivator in the Great Revolt and it was indisputably a major culprit in the Second Revolt. I would not go so far to argue that the Pharisees were solely responsible for the wars against Rome, but neither can any fair reading of history absolve them.

    That Halacha has had it’s day I stand by again. Halachic Judaism has not been the preeminent ideology of the Jewish people since the end of Sabbatean heresey. Luria’s imagined mystical messiah had turned out to be a fraud and from that moment onwards, combined with the inexorable pull to modernity and away from the ghetto, Halachic judaism would never again occupy its premininet place in the Jewish imagination. Since that time two movements or ideologies have become the mainstream: that of direct engagement with the modern world, which is less of an ideology than a culture, and of course, Zionism.

    The Halacha simply does not hold as sacred a place as it once did for the vast majority of the Jewish people. What I am observing is what I believe to be the final clinging to a way of understanding Judaism that is about 2500 years old. But almost certainly not much older.

    The Halachic system began as a way to cope with the Babylonian exile, and reached full prominence when it became the only way to cope with the Roman exile. It was the right answer for the historical conditions in which it began. Since the beginnings of modernity (circa 1648) and then again with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 we have moved into an entirely new phase of history that will need a new response from the Jewish people.

    I do agree with your free market theory. If I am right then a new imagining of the Jewish identity will not necessarily need to be argued for, but will naturally evolve over time.

  • frochel says:

    Interesting article by Rabbi Raymond Apple in yesterday’s Jerusalem post


    Rabbi Apple discusses the introduction of matrilineal descent. The most compelling argument seems to be the certainty of parenthood on the maternal side.

  • yoramsymons says:


    The problem with Rabbi Apple’s conclusion is that is not grounded in any fact whatsoever. While there is a prevailing myth that maternity confers certainty, this historically has not been the case.

    Childbirth has traditionally been a private affair and stories abound of women abandoning children or giving them over to other women who had stillbirths or miscarriages of one sort or another.

    Furthermore, we have absolute proof that the Mishnaic rabbis were aware of this, because of the very famous story described in I Kings 3 that tells of the two prostitutes who went to Solomon both claiming to be the mother of a single child. The King’s solution was to test the love of the real mother by threatening to slice the child in two. Had maternity been so certain the story would never have come about.

    In addition to this, even if we were to accept the myth that maternity confers certainty, with modern DNA testing certainty can be ascertained via other means. If a modern Rabbi wishes to argue for matrilineal descent because of this so-called reasoning, he will soon have to defend the halacha’s intransigence in the face of modern technology and understandings. He will then be stuck where the entire halachic camp is stuck, in a weird contortion of the Chatam Sofer’s famously out of context admonition that “New things are forbidden by the Torah.”

    The Rabbis of today see themselves powerless to overturn the edicts of their forebears even when they have the full weight of science, let alone common sense, on their side. Keeping two days of Yom Tov is a classic case in point.

    There are a large number of instances where the halachic way makes good and proper sense. However there are probably an equally large number where rulings that were justifiable 2000 years ago are now patently absurd. It is the halachic mindset of seeking to preserve the rulings of those who lived in a totally different culture with which I take issue.

    The guiding ethos of the halachic consciousness is that the study of halacha is the study of the mind of God himself. Unfortunately, if one is to take halacha to its ultimate logical conclusion, for all intents and purposes the mind of God ceased to function in the year 200 AD, since no entirely original halacha has been innovated since that moment.

    1800 years later Halachic Judaism has been reduced to a functioning museum of Greco-Roman era practices, or worse, extrapolations of Greco-Roman era cultural concepts to issues of modern technology.

  • pretzel72 says:

    Yoramsymons’s answer to Rabbi Apple really shows the intellectual vacuum at the heart of the modern Rabbinate. Well done.

  • The Goy Husband says:

    Dear Pretzel72,

    I also applaud the cogent and powerful argument of Yoramsymon’s response – however respect for the Rabbinate requires more measured tones. Religious leaders since the 1700s (in common era terms) have found themselves colliding with science or rationalism. Faith and honest allegiance to tradition should never be seen to be a sign of intellectual timidity or poor thinking. I for one am prepared to accept Rabbi Apple conclusions – if someone wishes to see things different, then they place themselves outside the mainstream of religious practice. There are plenty of seculars who are floating about untroubled by the question raised and a few who are concerned but acceptng of the difficult conversion road as the answer.

  • frochel says:

    Hi Yoram,

    Our main reason for posting the link to Rabbi Apple’s article was actually because Rabbi Apple discusses the introduction of matrilineal descent, hence corroborates the fact that the system of descent did indeed change (which not all commenters on this thread seem to have accepted).

    As for birth traditionally being a private affair, while this is true, how much more so was conception a private affair?

    Thus while there may not be 100% certainty over one’s biological mother, there has always been a far higher level of uncertainty on the paternal side.

    This is neither to accept nor reject rabbi Apple’s thesis, but merely to recognize a reality, and by extension a strength of his argument.

    Of course, if our ancestors already had access to DNA testing in the time of the Roman occupation, then the situation may have developed differently…

  • Andras Kartal says:

    Can I please put in a small stylistic request to Galus Australis.

    Can you please ask authors of pieces to use the terms Before the Common Era ( BCE) or Common Era ( CE) instead of the ideologically loaded initials of BC and AD

    From galusaustralis: Thanks for your suggestion, Andras Kartal. We’ll take it on board for consideration for future posts.

  • TheSadducee says:

    “It is easily arguable that the Rabbinic class was a prime motivator in the Great Revolt and it was indisputably a major culprit in the Second Revolt. I would not go so far to argue that the Pharisees were solely responsible for the wars against Rome, but neither can any fair reading of history absolve them.”

    -I’d like to take you up on this. If it easily argued, perhaps you can refer us to the historical sources which support your view?

    As far as I am aware, Josephus’ “War” actually notes that the leading Pharisees opposed the war and tried to convince the people with the other leaders against it.

    I think your reading is fair for the 2nd war that some rabbinic authorities supported it, but the historical conditions were vastly different and this effected their support.

  • Julia says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you Yoramsymons! You have clearly articulated an issue that I have been trying to explain to people for years. Unfortunately, this often falls on deaf ears – for some reason, some people become highly emotional at the suggestion that matrilineal descent was an historic development, and not the original Jewish position. Maybe they have never before questioned the dogma passed down by their parents/teachers? I have read many commentaries in overseas publications/blogs explaining this, but never before in an Australian blog. This is an issue very close to my heart and mind. I was born to a Jewish father, and my Mother also had Jewish ancestry but is not Halachically Jewish. When I try to explain the background (and some of the absurdities of) in the matrilineal principles, people look at me as though I am from Mars, or as if I trying to ‘join the club’ through the back door. I have since undergone an Orthodox conversion, but that is a story for another day …

  • Reluctant Dualist says:

    Julia, this is very a personal question, but why did you convert? Was that not a surrender of sorts to the tyranny Yoram describes?

    I do not ask this judgementally (it is impossible to convey tone accurately in this medium). I’m genuinely curious, because you seem to approach the issue of Halacha within the framework of historicity (as opposed to the divine revelation model that is, in effect, what Orthodoxy propounds). So I’m wondering how you reconcile your misgivings about the revelatory model with its entrenched position in the conversion process.

  • Yoram,

    The issue of the divinity of the Torah is quite a big one, and because of the vast gap between us, it is virtually impossible for us to conduct a debate on any issue that touches it, because each side is based on different assumptions that the other does not agree with.

    So rather than delving further into the issue of matrilineal descent (which you use as an example of the “tyranny”), it’s more productive to discuss the essence of halacha.

    I would define halacha as the practice that goes along with Judaism.
    It is the set of things we do or don’t do (and believe or don’t believe) that distinguishes us as Jews.

    No matter what you say about the authorship of Devarim (I don’t know where you stand on the other four books “of Moses”), the first example of halacha is the commandment to circumcize. Gid HaNasheh is another example in Bereishit, and there are stacks more in Shmot and beyond.

    You make claims about the methodology of halacha, however these are only based on your assumptions regarding the process of the Mishnaic period. Neither of us can make claims regarding the process that preceded that (from the time of the giving of the Torah until then), where nothing was put in writing because it was all part of the oral law.

    What distinguishes the Mishna was the key decision of Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi to allow that part of the Torah previously only transmitted orally to be written down, so that is would not be lost. So all we can assume is that it was the first written codification of halacha, but not necessarily the start of halacha itself.

    While the majority of Jews do not fully abide by halacha in its current form, the majority of Jews to retain practices that are expressions of their Jewishness. These are halacha, just not all of it (or not enough according to some).

    It would be interesting to discuss the Talmud in Sota (I think) that describes a time when specific practice was progressively reduced so as to maintain continuity. I don’t have the resources at hand to go into that one now.

    There are some serious problems with Orthodoxy today in terms of halacha, and many people on the right have lost the plot, and are giving Orthodoxy in general a bad name. The disgusting protests at the Mamilla carpark just a stone throw *grin* from where I am right now are an example of this.

    However, this should not be taken as an indictment against the Orthodox halachic system any more than Loewenstein might give the left a bad name. Extremism on any side is not a good thing.

    You view Halacha as a tyrannical system; many of those who practice it consider it a formal system for connecting with a spiritual God in a physical world. Any formal system or practice has/needs rules to define it clearly.

    Rather than declaring it obsolete, might I suggest a more productive path would be to make it more relevant to the masses?

  • RD#20 and related posts,

    Orthodoxy doesn’t purport to define depth of Jewishness based on adherence to practice. Once defined as Jewish, you are no less so because of how much or little you practice.

    However, the issue of Jewishness itself is a binary one: either you are or you aren’t. We don’t accept the notion of being 1/2 or 1/4 Jewish (don’t know if any Jewish community would). This is probably associated with the notion of someone Jewish having a soul that is a part of God – either you have one, or you don’t.

    Because of the diversity of Jewish practice, there are multiple definitions of transmission of the faith. If someone wants to be acceptable to all, one needs to follow the strictest definition.

  • Julia says:

    My response to Reluctant Dualist and related posts were deleted. Perhaps they were off topic?

    David, one note in relation to your comment that ‘[o]nce defined as Jewish, you are no less so because of how much or little you practice.’ The current conversion crisis in Israel, namely that conversions are being ‘retroactively annulled, raises a fundamental question of whether, once somebody is defined as Jewish in accordance with Halacha, they will ‘remain’ so by virtue of their subsequent observance. The reasoning being that, if a Jew-by-conversion does not remain observant (regardless of time elapsed), then this can be used as evidence to infer that the candidate was not sincere at the time of converting (and, so the argument goes, was never a Jew). (Obviously, there are no such Jewish-by-practice requirements in relation to Jews-by-birth). Local Batei Din have picked up on this ‘innovation’ and warn conversion candidates of the possible implications of them not remaining observant.

  • GalusAustralis says:

    Sorry Julia! Your comment was accidentally deleted. Our apologies. Please try again!


  • Julia,

    For the beth din to leave observance to their standards hanging over every convert seems quite unreasonable to me. However, it is important to any conversion that the standard of accepting God and the mitzvot be kept. As you state, the claim regarding the insincerity of the conversion may be reasonable. The question then becomes – how long after a conversion is long enough?

  • Julia says:

    Just to clarify, my view was not to state that the claim of sincerity is reasonable. This is for others to judge. Rather, I meant to outline the argument.

  • Jean says:

    Am I the only one who finds the image for this thread really offensive?! It makes me cringe everytime I visit this blog.

  • Yoram Symons says:

    Hi All,

    Apologies for not responding to comments, life has been a little hectic lately.

    I do want to write one partial response to The Sadducee concerning the involvement of the Pharisees in the Great Revolt.

    Sadducee, you have caused me to think hard about this issue and in conclusion it will require a very lengthy response that should really constitute a paper of some kind, as it is a fairly substantial rethinking of the prevailing notions around the Great Revolt.

    For those who don’t know, the Great Revolt refers to the war between the Judaeans and the Roman Empire from 66CE (For your sake Andras) until the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70CE. The prevailing view, as presented by Josephus is that responsibility for the war rests entirely with the Zealot party and he essentially absolves the Pharisees of responsibility.

    As I said, a comprehensive response will require a full paper, but I will summarise here the essence of my argument.

    1. I will be arguing that Phariseeism was not a monolithic and homogenous world view but one comprising many disparate and often antagonistic views. While there were certainly those who were opposed to conflict with Rome, the most famous being Yochanan ben Zakkai, there were many others that embraced and supported the idea.

    2. The Zealots were essentially radicalised Pharisees.

    3. The nationalistic ideology of Phariseeism provided the intellectual underpinnings for the Zealot movement. I would go so far as to argue that within the Pharisee cosmology and their understanding of the role of the Jewish nation within history, conflict with a ruling imperialist power would become an inevitability.

    4. The Pharisees enshrined positive attitudes towards the Zealot party into law. Especially within the context of “Kanaaim pogiim bo” which roughly translates as “Zealots will kill him.” as a tacit and implied license for Zealot activities.

    5. The Pharisees helped build the ideology and mythology of the Zealot party through their association of both Pinchas and Elijah the Prophet with the Zealot movement, establishing a clear mythico-historical basis for Zealotry as an acceptable Jewish response to events.

    6. Finally, and this one may be seen as quite radical, I will be attacking the notion that “Baseless Hatred” was the cause for the destruction of the Temple. “Baseless Hatred” was a historical reading on the events of the Great Revolt that essentially posits that the reason for failure in the war was the factionalisation of the Zealot party that was more prone to internecine warfare than it was to actually fighting the Romans, and that the Romans essentially exploited this weakness. I will argue that inherent within this position is a support for the war, as the decision to go to war isnt questioned, simply the management and execution of the war. I will attempt (and I’m not yet sure how I will do this) to argue that “Baseless Hatred” was not the cause of the Temple’s destruction, but rather the super-nationalistic tendencies of the Pharisee ideology that made accomodation with Rome an impossibility. I will attempt to demonstrate that there was another strain of Pharisee thought, a minority one, that was not confined to narrow nationalism but was looking towards a universal application of the Jewish ideal, who did not see accomodation with Rome as a compromise position but as a preferred one. I will also show how this ideology is the true successor to the Prophetic visions, especially those of Isaiah, and that the mainstream Pharisee ideology was actually a crude nationalist corruption of the prophetic ideal, and thus place blame for the Temple’s destruction entirely at the feet of the Pharisees.

    That’s the essence of what I will be attempting to argue. But don’t hold your breath waiting for the paper, it wont be coming out any time soon.

  • TheSadducee says:

    Thanks for the reply.

    A few thoughts (and I’d love a copy of your paper when you get round to it).

    The revolt actually ended in 73/74 CE with the Romans quashing the southern districts (Machaerus, Masada etc) but effective military resistance ended after Jerusalem fell in 70 CE.

    As to Josephus’ views – well the “War” is best dated to the mid-70’s CE. I don’t think one can disregard the facts that Josephus was a leading participant of the conflict itself writing about the events shortly after it and is the primary ancient source regarding the conflict without some very significant evidence to back up an alternative narrative.

    1. Agree – that is why I noted that the leading Pharisees were opposed to the war. There was obviously a broad variety of views present in the group.
    2. Most likely correct.
    3. I would like to see your evidence which suggests that the Pharisees, as a movement, held a nationalist ideology, and that this ideology was not held by other movements eg. Essenes, Sadducees and that the Pharisaic beliefs necessarily influenced the Zealot movement.
    4. I’m uncertain where you have derived this reference (the Mishnah?). Can you supply it? I would also like to see how you draw the conclusion that the Pharisees enshrined the Zealots excesses in law?
    5. Can you point out your evidence which supports this conclusion?
    6. Is certainly radical and as you can guess, I wouldn’t agree with this. However have you taken into account the influence of poor Roman administration of Judaea on its citizenry? The procurators etc (eg. Pilate for instance) were particularly unpleasant and this must have influenced the revolt, true? Or the role of the other groups (Essenes, Christians, Sadducees etc)? And I’m not certain how you disregard the historical narrative (eg. Josephus) which suggests that Zealot excess in Jerusalem was destructive to the war effort and certainly doesn’t support an idea of inevitability of conflict?

  • Here is a fascinating little video that is somewhat related to this topic http://www.yideotube.com/2009/07/palestinians-of-jewish-origin.html

  • jezreel says:

    Thank you for such well explain topic of who is a jew and halachic practice! This is needed more than ever. Thank you

  • DrBlajer says:

    Thanks for the great article. I’ve struggled with this question a lot myself. Having little or no religious upbringing and at the same time a strong intellectual but secular background, it’s always a tricky subject for me this jewishness. I feel my nationality through my native language, my customs, my family, all these tangible things but how does feel their religion I wondered in a household that had very little of it? My mum once explained that she became religious on a car trip while she had been pregnant with me and that at the moment where it looked like there was going to be a serious accident it dawned on her to pray. This now makes a lot of sense to me now having lived out of home for a few years. It had to come to all on its own, small coincidences, events that made me feel that there was something to this jewishness for me. I’m macedonian, I dont speak hebrew, never been to israel, but it’s all been there in the background and now I have to struggle with this, since “hey your surname is not macedonian” and “hey your mother is not jewish!” I take my dad’s approach he’s culturally jewish, a focus on questioning, learning and self deprecating humour.

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