Who is a Jew? Who Decides?

With Kristallnacht less than 24 hours away, an article in today’s NYTimes about the admissions policy of a publicly-funded Jewish Day School in London seems timely.  Growing up, I was taught that the Nazis didn’t care how observant a Jew you were, they didn’t care if you ate pork and took communion at catholic Mass on Sundays.  If your mother was Jewish, you were Jewish.  If the Nazis came around again, I was warned, they wouldn’t care if you believed in god, went to temple on Shabbat, or ate cheeseburgers at McDonald’s.  If your mother was Jewish, you were Jewish.

The comedian David Cross tells a story that supports this idea.  Cross was born to Jewish parents but considers himself an atheist.   During a discussion about his identity, he once told a Rabbi that he doesn’t belive in god so he can’t possibly be Jewish.  After a bit of back and forth,the Rabbi asked, “Let me ask you this: Was your mother’s vagina Jewish?”  Cross’s telling of this story (which I can’t quite bring myself to link to here, but highly recommend for a thought-provoking listen and laugh), and his commentary on it, “Oh f#@*!  They got me on a technicality.  No matter what I believe in, it doesn’t matter.  Jew for life.  That’s it.  Judaism is the only religion in the world that won’t allow you to not be Jewish,” reflects the discomfort and questions that surround the matrilineal labeling tradition.

The lawsuit covered in “Who is a Jew?  Court Ruling In Britain Raises Question,” challenges the tradition of matrilineal descent as the sole signifier of Jewish identity.  (It should be noted that strict adherence to this categorization is mainly the business of Orthodox and Conservative Jews.  Reform, Reconstructionist, and Humanist Jewish communities have made space for other interpretations of the law found in Deuteronomy.)  The families who seek access to the school argue that it shouldn’t matter if a child’s mother is Jewish, if she was born a Jew or converted, and whether she converted in an Orthodox or Reform synagogue.  The child’s belief and observance should be all that matter.  Being Jewish, in other words, is a state of mind and practice, not of biology.  What do you think?

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