Whose Jews?

A Pew Research Center survey of American Jews found that 62 percent say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15 percent say it’s a matter of religion.

There’s a major problem in any survey of Jews: deciding who is really Jewish, and who gets to decide. Orthodox Jews demand that the mother be Jewish, while more liberal Jewish groups are willing to accept those with a Gentile mother if the father is Jewish.

Jews stopped the practice of converting Gentiles in the fourth century C.E. for a very persuasive reason. At that time, the Roman Empire, having adopted Christianity as the state religion, made conversion to Judaism a criminal offense punishable by death of both the proselytizing Jews and their converts. Such conversions are no longer crimes, but Orthodox Rabbis discourage conversion and many reject would-be converts three times; if they remain adamant in their desire to convert, they are then allowed to begin the conversion process. Different branches of Judaism are more welcoming to those who wish to become Jews, but Orthodox Jews don’t recognize converts to Judaism by other branches.

And then there are Jews with adjectives. I know some Unitarian Jews, Buddhist Jews, and Quaker Jews. Most Jews don’t see such “Judaism plus” as a problem for Jews. I have an adjective, myself: atheist Jew, so some Jews might think of me as a “Jew minus.” However, I’m not such a minority. The Pew Research Center’s landmark new survey of American Jews found that 62 percent say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15 percent say it’s a matter of religion. Jews are considerably less religious than the U.S. public as a whole, with 23 percent of Jewish Americans saying they don’t believe in God, compared to only seven percent in the general public.

Even religious Jews are generally not very concerned about the existence of atheist Jews. They reserve their antagonism for Jews with a different adjective: Messianic Jews (Jews for Jesus). Much to the surprise of many Jews, the Pew Survey showed that 34 percent of American Jews think that a person can be Jewish if he or she believes that Jesus is the Messiah. Had I been surveyed, I would have been among those 34 percent. In fact, I think the percentage should be much higher. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have more beliefs in common with Jews for Jesus than with Jews like me. Both sects believe that a Messiah is coming. They differ only on whether it will be his first or second trip to Earth. When my Orthodox uncle died, his family flew his body to Jerusalem for burial because he and a number of other Jews believe that those buried in Jerusalem will be resurrected first when the Messiah comes.

There have been dozens of Jewish Messiah claimants over the centuries. Most recently, when Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson died in 1994, many Jews in his Lubavitcher Chassidic sect believed that he would soon return as the Messiah. Some are still expecting his imminent return, just as Christians for the past 2000 years have been expecting Jesus’ imminent return. After all, Jesus purportedly said he would return before his own generation passed.

However, most Jews are wary of Jews for Jesus, believing them to be Christians with ulterior motives. Many Jews were upset when former president George W. Bush spoke at a fundraising event for the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute, an organization that promotes the second coming of the Messiah by converting Jews to Christianity. Most Jews don’t want family members to become Christian, but they also fear a new wave of anti-Semitism if Jews resist conversion, which might “delay” the return of the Christian Messiah.

According to the Pew Survey, only 28 percent of Jews thought an important component of being Jewish meant being part of a Jewish community, and an even smaller 19 percent said observing Jewish law was important. What I find particularly amusing is that these two criteria were trumped by the 42 percent of Jews who said being Jewish means having a good sense of humor.

So American Jews are fine with Jews who don’t believe in God, but are concerned and embarrassed by Jews who believe that God has a son. Since Jews of all traditions appreciate what I define as “Humoristic Judaism,” I’ll tell you a story that illustrates the discomfort of Jews with Messianic Jews and other proselytizing Christians.

When a Jewish atheist heard that the best school in town happened to be Catholic, he enrolled his son. Things were going very well until one day the boy came home and said he had learned all about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. His father, barely able to control his rage, seized his son by the shoulders and said: “David, this is very important, so listen carefully. There is only one God—and we don’t believe in Him!”

Some days, it’s just fun to be a Jew, with or without an adjective.

Image courtesy of Jrwooley6.

Herb Silverman
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  • Khartet

    good article, never got a really good understanding of what Jews theologically think about Jesus being born, raised and educated as a Jew.

  • AnAmericanUnderNoGod

    I have a couple of Zoroastrian friends who also believe their God has given similar rules in who can and who cannot become a Zoroastrian. My Muslim friends also believe that Allah said if a Muslim marries a non-Muslim, then the spouse and their children will automatically become Muslim and if a Muslim must be killed if he or she defies his or her Muslim religion.
    What kind of God or Gods are there above the clouds that either make these rules or cannot do anything about these rules if they don’t agree with these rules.
    The fact of the matter is that, there is no God or Gods. They all are created by men on earth.

  • AJJJ

    Good one!

  • h5r2

    I think Jews aren’t particularly concerned about Jesus being educated as a Jew. They are concerned about anti-Semitic Christians who, for centuries, demonized Jews for not accepting Jesus as the Messiah.

  • gav42

    Try asking a Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, Methodist, Unitarian, and Mormon to agree on a definition of who is a Christian, and who gets to decide. Wars have been fought over that one.

    So far, fortunately, the different Jewish faiths have avoided weaponry as a means of settling their intra-religious disputes. For the most part.

  • Jesse Danziger

    In the flurry of articles that have responded to G.W. Bush’s speech last week, I have read a lot about how Messianic Judaism is a threat to Jewish people, but I haven’t heard many good arguments why. I am a Jewish guy who came to believe in Jesus in college a few years ago and I think this is one of the sanest articles I’ve read on who is Jewish and the impact of Messianic Judaism.

    Silverman also makes a point that I have never considered but I think is quite valid:

    “they also fear a new wave of anti-Semitism if Jews resist conversion, which might “delay” the return of the Christian Messiah”

    I don’t know anyone who thinks this way which is similar to the erroneous notion that “THE Jews killed Jesus” but I don’t doubt that many people do think this way. If you are a Christian you should love all people including Jewish people and desire that they would all find the peace and forgiveness you have found in the Messiah; there is no room for resentment of any people group.

  • RafaelR

    They think he was a Jew, and one of many in that era who claimed to be the Jewish messiah. That seems pretty simple to understand, unless you think he is more than that.

  • Louise10

    What’s so special about Christianity? All religions talk about loving people, but through the ages they’ve had holy wars and killed infidels in the name of their religion. It doesn’t take religion or belief in messiahs to love all people.

  • Rongoklunk

    Since they can’t torture atheists and other heretics, and can’t burn anybody at the stake anymore, and can’t even drown witches – the only option left for the Church is love and compassion.

    Enter Francis, with orders to make people love him and the Church, and cover up the fact that their God is as mythical as all the other Gods that our ancestors invented. It’s time we faced that reality like adults.

  • Rongoklunk

    The very fact that we believe what we were raised to believe – should tell us something important. That if we were raised to believe something else – we’d almost certainly believe something else. And when we look at Hindus and what they believe, and Muslims and what they believe – if we had been raised like them , we’d believe what they believe. And it clearly shows that no religion is any better or worse than any other religion.
    And it also shows how addicted we humans are to making up Gods, and an afterlife. At Wikipedia you can look up Terror Management Theory, which is what religion and God-belief is; terror management. It’s a great theory.

  • RichardSRussell

    Not exactly a novel observation, but still an accurate one:

    “In fact the entire pro-Israel Jewish-Evangelical alliance comes down to not talking about ‘It’ — the Apocalypse — or about how they’re both using each other and both consider the other equally insane.” —Mark Ames, New York Press, 2004 Oct. 12