I often stumble upon the famous argument “Who is a Jew?” (or, rather, “What is a Jew?”). Unlike other related terms, Jewishness is used to express several very different things. In many countries of the world, there is some order in things.
Let’s take Belgium for instance: You can be a Belgian citizen, while from the ethnic point of view you may be Flemish or Walloon, or perhaps an African immigrant. From the religious point of view, you may be a Christian, or perhaps you are a Muslim. Of course you may be an atheist and enjoy a healthy set of values. All these words are different, each set reside on different axis.
The same goes for other lucky groups of people. If you’re an Arab, statistics show you are most likely to be a Muslim, but there are many Christian Arabs and those with other religions. Again there are also some lucky atheists.
However, things come to a total confusion when talking about Jews. Many people call themselves ‘Jews’ while declaring they are not religious at all. Some insist there’s no way of being Jewish unless you believe in the Jewish god, obeying his alleged commands. I’ve found out at least five very different definitions for the term:
1. The Orthodox Jewish definition is trying to be very clear: You are a Jew if your mother was a Jew, or if you so-called “converted” to Judaism in the Orthodox way. This of course is a recursive definition, because now we have to examine your mother’s Jewishness, which is essentially the same task. Not to mention some awkward situations that arise when the two parents hold different religions, which have different rules for this topic.
2. The linguistic definition determines you are “Jew” if you are a descendant of the old tribe of Judea. Hence, perhaps many of the “Cohen’s” and “Levi’s” are not Jews, as they’re known to be descendant of the old Hebrew tribe of Levi. Yet this is from their father’s side… How confusing…
3. The Nazis had another clear-but-recursive definition of what a ‘Jew’ is. It was more-or-less someone with Jewish ancestors 2 generation before. Thus someone could be a ‘Jew’ according to Hitler, but not according to the Rabbi.
4. And there is the common definition: The Jewish “people”, from the ethnic point of view. Not clearly defined, certainly has nothing to do with “religion”, but very practical. The problem? Someone can be a Jew according to this definition, while know nothing of Jewishness, have no Jewish friends whatsoever, and be a total stranger.
Personally I think the best definition is the cultural one. The Jewish culture is many things: It contains the various branches of the Jewish religion, the Hebrew language, the geographical linkage with Israel, the Jewish holidays and literature, etc. I would easily define someone as a ‘Jew’ even if he/she has Christian parents, he/she has never “converted” and not religious at all, but truly shares the same culture with me. I would not define a total stranger as a ‘Jew’ just for having a Jewish mother by some chance.