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Title: Jewish Identity: Who is a Jew?: Modern responses and opinions on the registration of children of mixed marriages

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Title: Jewish Identity: Who is a Jew?: Modern responses and opinions on the registration of children of mixed marriages
Author: Baruch Litvin; edited by Sidney B Hoenig
Publisher: Ktav Publishing House


Published originally in 1965, this reissue of a classic is now more relevant than ever. Jewish law legislates that a child is Jewish if the mother is Jewish, or one who had converted to Judaism according to specific halachic requirements. Jewish identity is thus not merely sociological and demographic (if Jews live in the land of Israel) nor ethnic (differences in customs, folkways, and liturgy and practice of Ashkenazi Jews vs. Sephardic Jews), but rather determined by a maternal hereditary religious blood covenant. The rabbis and the Talmud trace the determination of Jewish status through the mother from Deuteronomy 7:3-4. The paradigm of legitimate conversion to Judaism is Ruth who tells her mother-in-law Naomi, “Your people will be my people, where you go I will go, etc.,” and it is from Ruth and Boaz that the messiah is traced back to Judah and Tamar. The convert in Jewish law engages in (1) ritual immersion for purification in a mikveh, (2) circumcision for males, (3) acceptance of the mitzvot, and (4) offering a sacrifice, when the Temple stood, and will be rebuilt.

Tractate Demai requires a convert’s substantive acceptance of the mitzvoth – kabbalat ha-mitzvot. The Chazon Ish understands the acceptance of the mitzvot in its theological rather than practical sense, a convert must accept the chosen uniqueness of the Jewish people as it relates to our role in the world. This acceptance must be acknowledged al da’at bet din. Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik holds the halachic principle of kibush which would allow for a beit din and parents to convert a child without asking and rear the child in their own faith; thus the ger katan program. Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski is of the position that kabbalat ha-mitzvot need not be accompanied by full and complete observance but needs to be accompanied by observance of significant basics such as Shabbos observance, kashrut, and taharat ha-mishpaha. The details of this process are complex, with nuanced disputes among Rishonim and later Achronim, and clarified in codes such as the Tur, Mishneh Torah, and Shulchan Aruch.

In 1950 the state of Israel passed the Law of Return, by which “every Jew has the right to come to the country as an oleh” which was amended in 1970 to include anyone with a Jewish grandparent and their spouses, unless they have voluntarily renounced Judaism.

The question of Jews who are forcibly converted to Christianity and wish to return to Judaism is addressed by the 13th century Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg [1215-1295]. While Rambam holds Christianity to be a form of heretical idolatry while Islam is monotheistic, Maimonides [1135-1204] advised the Jews of Yemen living in a Islamic culture to commit martyrdom only in order to avoid the three cardinal sins: idolatry, sexual improprieties, or murder. A further question arises about 16th and 17th Century Jewish Conversos/Maranos who were forced to convert to Christianity by the Inquisition. More recently Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog retrieved and brought to Israel children hidden in Catholic monasteries during the Holocaust. Rabbi Ephraim Oshry deals with the halachic status of these children and many more in his work She’eilos Uteshuvos Mima’amakim.

The question of intermarriage can be found in the time of Ezra (458 BCE) who upon his return to the land of Israel from Babylonia found that returning Jewish exiles had married non-Israelite women, and children had been born to them. Ezra (10:3) made the Jewish men divorce their non-Jewish wives “according to the commandment of our G-d and according to Torah.” Ezra 9:2 and Nechemia 13:23 legislate that the offspring of non-Jewish wives are not Jewish and we are told that the marriage to a non-Jewish wife leads to the “diluting of the holy seed (zera ha-kodesh) among the people of the land” (Ezra 9:2). In the Mishnaic times while the house of Hillel would not marry with the house of Shamai, both were clearly Jewish. However marriage with the Samaritans was prohibited by the Tannaim. Prohibition of marriage with Christians followed on theological difference and historically on Christian acceptance of gentiles into the Church. When the Karaites arose in the middle Ages, most authorities prohibited marriage to this sect which only accepted the Written Law and not the Oral Law.

Today, particularly with the increase of intermarriage, questions arise such as “how should children born to a mixed marriage be registered in categories of religion and nationality by the Israeli government?” The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, along with other great rabbis, called for emending the law of return to require conversion according to an Orthodox traditional interpretation of Jewish law. However very recently, liberal groups, mis-citing the work of historian Shaye Cohen, have been urging definition of who is a Jew based on patrilineal descent. This is contrary to 19th century classical Reform Judaism which agreed in consensus with Orthodox leaders that the litmus test of the status of Jewish identity is if a child is born of a Jewish mother, as noted by Solomon Freehof. Also the large numbers of Russian Jews to Israel since the 1990s, many of whom do not have Jewish mothers, has led to its own controversies.

To further complicate matters, questions have arisen regarding Jewish communities that were separated from the major Jewish centers of the Middle Ages and early modern period, such as the Bene Israel Jews of India and the Ethiopian Beta Israel. While Rabbis Shlomo Goren and Ovadia Yosef ruled in 1973 that the Ethiopians were Jewish and deserved full rights in Israel, other rabbis such as Rabbis Bakshi-Doron and Amar required symbolic conversion of all Ethiopians. Other questions arise over the conversion of adopted children.

Jewish Identity: Who Is A Jew? is highly recommended as a primary source collection on the question of who is a Jew, though for a more complete understanding one can consult works by A.H. Shaki, Ruth Gavison, and Chaim Waxman.

This book shows that only by adhering to the time honored halachic standard of defining a Jew as one born of a Jewish mother, and accepting halachic conversions requiring that Judaism is a way of life, a lifetime of learning and commitment will we ensure its continuity. When Baruch Litvin first gathered the important documents in these volumes he saw with prophetic vision that the unity and sanctity of the Jewish people is dependent on the halachic definition of who is a Jew.

Among the rabbinic leaders included by Litvin in this new edition are Rabbis Yitzhak Isaac Halevi Herzog, Yehudah L Maimon, Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, Yecheskiel Sarne, Shlomo Zevin, Shlomo Goren, Shalom Isaak HaLevi, Zecharia Hakohen, Aaron Kotler, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Chaim Heller Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Immanual Jakobovits and Aryeh Neuman. The book includes a summation by Zvi Bernstein, an exchange between Ben Gurion and Simon A Dolgin, and a halachic study by Solomon Zeitlin. The new recent edition also includes an appreciation by the author’s daughter Jeanne Litvin, introduction by Lawrence H. Schiffman, and essays by Rabbis Michael J. Broyde, Mark Goldfeder, Kenneth Brander. The responsas of Rav Kotler and Rav Yitzhak HaLevy Herzog are printed in the original Hebrew text.

David B. Levy

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