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May 29, 2015 / 11 Sivan, 5775
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Title: Jewish Identity: Who is a Jew?: Modern responses and opinions on the registration of children of mixed marriages

book-jewish-identity

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.

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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.

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