“Your Word Is Truth”
Who Is a Jew?
“WHO is a Jew?” is a question that in recent months has been made prominent in the public press. From what has been published one thing is certain, and that is that neither the Jews in Israel nor the Jews scattered abroad are agreed on who is a Jew.
What started all the heated discussion was a verdict by the Israeli Supreme Court. In a 5-to-4 decision it held, in effect, that anyone was a Jew who claimed to be a Jew, even though he was an atheist and not born of a Jewish mother. However, Orthodox Jewry maintains that Jewish religion and nationality are inseparable. Because of the uproar that this verdict created in Israel a proposition was placed before the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, that the definition of Jewishness in the Halakah, the body of Jewish religious law, be henceforth declared the only legal one. The Halakah defines a Jew as one born of a Jewish mother or a convert to Judaism. This was made law on March 10, 1970.
However, “the Government will give non-Jewish members of families coming in under the Law of the Return the privileges of the Jewish immigrant, including social and economic benefits as well as the right to automatic citizenship. But not being Jews under the proposed definition, they would not be able to marry or be divorced, matters that come under religious authority.” So reports the New York Times, February 2, 1970, in an article entitled “Split on Defining ‘Jew’ Grows in Israel.”
Why many in Israel are opposed to the government’s ruling is apparent from the experience of a woman who came to Israel from Eastern Europe. Born in a Jewish household but of a non-Jewish mother, she had suffered for years in a Nazi concentration camp as a Jewess. Now in Israel she is denied the right to marriage and divorce because she did not have a Jewish mother nor did she convert to Judaism. She said she intended to leave Israel, for, says she, “I would rather be a Jew abroad than a Gentile in Israel!”
Even as the Jews in Israel are divided over this question, so are Jews in other lands. America’s largest Orthodox rabbinic body condemned the position taken by the Israeli Supreme Court. According to them, “without religious cohesiveness, the unifying bond of Jewish peoplehood will be diluted irreparably.”
But bodies of American Reform Judaism:a asked the Israeli government to resist the popular clamor for a change in the ruling of the Supreme Court. To make the Orthodox view of who is a Jew the law of the land, they argued, “would exclude tens of thousands of loyal American Jews, active in Jewish life, who have been converted by non-Orthodox rabbis or whose mothers were so converted.”—New York Times, January 29, 1970.
Since neither the Jews in Israel nor the Jews outside of Israel can agree on who is a Jew, where can we find a satisfactory answer? In the Word of God, the Bible, which contains the early history of the Jews. It tells us first of all that Abraham was a Hebrew. (Gen. 14:13) All the descendants of his son Isaac also came to be known as Hebrews. Those who sprang from the family of Jacob or Israel, Abraham’s grandson, were also known as Israelites. Where does the name “Jew” come in?—Gen. 32:28; Ex. 9:7.
The term Jew comes from the name of Jacob’s fourth son, Judah, and at first applied only to his family and descendants. The first one to use the term “Jews” was the writer of Second Kings (16:6; 18:26, 28; 25:25). That the two terms, Hebrew and Jew, were considered synonymous as early as the seventh century B.C.E. is apparent from Jeremiah 34:9, where we read: “Let each one his manservant and each one his maidservant, Hebrew man and Hebrew woman, go free, in order not to use them as servants, that is, a Jew, who is his brother.”
After the exile to Babylon the term Jew was applied to those Hebrews who returned from there. (Ezra 4:12) Still later, the term was used to distinguish Hebrews from Gentiles in all parts of the Medo-Persian Empire. (Esther 3:6, 13) Gentiles who converted to Judaism were also called Jews, although it appears that generally in the Hebrew Scriptures the term “alien resident” describes such converts. In the Christian Greek Scriptures converts to the Jewish religion are distinguished by the term “proselytes.”—Esther 8:17; Num. 9:14; Acts 2:10.
Additionally, in the Christian Greek Scriptures the term Jew at times takes on a symbolic or spiritual significance. Are there Jews, spiritually speaking? Yes, even as the apostle Paul tells at Romans 2:28, 29: “For he is not a Jew who is one on the outside, nor is circumcision that which is on the outside upon the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one on the inside, and his circumcision is that of the heart by spirit, and not by a written code. The praise of that one comes, not from men, but from God.” Here the apostle might be said to be making a play on the meaning of the name Jew, which means “praise.” Paul was here saying that one who serves Jehovah God from the heart is a real Jew. And by a play on words he shows that such a one also receives praise from God.
Supporting this position is the point he makes at Romans, chapter 4. There he shows that Abraham is the father of all those exercising faith like that of Abraham, and such are therefore spiritual Jews. Similarly, at Galatians 3:29 he states that all who belong to Christ, who are members of his body, anointed by God’s holy spirit, are in fact Abraham’s seed and therefore also Jews, that is, spiritual Jews.
Further supporting this position that true Christians are spiritual Jews is the prophecy at Jeremiah 31:31, where Jehovah God foretold that he would make a new covenant with the houses of Israel and Judah. Jesus showed that this new covenant was made with his followers. (Matt. 26:27, 28) And the apostle Paul repeatedly shows that the new covenant applies to Christians. Jesus Christ is “the mediator of a new covenant,” and his followers are “ministers of a new covenant.”—Heb. 12:24; 2 Cor. 3:6.
Well, then, who really is a Jew within the meaning of the foregoing scriptures, and particularly the words of the apostle Paul? Does it make any difference? It surely does, for God’s Word condemns those “who say they are Jews, and yet they are not but are lying.” (Rev. 3:9) How can we tell who is a Jew? By noting the meaning of the term Jew. And what is that? “Praise.” So it can be confidently stated that the real Jews, within the meaning of the Christian Greek Scriptures, are those who both praise Jehovah God and who receive praise from him. Such praisers are also witnesses to his name and kingdom.
a The Jews in the United States are divided into three main groupings: The Orthodox (and the ultra-Orthodox, such as the Hasidim), the Reform Jews, who do not accept the inspiration of the Bible, and the Conservatives, who are halfway between the two extremes.