August 20, 2019

Who Is a Jew? Whoever Says They're a Jew

“In the 21st century, the criteria for identifying a Jew remains contested. In the United States, Robert Mnookin points out, several critical challenges add a sense of urgency to the age-old debate.

Nearly half of American Jews are agnostics or atheists; 22% never and 19% seldom attend religious services; two-thirds see no conflict in being Jewish and not believing in God. While the United States is by no means free of antisemitism, the decline of institutionalized discrimination removes a “potent reminder” of Jewish identity. Many American Jews do not approve of Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank, and since the year 2000, 58% of Jews who married chose a non-Jewish spouse.

In The Jewish American Paradox: Embracing Choice in a Changing World, Mnookin, a professor and chair of the program on negotiation at Harvard Law School, draws on Jewish history, halachic standards and customs; on the stories of Erik Erickson, Madeleine Albright, and Brother Daniel (a Jew by birth, who converted to Catholicism, asked to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return and be registered as a Jew by nationality and a Catholic by religion), and his own experiences (as an agnostic who embraced his Jewishness rather late in life) to examine the meaning of Judaism.

Mnookin acknowledges that “religious commitment is a powerful identity anchor.” He maintains, however, that mandating adherence to Judaism as a religion as the sole criterion for Jewish identity will not work. After all, “born Jews” are not required to be religiously observant and conversion “is a formidable barrier to entry.” He rejects as well the ascribed status of the matrilineal rule, arguing that it produces “arbitrary and irrational results.” “

Read more

JJ Editor's Picks

"On Christmas Eve of 1966, Paddy Roy Bates, a retired British army major, drove a small boat with an outboard motor seven miles off the coast of England into the North Sea. He had sneaked out of his house in the middle of the night, inspired..."

"The book that changed lecturer, activist, and current presidential candidate Marianne Williamson’s life, A Course in Miracles, is not available for free online, but its workbook is. You can find it on the website for the Foundation for..."

"Here are two sets of statements from far-distant opposites in the climate change debate. The first is from Naomi Klein, who in her book This Changes Everything paints a bleak picture of a global socioeconomic system gone wrong: “There is a..."

"Voters who trust their government — and each other — are more supportive of ambitious welfare states than those who do not. Across nations, high levels of social trust correlate with high levels of social spending. The relationship between these..."

"With the presidential campaign under way, expect to hear a lot more about a shiny new toy of progressive economic thinking, “modern monetary theory.” It seems to be the only intellectual contortion that might allow candidates to promise..."

"“We don’t want to fight y’all. We’re not trying to go to jail.” That’s what A$AP Rocky, the 30-year-old New York City rapper, can be heard saying in a video of an encounter with strangers in Sweden that has ballooned into an international crisis."

"Israel’s top officials are considering denying Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib entry to their country due to their outspoken, controversial criticism of Israel’s policy toward Palestinians, not to mention their slurs against American Jews as..."

"For most of our lives, we have been conditioned to share a piece of personal information without a moment’s hesitation: our phone number. We punch in our digits at the grocery store to get a member discount or at the pharmacy to pick up..."