February 17, 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.” “

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