Who is a Jew? (Legal Issues)

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Israeli law, the Law of Return, traditional and liberal halakhah (Jewish law), all address the "Who is a Jew?" question, and their conclusions have many practical ramifications. Traditional Jewish law stipulates that marrying a non-Jew is forbidden and that the marriage is non-binding.

While some Reform rabbis will officiate at intermarriages, Orthodox, Conservative, and some Reform rabbis will not. In Israel, getting married and being buried in a Jewish cemetery can only be done if the person in question is considered legally Jewish. In order to be counted in a minyan, a prayer quorum, one must be Jewish, and so too if one wants to be called up to the Torah for an aliyah. So who chooses who is a Jew?

Historically, Judaism has held that a Jew is anyone born to a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism in a halakhic manner (that is, according to Jewish law). A halakhic conversion usually means that one is converting out of personal conviction--he or she believes the Torah to be the absolute truth--and has studied Jewish laws and traditions.

After this study period, a convert must be approved by a beit din--a court of observant Jews--and immerse in a mikveh (ritual pool). Men must also receive a circumcision or, if already circumcised, hatafat dam brit (symbolically taking a drop of blood).

In the Conservative movement, conversion is similar to the traditional approach, though not identical. There is a specific course of study for the prospective convert, usually about 18 weeks, conducted in a private or classroom setting. If a Jewish mate is involved, he or she is expected to attend the course as well. Many Conservative rabbis will accept converts who are motivated by marriage, but some abstain from this practice.

The Reform movement encourages those who want to be married to a Jew to convert and the couple is required to attend classes and events together in preparation for the conversion. Prospective converts are paired with mentors within the community who they can look to for guidance leading up to the actual conversion. Many Reform rabbis don't require an immersion in the mikveh or brit milah for men, instead presenting the rituals as options, and allowing the convert to choose what seems most appropriate.

In more recent times, new dimensions have emerged to the discussion of who is legally considered Jewish. In 1983 the Reform movement passed a resolution that accepted the Jewish identity of children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. Recognizing what is known as patrilineal descent, the Reform movement ruled that these children were Jewish if they participated in the various Jewish lifecycle ceremonies which usually mark the life stages of a Jew.

In Israel, the question of Jewish legal status has become even more controversial. Anyone with a single Jewish grandparent or a Jewish spouse is allowed to move to Israel under the Law of Return. But the Israeli Chief Rabbinate controls the marriage process for Jews in Israel, and their definition of Jewishness accords with traditional halakhah. Thus, it is common to find people who are granted citizenship as Jews under the Law of Return, but are unable to legally marry as Jews (or marry Jews) in Israel. 

In addition, while the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that a person who has undergone a Reform or Conservative conversion abroad must be considered Jewish vis-à-vis the Law of Return, liberal conversions are not recognized by the Orthodox rabbinate.

In 1998 the Jewish Agency established a conversion institute with members of all three major movements. Teachers at the institute come from the three major denominations of Judaism, but the actual conversion is left to the Orthodox courts. The Institute for Jewish Studies today offers 500 classes to help encourage Jewish study as well as conversion. The final step of conversion, however, is moving slowly and is bottlenecked, with only a few hundred conversions performed annually.

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