Dear Rabbi Fried,
After meeting several atheists who described themselves as “culturally Jewish,” reading an article about an atheist (describing himself as “formerly Jewish” and vehemently advising “Jewish atheists” to drop the “Jewish” part and just be atheists) and thinking back to a college class about Judaism in America (where on the first day, the professor asked us if Judaism was a cultural, genetic or solely religious designation), I’ve begun to wonder what really makes a Jewish person.
Judaism is cultural as well as religious, but most religions have a cultural and religious aspect. Still, Christians who become atheists are not described as “Christian atheists.” (True, these formerly-Christian atheists might still celebrate their cultural holidays like Christmas, but many people celebrate Christmas as a cultural, and not religious, holiday.)
In short, my question is, does Judaism have a genetic component?
Some groups of Jews do share similar genetic markers, but not all. The “mixed multitude” of Jewish people spans the world and there are genetic differences among them, not even counting the people who have converted to Judaism. Despite hearing assertions that one can be “half-Jewish” because of one parent or another, I don’t believe that Judaism is strictly genetic. (This is a topic that is passionately debated.)
True, there are known to be genetic similarities in various groups of Jews. Although this may be true, it has no bearing on their or any other Jew’s Jewishness per se. The true marker of a Jew is a spiritual one, not a genetic one. To claim that Jews are a race is quite ludicrous, given the multitude of races within the fold of the Jewish people. The very fact that Judaism accepts converts of all races expresses unequivocally that one need not have “Jewish genes” to be Jewish!
This, then, leads us to your question: If Judaism is a spiritual and not genetic connection, how could those Jews who reject any spiritual connection to Judaism still be considered Jewish? This is a very timely as well as painful question especially in light of the recent, much publicized Pew Report which showed that over 30% of millennials identify as Jewish not based upon religion. (Many, sadly, reported their connection was more through Jewish humor than through Jewish religion!). Is, then, this growing population of nonspiritual, often atheistic Jews really considered Jewish?
The answer, exclaims the Talmud, the ultimate authority of Jewish law, is a resounding YES!
The Talmud cites a verse in the Book of Joshua which says “chata Yisrael” or “the nation of Israel has sinned.” The Talmud derives from the wording of the verse that even though the nation of Israel sins, they are still considered “Israel,” or Jews. The classical commentator Rashi explains that although a Jew may have sinned, the holy name of “Jew” remains upon him.
The sages explain that this applies even if a Jew has rejected Judaism completely and became an idol worshipper; he or she still remains Jewish. This is codified in the Code of Jewish Law: that if a Jewish idol worshipper returns to Judaism, there is no need for them to convert back to Judaism; they are already Jewish and simply strayed off the path, and with repentance for their wrongdoing now they are back home.
As you asked, how is this to be understood? If they reject their spiritual connection, what makes them Jewish? Why would such a Jew not need to convert back to Judaism?
The answer is: the Jewish soul.
When one is born Jewish (or properly converts to Judaism), one is endowed with a Jewish soul. That soul is the essence, the very fiber, of their Jewishness.
It is that soul, not physical Jewish genes, that connects Jews in a very deep way to all other Jews in the world. This is our link in the chain which connects us to our spiritual ancestors all the way back to Abraham. It is to the spiritual descendants of Abraham that God promised the Land of Israel, not to those of his genetic progeny. (Ishmael and Esau are of his genetic progeny but are not Jewish.)
I agree with you that there is no such thing as half-Jewish; either one has that soul or not (like there’s no such thing as half-pregnant!).
I hope this answers your question.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is dean of Dallas Area Torah Association.