What Makes Someone Jewish?

In Blogs by David M. Levy5 Comments


There are three Hebrew words used in Scripture when identifying the Jewish people. First is the word Hebrew (Genesis 14:13) that comes from the word “Eber,” who is a grandson of Shem (10:24; 11:16). Abram is first called “the Hebrew” in Genesis 14:13. Second is the name God gave Jacob: Israel (32:28; 35:10). The word Israel means “Prince with God.” Jacob had 12 sons that became known as “Israelites.” Third is the name Jew formed from the name Judah. The men of Judah were first called “Jews” by Syria (2 Kings 16:6 KJV). During the Babylon captivity (606–539 BC), “Hebrew” and “Jew” became identifying names of what became known as the Jewish people or Israelites. Therefore, the words Hebrew, Israelite, and Jew are used interchangeably to refer to the Jewish people.

Race, Religion, Nation, or Something Else?

Currently, there is a wide diversity of opinions among Jewish people on how to identify who is Jewish. Years ago, a polling of Jewish people was taken on the identity of what determined a Jewish person. Here is the breakdown: 23 percent considered themselves Jewish because of birth; 13 percent said you are Jewish if you are a citizen in Israel or observe the Jewish faith; 11 percent said if you are raised Jewish; 19 percent said born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism; 12 percent said born of a Jewish mother or father; and 9 percent could not define a Jew.

The words Hebrew, Israelite, and Jew are used interchangeably to refer to the Jewish people.

Judaism cannot be called a race because there are Jewish people of a number of different races. Judaism cannot be identified as a nation because there are Jewish people born outside of Israel and citizens of their native countries. Judaism cannot be identified as a religion because there are Jewish people that do not practice Judaism and still call themselves Jewish. And there are non-religious Jews that do not practice any religion nor believe in God. They identify as being Jewish because they follow the Jewish traditions. Furthermore, the word religion, referring to the Jewish people, is not mentioned once in the Jewish Scriptures.

Jewish Through the Mother, Father, or Both?

Today Judaism teaches that any person born of a Jewish mother (regardless of the father’s lineage) or officially converts to Judaism is acknowledged as being Jewish. This position seemed to be established after the Babylonian Captivity when Jewish people put away their foreign wives and started to immigrate back to Israel (Ezra 10:2–44). The position was developed over the centuries and is the law of Judaism today. But to say one who is born of a Jewish mother is Jewish has not really answered the question. What makes your mother Jewish? Your mother might claim to be an atheist or follow a demonic cult and give no belief or allegiance to the God of Israel or the biblical description of being Jewish.

Scripture indicates that one can be born of either father or mother to be considered Jewish.

The identity of Jewish people must be according to the study of Jewish Scripture in the divinely inspired Bible called the Tanakh, an acronym for the three sections of the Jewish Bible (Torah [law], Nevi’im [prophets], and Ketuvim [writings]). Scripture indicates that one can be born of either father or mother to be considered Jewish. 

For example, Moses, Joseph, David, and Solomon took to themselves Gentile wives. Moses married a Midianite, Joseph an Egyptian, David a Philistine, and Solomon married many wives from Gentile nations. Their offspring were considered to be Jewish. In fact, even in Jewish history people were identified as being Jewish without tracing their line through the mother, but only based on a paternal relationship; or the father’s descent through the male line. Additionally, tribal rights, inheritance of land, and the qualification as a priest were determined through the father. Today, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism teach that a child is considered to be Jewish based on paternal or maternal descent.

In the Bible, the 12 tribes are called Israelites because of their father, Jacob, and also the “sons of Israel” not “daughters of Israel.” It is the father’s male biological identification that is followed and not the mother’s. Remember, not all the 12 sons of Jacob (i.e. Israel) had Jewish mothers. For example, Rachel asked Jacob to bear her children through her maid Bilhah (not Jewish), and she bore Dan and Naphtali (Genesis 30:3–8). Leah asked her maid Zilpah to bear her children and she gave birth to Gad and then Asher through a relationship with Jacob (30:9–13). Neither of the maids was from a Jewish lineage, but a wedding gift from Laban (29:24; 29). “This practice was common and has been verified by the Nuzi documents. There, a childless wife gave to her husband a secondary wife who might bear a son, who would become the heir and would be regarded as the son of the true wife (Gordon 1940). Since the Nuzi texts date from the patriarchal period and represent Hurrian customs, it can be assumed it was not an unusual practice, though quite strange in view of Mosaic law and later practices. For Rachel, Bilhah bore Dan and Naphtali (Gen. 30:3–8; 35:25; 46:23–25).”1 Although this was considered a legal practice at the time, remember that neither Dan, Naphtali, Gad, nor Asher had Jewish mothers. Thus, can they really be considered Jewish?

Who Is Jewish?

According to the Hebrew Scripture it would be reasonable to conclude that one would be considered to be Jewish at the time of birth from either a Jewish mother or father. It would also be reasonable to conclude that one who converts to Judaism would be considered Jewish just by following and embracing the decrees set forth by Judaism. 

It would also be reasonable to conclude that one who converts to Judaism would be considered Jewish just by following and embracing the decrees set forth by Judaism.

For example, the various branches within Judaism often do not agree on doctrinal beliefs. Orthodox and non-Orthodox vary greatly, and Orthodox Jews do not believe one who is outside Orthodox Judaism (like a Reform or Reconstructionist) is accepted as a Jew. 

Even if one is born of a Jewish mother, and later in life adopts or converts to another religious faith, that person ceases to be a Jew according to some branches of the Jewish faith. This is precisely true if one accepts Jesus as the Messiah and becomes a Christian. 

This seems to be incongruous with the original definition of Judaism. Is Judaism just a matter of birth of a Jewish mother or simply converting legally to Orthodox Judaism in keeping with the Rabbinic Law of Judaism? According to the Hebrew Scriptures, what determines a person to be a Jew is simply by being born of a Jewish mother or father and following the teachings found in the Scriptures.

1 Freedman, D. N., Herion, G. A., Graf, D. F., Pleins, J. D., & Beck, A. B. (Eds.). (1992). In The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday. Page 1. Exported from Logos Bible Software.

About the Author
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David M. Levy

David M. Levy is the media resource specialist and a Bible teacher for The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry.

Comments 5

  1. I wondered what do you do with people whose DNA identifies Jewish people being in their family tree, such is my case and I had no way to know that until I was tested. But I am happy that I do have a distant Jewish connection.

  2. Orthodox Jews would often respond that gentile wives would most likely just convert, so it would still come through a Jewish mother, and the reason it’s not brought up is because it would’ve been obvious to people at the time. What would you say to this response? is it legitimate? They would also argue that since the mother carries the child, and takes primary care of its physical needs for the first few years of its life, after birth, and since anyone could be its father, but the identity of its mother, would most likely be known the parent or something to that effect; I will pretend that I fully understand the arguments, but it seems it might be something like that, then the child would still be Jewish because of the Jewish mother. What would you say to these responses? But I do have a 1.6% Ashkenazy, DNA sequence, possibly from my fathers line, and if I could have answers to this question, it would be great. Granted, maybe I’m putting too much stock into this, but it’s still comforting. God bless. Peace be upon Jerusalem.

  3. This has been a discussion in my family for years as my Grandmother converted to Judaism
    My Grandfather was born into an Orthodox family,when they Married his family sat Shiva. She was a true convert.Spoke Hebrew, President of Hadassah, Jewish Woman’s League & celebrated all Holidays. My children question their lineage! Thank you for this information!It is a great article for me to share. Sincerely

  4. The Jewish People are in fact a Nation – Am Yisrael – The Nation of Israel. What makes someone Jewish is being born to a Jewish mother OR converting with an reputable Orthodox rabbinical court. This has been the Jewish people’s own definition of who is a Jew for millennia. There have been attempts by some modern Western Jews to twist and bend the definition to include those in their families that they would like to be considered Jewish or “felt” Jewish which did gain some traction in America – but ultimately failed as their attempts have never been recognized and will never be recognized by the State of Israel and all demographers predict that the future of the Jewish diaspora will be increasingly traditional and Orthodox as less committed sub-groups within the broader community inter-marry and assimilate into the broader culture.

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