The Jewish People, A Jew or Not a Jew?

In by sherzig

A rabbi tells a story of his days in rabbinical school. As part of his curriculum, the professor asked his students to list the names of the ten greatest Jews of the 20th century. The students wrote such names as Einstein, Freud, and Herzl.

Upon completing their lists, the professor asked them to name the synagogue each of these great Jews attended. In most cases, the students could not place synagogues with the people they had listed. Yet, in the minds of the students, there was no question of the Jewishness of the people they had named. The point being made was that practice had little to do with identity. According to the professor, Jewishness should be determined by devotion to the Jewish people and the community, not by practice.

A young Jewish boy conducted his own survey—nothing official and by no means scientific. It was merely a point of interest to him, but his standards were high as he quizzed his friends. “Did you eat anything before coming to synagogue?” He then posed the question to other Jewish young men as they took their seats in the synagogue. The time and setting were of utmost importance—it was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, regarded by many Jewish people as the most holy day of the year. When his friends answered positively, the young boy immediately pronounced the harshest of judgments: “Goy! ” (Gentile). In that young man’s mind, breaking the command to fast on that day disqualified a person from being a Jew.

In 1968, the Israeli Ministry of Interior refused to identify Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Shalit’s two children as Jewish because their mother was a Gentile. Shalit argued that the government of Israel had no right to use religion in judging nationality. He felt that religious observance is not part of the concept of Jewishness. After much debate and argument, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in his favor. That decision lasted for only one day because of incredible opposition by one of the prominent although small religious political parties. The party threatened to topple the government by pulling out of the ruling coalition in the government unless the court reversed itself. It did.

The question of Jewish identity is a hotly contested topic. It is a virtual tug-of-war involving Jewish theologians, rabbis, lawyers, judges, and government officials. Is a person Jewish because he or she identifies with a Jewish community? Is a person a Jew because he or she follows a certain code of behavior or practice? Can a Jew still be a Jew and live outside of Israel? Does it matter what he or she believes or does to be classified as a Jew? What about children born into a home where one parent is Jewish and the other is Gentile? So, who is a Jew? Is it a religion or a race? Is it a nationality or an ethnicity?

If Judaism is defined by practice, the question must be asked, Whose practice? Consider that the structure of Judaism has seldom been stagnant. Today, for instance, there are no animal sacrifices, which means no priestly functions. The reason is, of course, that the Temple has been but a memory since its destruction in 70 A.D. In addition, the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots have been replaced by the Hasidim, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionists. Each group differs in practice, yet each strongly believes itself to be Jewish. Also, consider that intermarriage is at an all-time high, resulting in scores of children who identify with the Jewish people. In which category should they be placed?

Today Israel recognizes only the Orthodox view as binding. The views of the other groups are deemed illegitimate. The Orthodox view states that if the mother is Jewish, the children will be Jewish. If the mother is a Gentile, the children are regarded as Gentiles. There are two reasons for this position. First, the mother has a tremendous impact on her children, presumably because she spends the bulk of family time with them. Second, we can be absolutely certain of the maternity of a child but not as certain of the paternity. Thus, the child of a Gentile mother who resides in Israel, serves in the Israeli army, and lives in an atmosphere of Jewishness, is not considered Jewish. However, a child of two Jewish parents who has no desire to participate in or practice Judaism, who might not even believe in God, is considered Jewish.

Also considered part of the identity debate are the several thousand people who have two Jewish parents but have committed themselves to follow the Jew from Nazareth—Jesus—whom they know to be the Messiah of Israel. According to rabbinic law, they are still Jews—albeit meshumed (traitors). According to the Israeli Supreme Court, however, Jews forfeit their “right of return” to the land of Israel as citizens if they make known their belief in Jesus. This position has been challenged in Israeli court on more than one occasion, but each time the ruling has been against the believer.

The biblical standard seems to agree with the rabbis and contradict the Israeli Supreme Court. First, being a Jew is a matter of blood. In light of the Holocaust, that statement may frighten some people. But a thorough understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant makes it clear that all people who are descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are Jewish. In the Jewish Scriptures there are numerous examples of disobedient Jews. That truth does not annul the fact that they are still Jews. That logic should follow that practice—or even lack of it—does not remove Jewishness.

Further, when a child is born into a mixed marriage, that child should be considered Jewish. There is biblical precedent with David, who is generally recognized as Israel’s greatest Jewish king. He had two Gentile women in his genealogy: Ruth, his great-grandmother, and Rahab, his grandmother.

To be a Jew is a good thing. To be a believing Jew is the best. The first brings an identification to the Chosen People of God. The second brings a person to the eternal place of God.

Hillel: The Kind Pharisee

Jewish tradition states that the oral law was transmitted from Moses to Joshua, from Joshua to the elders, from the elders to the prophets, and from the prophets to the men of the great assembly (Knesseth Ha-Gadolah). The members of the great assembly, called Soferim, or scribes, were believed to have originated with Ezra and Nehemiah after the Babylonian Captivity. The identities of many of the scribes are unknown, but they left a legacy to “be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and build a fence around the law.” The “fence” would insure that the laws of God would not be broken because the laws of religious men would be placed “in front” of them. After several centuries, the Sanhedrin (consisting of 71 members) emerged and continued the unbroken line back to Moses.

The leaders of the Sanhedrin were the Rosh or Nasi (president) and the Ab Beth Din (Father of the House of Judgment). Together they were called Zugoth or pairs of teachers. They passed two laws that influence Judaism to this day. The first was compulsory provision for the education of children with no fathers, and the second was that there be a school in every community with at least ten families. These laws would guarantee that young Jewish boys would grow up knowing their prayers and Torah. “Torah Tzivah Lanu Moshe Morasha Kehilat Ya’akov”—The Torah which Moses taught us is the inheritance of the Jewish people.

The rule of the Sanhedrin by the Zugoth lasted for five generations. The most famous of these great teachers was Hillel. Referred to as the “elder” (Zaken) or the “Babylonian,” he served as the last Rosh of the Sanhedrin from 30 B.C. to 10 A.D. These years were strategic in Israel’s religious history. Herod was ruling in Jerusalem, the Pharisees and Sadducees had begun to develop gaping rivalries, the priesthood was deteriorating, and Messianic hopes were high. Hillel’s rise to leadership came as a result of three notable characteristics: his love for the Torah, his love for wisdom, and his love for mankind. Stories about Hillel abound, and they usually highlight one of these characteristics.

At the age of 40, Hillel left Babylon to pursue studies in Israel, in the school of Sehmaya and Abtalyon. Unable to pay the admission fee to the academy, tradition asserts that he climbed to the roof to a skylight, where he could hear the lectures of the great teachers. Deeply engrossed in a lecture, the young scholar did not notice that heavy snow had begun to fall. When the teachers looked up to see the snow through the skylight, they saw the shadow of a man. The snow had completely covered him, but his love of learning was so intense that he never noticed. Hillel pursued any field of study that would help him to magnify and exalt the Torah. He became so highly regarded that it was said of him, “He was worthy of having the Sabbath profaned on his behalf.” It is even said that he personally instructed Jesus of Nazareth.

Hillel made two notable contributions to Judaism. He was the creator of the tannaim (rabbis). The tannaim interpreted the Torah for the next 210 years, until the completion of the Mishna. He also divided the oral law into six divisions that provided the framework for the tannaim to complete the Mishna. In addition, he instituted seven middot, or measurements, to study the Talmud. These rules are used to this day.

The Ab Beth Din, or second in command to Hillel, was a sage named Shammai. He too was highly respected, but his views of the laws and his personality were more stringent than those of Hillel. There are many stories concerning differences between Shammai and Hillel. For instance, a heathen came to Shammai and asked, “Can you tell me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot?” Shammai thought the man was making sport of him and drove him away. The man then went to Hillel and asked the same question. Hillel’s response: “Do not unto others what you would not have others do unto you. All the rest is commentary.” The man was amazed (Shabbath 31:1). This became the golden rule for Judaism—a negative formulation of the golden rule given by Jesus in Matthew 7:12.

For the most part, Hillel’s rulings were accepted over Shammai’s—many believe because of his simplicity, kindness, and humility. According to the Midrash, “The words of both schools are the words of the living God, but the Law follows the ruling of the school of Hillel because the Hillelites were gentle and modest, and studied both their own opinions and opinions of the other school and humbly mentioned the words of the other school before theirs.”

One of Hillel’s most important rulings concerned forgiveness of debts in the sabbatical (seventh) year. A lender would not lend money if he knew the sabbatical year was near. Hillel did not want to break a command of God, yet circumstances were such that hardships were created. He thus ruled that a loan could be given without being forgiven if a third party, such as a court, collected the money and gave it to the lender. Hillel found a way out.

That “way out” characterizes Hillel’s style and Judaism to this very day. It certainly is indicative of another famous statement attributed to Hillel: “If I am not for myself—who is for me? and being for my ownself—what am I? and if not now—when?”

It is important to understand Hillel and his teachings because they give insight into the way Jewish people think religiously. There is no better illustration of this than in the closing paragraph of The Jewish People, the elementary history book used in my Hebrew school (italics added):

Hillel’s method of explaining the law appealed to the people, and his decisions were accepted everywhere. Not only his own generation, but future generations as well, lived by the rules Hillel had made. When times changed, other teachers followed Hillel’s method. They explained the laws so that people could live by the Torah even when conditions changed.

There is no doubt that Hillel was a knowledgeable, kind, and pious person—a man due great respect. His method of adaptation to the changing times was the prescription for a move toward the only truth. Times certainly change, but God’s Word never does.