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To a Child of a Jewish Father

To a Child of a Jewish Father

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Question:

My mother was Protestant. My father's father was Catholic, but his mother was Jewish. My family survived the holocaust in Europe, with great struggle.

I know that by traditional Jewish law I am not Jewish, but I feel that I more than qualify to be a Jew. I read books about Jews. I support Israel. I even had a bar mitzvah. The worst part is that the people who tell me I am not Jewish are rabbis! They said I would have to convert to Judaism. I do not understand why they say this. My family survived the greatest atrocities in the history of the Jews. How can I convert, when I feel that I already am Jewish....

Response:

In Biblical Israel, every citizen was landed. If you were a descendant of one of the twelve tribes, you owned a plot of land. If you sold it, it came back to you--or to your inheritors--on the jubilee year, which occurred every 50 years. You were tied to the land and the land was tied to you. Inheritance of land was through the paternal line--just as tribal affiliation is patrilineal.

I'm mentioning this because, in Torah law, a very similar relationship exists between the Torah and a Jew, between a Jew and his Jewishness. A Jew can abandon the Torah, but the Torah never abandons him--eventually it will return, if not to him, then to his children, if not to his children, then to his children's children. So too, a Jew may imagine that he has abandoned his Jewishness, and yet always remains a Jew--as do the children of that Jew, and the children of those children.

There are two distinctions, however, between the relationship of a Jew to his share of the land and the relationship of a Jew to Torah and Jewishness. One is that it is possible to sell one's plot of land--although it will still return, for that period of time, it is sold. Torah and Jewishness, on the other hand, are not for sale. No matter how hard a Jew may try, he never truly can let go of either.

The other distinction is that Jewishness--and therefore the relationship to Torah--is not patrilineal, but matrilineal. Perhaps these two distinctions are related: The maternal line strikes much deeper to the essence of who you are, and that essence is something that not only will always return, but can never truly be abandoned.

Despite all this, the child whose father married out of his people can still claim his father's heritage. His challenge is greater than the child whose Jewish mother brought him by default into her people. In his case, it is up to him to decide whether he wants to make the commitment to join his father's people and to fulfill all the obligations the Torah places upon this nation. He must also become circumcised and immerse in a mikvah before a qualified bet din.

If this is the path you wish to follow, I am willing to assist to whatever degree is within my capacity. If not, it is good to have you as a friend of the Jewish People. The righteous of humankind, no matter to which family, tribe or nation they belong, all have a share in the world to come.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Jeff March 24, 2017

That's one way to look at it but thank you Reply

Matthew Austin, Texas March 24, 2017

To Jeff To add to Rabbi Kaplan's comment, conversion in the fullness of Orthodox,(the gold standard) is a lot of work and adjustments. For example, you have to live within walking distance from the synagogue. You will also be expected to pray regularly as part of the community. That's during the week as well as on Shabbat. And on Shabbat, you'll be expected to attend Friday evening, Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon/Evening Services with the Sabbath ending ceremony called Havdalah.

I haven't even scratched the surface of all the things you will be expected to know and do. For me personally, I was going to conversion classes until I saw that my motives for doing so we're not the right ones.

As for why no one told you that you're not "technically Jewish", perhaps your Grandparents were of a Reform background, and thus considered you Jewish. Reply

Rabbi Aryeh Moshen Brooklyn, NY March 24, 2017

To Jeff Judaism, Orthodox Judaism, demands a lot from those who practice it and from those who convert into it. Rabbis have ways to weed out those who are not a good fit. Therefore any rabbi whom you approach will try to see if he can get you to drop out before he takes you seriously. Someone who really wants to be Jewish would not be dissuaded so easily. Reply

Jeff Wolfe NY March 23, 2017

My grandparents on my father's side were immigrant Jews from Russia which in my mind, made me half Jewish until recently.
I was planning on moving to Isreal under the "Law of Return" at the urging of my grandparents before they died, going as far as to begin Hebrew language instruction as well as finalizing my financial plan.
I wanted to start the process of conversion (mom did not allow when I was younger) but when I approached a local Rabbi on the subject, he seemed to try to discourage the idea which has left me a bit faithless.....and a little angry. I can't help but wonder why no one told me that I may except my father's faith, but may not be excepted by the people of that faith. It all leads to confusion for me so I'm sort of seeking a second opinion.
Thanks Reply

Rabbi Aryeh Moshen Brooklyn, NY January 19, 2017

To Robin Having one Jewish grandfather would make you eligible for the Law of Return in Israel. One might ask why Israel should accept people who are not Jewish, but they do. You would have no problem getting to Israel, getting settled in Israel, or getting a job in Israel. There are even cemeteries that are open to Jews and Gentiles both. The standard problems you may faced are faced by most Olim, Jewish or otherwise. Most people speak Hebrew at work, many documents have to be translated to Hebrew, including diplomas. Certifications are not automatically given, although many are easy to transfer. Banking and credit cards are slightly different. Otherwise, you will find a typical Western country that does not differ much from the UK or the USA as they do from eachother. Reply

Scotty Chicago January 8, 2017

Gd, Israel, and Torah are one.

Gd's Word is Torah. Being without Torah is being without Gd.

Torah makes a Jew "Jewish"--and if that Jew's mother's mother's mother are all Jews, and the Jew rejects Torah, that Jew is a heretic.

Even the Reform Jews say that they honor Torah, and read from the Torah every week. Reply

Hirsch London January 3, 2017

Being a Jew is not about ancestry. It's about your soul. Your Holocaust ancestry doesn't mean that you personally stood at Sinai and said, "Yes! We will do and we will listen!" when Gd offered us Gd's word in Torah.
If you reject Torah, then you are saying no to Gd.

If you want to say yes to Gd, then say it. Go through the learning process that you missed in childhood. Get circumcised. Be prepared to say "Yes I will keep the Torah!" Then your soul, like the soul of all Jews, will have promised, not only at Sinai but here and now, in this life, to live by Torah.

If you refuse to make this promise, then maybe you refused at Sinai too. Or you were not there, and now in this life you finally are given the choice to say yes to Gd.

And you want to say no? If what you want is to say NO to Gd, instead of yes to Gd, then clearly you do not want to be a Jew.

A Jew is someone who, at some time (4000 years ago or today) has said yes to Gd's Torah. Everybody else can choose instead to be a Noahide, which is great. Go for it! Reply

Robin USA December 30, 2016

Jewish descent..? Yes, I say, no says the laws and rules... Absurd! My father was born from a Jewish father and mother...His family lineage comes from all Jewish relatives born in Poland. My mother was Catholic as well as her previous lineage. This makes me give pause to why I feel excluded from being "Jewish "...My Grandparents took me to services every week at the Temple until their deaths. My father and his family were all of Polish Jewish decent. I cannot understand why the Israeli government choose to deny me to Right to Return status because my mother was not a Jew. So I'll continue to embrace my right to call myself of not only Polish decent, but of full Jewish decent...Regardless of what everyday people, rulers, and the Israeli government have to say. Personally, I am shocked at the irony in all of this! So I'll honor my right to grieve at my
Jewish relatives who died at the death camps en masse, while the Israeli government turns their backs on me and my children. Reply

Bernie Brooklyn December 25, 2016

The Torah is Gd's Word. If you are a Jew and if you truly trust in Gd, you will be drawn to Torah and you will do accordingly.

If you dislike Torah, which is Gd's Word, how can you pretend to care about Gd? In that case, it's a good thing you are not a Jew, since Jews who disobey Torah are liable for disobedience to it.

Non-Jews are not subject to Torah, so it is "safe" for them to disregard it. Reply

Aaron Schlesinger New York December 25, 2016

Understanding lineage and what conversion is So much profound desire and confusion.

Let me add something-

Being Jewish is something you have inside you. You do or don't. If you enter into the covenant where nobody else in your line had prior, you have Neshema that was calling out to Hashem.

'Converting' is learning to do Mitzvot with as many actions as you possibly can. To bring Hashem's love and wisdom into this world to make it fit for Hashem to be present. It's a way life, a way of spirit, and a way of being. I've always felt this is so much more than something as boxed in as a 'religion'.

If you've discovered your lineage is paternal, maternal, or otherwise, learning to do Mitzvot is an honor, blessing, and a Mitzvah in of itself. You have my love as a brother regardless. Reply

Anonymous Henderson December 25, 2016

Thats disappointing I have the same issue. Even though I am clearly of Jewish descent it was my Father who was Jewish. It doesn't count if my grandmother and family were killed in Auschwitz. Seems to be a betrayal. However, despite what the rabbinical view us I am a descendant of David, by lineage. So I will trust in God, not the Torah. Reply

Anonymous NJ December 13, 2016

need Torah/Bible reference Where is it clearly stated in the scriptures (Torah) - without an esoteric reading of the text - that "jewishness" can only be passed through the mother? My father is Jewish and my mother is a gentile. Our Rabbi said that I am Jewish through my father. I do not want a Talmudic interpretation since the Torah trumps any commentary. Reply

Reuven Seattle June 22, 2016

It is not enough that the doctor be "orthodox". In fact, he does not need to be orthodox. He does need to be halachically Jewish. But then he needs to take the standard training that every mohel learns. A mohel does circumcisions every day, or at least every week--far more often than most MD's do them. The mohel is the expert, and the MD is the amateur, unless the MD gets the mohel's training. But an MD with mohel training IS a mohel. He is called upon often enough that he, too, is an expert. Reply

Rebecca Kansas City June 22, 2016

Mohel malpractice??? When we are expecting a child, we ask the obstetrician not to circumcise the baby. There have been two or more famous cases where he did it anyway, and the parents sued the doctor in a regular US court. It was such a strange lawsuit, in the eyes of the press, that it was reported all over the United States. The last time I heard of such a case was years ago. I guess the famous case alerted all the doctors to be careful to be less cavalier about the parents' wishes. But most MD's are already careful so there have never been very many lawsuits about wrongfully timed circumcisions. Reply

Dr. Harry Hamburger Miami June 20, 2016

Thanks Rabbi Moshen. I guess you would have to call an improper circumcision "Mohel Malpractice". I wonder if like medical malpractice you can sue for this? Would the lawsuit be in a Rabbinical or Circuit Court? Reply

Rabbi Aryeh Moshen Brooklyn, NY June 20, 2016

If you have a foreskin (in whole or part) To those me who have a foreskin and are considering conversion, please do not just go to someone to circumcise you. Wait for your Beith Din to decide that you are ready and then they will choose an expert. Your Brith Milah will be done with the blessings before and after that are unique to a Ger.

I have had the merit to be at a few (some by orthodox doctors and others by trained Mohalim), some full and some part (where the doctor who preformed the original circumcision left part of the foreskin still attached). Reply

Dr. Harry Hamburger Miami June 20, 2016

Being Jewish is really not very complicated at all. Keep Kosher, follow the Commandments, study Torah, celebrate the Sabbath, learn Hebrew, and if a male..get that foreskin cut off. Otherwise, why bother. If you do these things, and get a Rabbi to convert you, it will not matter who your father or mother are. If you object to the above, I suggst you become a Methodist or Unitarian. Reply

Rafael Buffalo June 18, 2016

What makes you think you have the authority to decide who is a Jew? What if I say that people can be Christian without being baptized? What if I say that having one Christian parent is enough, and that baptism is unnecessary?

Sorry, but that is not what Christianity says about itself. And nobody, not even a devout Christian, can authorize the claim that you can be a Christian without having been baptized. Any such claim is irrelevant.

Your claim that Rabbi Freeman's "reasoning simply cannot stand" fails. For millennia, there have been two ways to be a Jew: either by entering the mikveh (which has sme resemblance to baptism by immersion). Or, you can be born of a Jewish mother.

If you like, you can pretend your "reasoning" is met by claiming that her uterine fluid is like a mikveh and the baby is immersed before birth. But that is not why the mother's Jewishness counts. It counts because the mother's Jewishness has been the criterion for thousands of years, and your demand to satisfy your "reasoning" is irrelevant. Reply

Andrew Philadelphia June 13, 2016

Fathers strike just as deep! Is this really a message we want to send to our fathers and our children: "The maternal line strikes much deeper to the essence of who you are?"

I appreciate Rabbi Freeman's kind approach and I respect his conclusion, but his reasoning simply cannot stand. Reply

Hanalah Houston May 10, 2016

Aaron in New York and Rabbi Aryeh Beautifully said. Thankyou.

Of course a ger would be welcome at my table as well on Shabbat or any time.

I am honored that people want to become a ger, and more so when they succeed. It is hard, but if you really want it, it is worth it.

I find it easier to doven if I know one of the melodies that can go with the Hebrew words. Also this makes it more enjoyable, even if I have to sing it sotto voce (silently, only moving the lips and imagining the melody).

I think any ger would enjoy knowing the melody while s/he is learning the text of the prayer service (the Amidah mostly but also the psalms and Shma before and the Alenu afterwards).

Gd bless you all. Reply