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Is a Jew Who Converts Still Jewish?

Is a Jew Who Converts Still Jewish?

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Question:

My sister was baptized and has since married and had a child. My mother claims the child is Jewish, but how could that be? If Judaism is a religion, if someone leaves it, she’s no longer Jewish, right?

Response:

Logically, I would have to agree with you. If Judaism is a religion, then someone who doesn’t believe in the religion should be no longer Jewish. The reality, however, is that it doesn’t work that way.

Throughout the Tanach, we find Jews breaking every facet of their covenant with G‑d, joining and forming all sorts of idolatrous cults and heathen practices. Yet when the prophets chide them, they are called “My people, Israel.”

The Talmud1 focuses in particular on the precedent of a notorious character named Achan, who appears in the story of the fall of Jericho.2 “Israel has sinned,” exclaims G‑d. “They have transgressed My covenant that I commanded them.” Yet in the story’s narration we discover that the lone sinner is Achan, who took from the spoils of Jericho. The Talmud points out that nevertheless Achan is considered “Israel,” and remarks, “Israel, although he has sinned, is still Israel.”

The choice of precedent is poignant and the wording laden with subtle meaning: Achan has broken “My covenant that I have commanded them”—interpreted by the Talmud to mean not only one detail, but the entire covenant of Torah. Yet he remains not only a Jew, but “Israel”—the entirety of the Jewish People in a single individual.

The principle extends not only to genealogical Jews, but converts as well. In Tractate Yevamot3 we learn that once a person has fulfilled all the requirements of a proper conversion, he is considered “like Israel in all matters.” The Talmud explains those last words to mean that even if this convert would return to his pagan ways, “if he marries a Jewish woman, he has the same status as an apostate Jew, and they are considered married.”

Why does the Talmud choose to discuss Jewishness in terms of whether or not a marriage is valid? This is also precise: When it comes to having this Jew slaughter meat for you, or relying upon him in other areas of kosher and similar matters, his status may indeed be the same as that of a non-Jew. But those are technicalities, dependent on extraneous factors. Marriage, however, is the real test of Jewishness. Even if a non-Jew would marry a Jew with a chupah and a rabbi presiding with all the procedures “by the book,” the marriage does not have the validity of a marriage sanctified in accordance with Jewish law. Saying that “they are considered married” is the best Talmudic language available for “Yes, he is still Jewish.”

Based on the above statement of the Talmud, the Jewish Code of Law4 rules that a marriage between a Jewish man and a Jewish woman who “convert out” is completely valid. Therefore, their children are considered Jewish and could also marry other Jews.

Which brings us to your case, where a Jewish woman has joined another religion and married a non-Jew. In this instance, as well, since Jewishness is matrilineal, her children are considered Jewish.5

Apparently, Jewishness is about neither religion nor race. Unlike a race, you can get in, but unlike religion, once you’re in you can’t get out. As with Achan, once you are a part of this people, you are the entire people. As Israel is eternal, so your bond with them is irreversible, unbreakable and eternal.

FOOTNOTES
1.

Sanhedrin 44a.

2.

See Joshua 7:1–26.

3.

48a.

4.

Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha-ezer 44:9.

5.

Rema, ibid.

Zalman Nelson is a licensed therapist, online counselor, and freelance writer/editor. His private practice fuses modern therapeutic techniques with the ancient Jewish wisdom of Kabbalah and Chassidic thought. He lives in Israel with his wife and five children. Connect with him here.
All names of persons and locations or other identifying features referenced in these questions have been omitted or changed to preserve the anonymity of the questioners.
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Discussion (97)
October 17, 2014
Still confused
I know that my great-great grandmother was Jewish. She married a non-Jew and their children were raised as Christians. One of their daughter's married another non-Jew and raised their children as Christians. One of their daughters married a non-Jew and didn't raise their children in any religion. Their daughter is my mother. So, what does that make me? I was raised Christian and wasn't even told I was Jewish until after I had married and had children of my own. But, I do not believe in Christianity. Would I have to convert or am I already Jewish?
Anonymous
USA
October 5, 2014
To the Anonymous
The Anonymous who placed a comment "Make up your mind, Religion or Race" might want to refresh his "System Data Base" by "downloading" recent "updates" in genetics, in particularly if he/she considers him/herself Jewish. Achieving a bit more enlightened state via Science and Education, hopefully in addition to the study of the Torah would not hurt even someone without a name.
Please, be referred to the research data outlined in the following article:
Phylogenetic applications of whole Y-chromosome sequences and the Near Eastern origin of Ashkenazi Levites Siiri Rootsi, Doron M. Behar, at al
":In contrast to the previously suggested Eastern European origin for Ashkenazi Levites, the current data are indicative of a geographic source of the Levite founder lineage in the Near East and its likely presence among pre-Diaspora Hebrews."
Nature Communications 4, Article number: 2928 doi:10.1038/ncomms3928 Received 28 June 2013 Accepted 13 November 2013 Published 17 December 2013
Marina Kropp
October 5, 2014
Jewishness is more than a doctrine
Actually, being Jewish stems from being a member of one of the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel - the tribe of Judah. It is such an identity and therefore cannot be seperated out from its unique birthright and further cannot and should not be reduced or diluted solely to a doctrinal or ideological affiliation - because although spirituality is at the centre of Jewish culture and history, having a heritage connection to the Jewish people is not a matter of religion alone. In fact, the type of spirituality of the ancient nation of Israel as given by the Creator is one which is very intimately linked to coming into right relationship with G-d, fellow humans, and wider creation through listening to the voice of G-d in the very context of the wider creation, the sacred mountain of Zion, the traditional dwelling place of the Most High and in the midst of all this beauty and wonder, being able to embrace each other as brothers & sisters united together in all of this His grace.
Sueiyin Siuyin Ho
Australia
July 3, 2014
Sorry, you cannot demand that Jews be something other than what we are.

We are not a religion. But we do have a Jewish worship practice. If you do not have a Jewish mother, you can claim your Jewish SOUL by adopting that worship practice. An orthodox rabbi can teach you what you need to know and walk you through the procedure. It will take a year OR TWO or even several years. If you REALLY REALLY WANT to be a Jew, you will stick with it and you will succeed.

We are not a race.
But we do have a lot of DNA in common with other Jews. That is a fact. It is FALSE to claim our DNA resembles European DNA. In fact, it resembles Jewish DNA. BUT anyone who feels s/he has a Jewish soul can get his/her Jewishness VALIDATED by going in the mikveh and promising to keep the 613 mitzvot. (Men have one more step in this process.)
There are a hundred thousand black Ethiopian Jews in Israel right now (and others elsewhere). Their DNA is neither Jewish nor European. But they have Jewish souls.
Elizabeth
Boston
July 3, 2014
To H and Anonymous: once you are either born of a Jewish mother, or are "naturalized" by going in the mikveh and promising to keep all the mitzvot, your soul is forever Jewish. You may sin by becoming an atheist or joining a non-Jewish group, but you still have a Jewish soul and you are subject to Divine punishment as such. That is the straight halachic deal.

To the Jewish lady who was in the Mormon church: You probably need to repent. I suggest you telephone an authoritative rabbi in another city and arrange for whatever act of repentance they require. Then join the local synagogue AS A JEW, WHCH YOU ARE. And so are your children. Gd bless you and Welcome Home!

To moron in Maryland, YES, you ARE a Jew, free and clear. Try various synagogues, pick one, and attend regularly to get to know the folks. Then ask help in converting to keeping kosher and keeping Shabbat. Tell them your family didn't know how, but you want to. Welcome HOME!

Read Yisrael Cotlar's post below. He knows.
Chaim
Kansas City
July 2, 2014
Re:

As explained in the article above, A Jew is a state of being that can never go away. If one is born a Jew, they remain a Jew, even if they tragically adopt beliefs that are antithetical to who they really are.

That being said, there are actions/beliefs a person can have that put one in the category of a "mumar", one who intentionally rebels against their Judaism. This can have Halachic ramifications (not being part of a minyan and more) and is an issue to be dealt with an expert Rov.
Yisroel Cotlar
Cary, NC
June 29, 2014
Make up your mind, Religion or Race
(1) If Judaism is a religion than, when a person chooses to be an Atheist or converts by choice to another religion than that person is not a Jew because that person does not practice Judaism and/or do not believe in G-d.
(2) If Judaism is a race, than based in DNA science, every Jew should have matching DNA as do the Arabs, Asians, Hispanics, etc are a race of people based on the fact their group of people all have matching DNA . And all DNA tests have proven that Ashkenazic Jews have the same DNA as all other white Europeans, which means that Ashkenazic Jews are not members of the Hebrew race of the 12 tribes. All Sephardi Jews, and Jews whose ancestry is of the Levant area such as Iraq, Iran, Algeria, etc, all having matching DNA. The Ashkenazic Jews, and Ethiopian Jews do not have DNA that match the Sephardi Jews or any Jews of the 12 tribes. The Torah is clear that all converts must follow the laws of G-d.
Anonymous
June 25, 2014
I have two questions.
1. Do you recognize born Jews who have become Messianic Jews or Completed Jews as Jews?

2. Do you count them in a minyan? Do you count those born as Jews but now converted to another religion in a Minyan?
Anonymous
Philadelphia
May 8, 2014
A black man said, "When I meet another black man, nobody says, Oh, good, another African!" But he added, "When I meet another Jew, everyone does say, "Oh, good, another Jew!" He then adds, "Why is this?"" He answers his own question by suggesting that we Jews have a common history. We all tell the same story. We understand one another through the light of that storyl

I do not know if his idea of a common histgory is correct. Of course I do know that the redemption from Egypt is THE event of our lives.

I love it that this black Jew identifies more closely with his Jewishness than with his blackness, and I love it that his reason for doing so is that we rejoice in his being a Jew.

We really love each other. And that is an important commandment. Love each other as thyself, it says. Lev. 19:18.
Hymie
Boston
May 7, 2014
My maternal grandmother and everyone she came from was Jewish. My maternal grandfather was Irish. So, my mom had a Jewish mother and an Irish father. My dad: various non-Jewish ancestors....So, what am I? Or, more to the point, am I Jewish because of my mom and my mom's mom?....I didn't mention my religious beliefs (yet) and am happy to do so, but can the judgment about my potential or actual Jewishness be determined based on my lineage?
Thank you for your insights.
PS I have always thought that the answer to my question (Am I Jewish?) is 'yes', and I hope it's 'yes'.
moron
Maryland
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