Who Is a Jew? What Is a Christian?

Oct 21, 2014

By Herb Silverman

Who is a Jew? While I’m often asked how I can be both a Jew and an atheist, this question hardly ever comes from Jews. According to all branches of Judaism, a person is Jewish if born to a Jewish mother. Since my mother was Jewish, so am I. End of story. But it isn’t.

Jews argue about everything, including who is a Jew. Disagreements usually develop along sectarian lines. Reform Jews are willing to accept into the tribe someone with a Jewish father and a gentile mother, but Orthodox Jews are not. Some ultra-Orthodox rabbis won’t even accept a child as Jewish when born to a devout Jewish mother from a donated gentile egg. All branches of Judaism allow for converts, but Orthodox Jews don’t recognize conversion of gentiles to Judaism unless that conversion is approved by a three-judge religious court comprised of three Orthodox men (usually rabbis), ritual immersion in a mikvah, and a commitment to perform all the Torah’s commandments according to Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law.

Gentiles are often surprised to hear that there is no religious belief requirement to be a Jew. Well-known Jews with no belief in God include intellectuals like Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx, as well as comedians like Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Jon Stewart, and Sarah Silverman (no relation, unfortunately). In fact, these Jews openly criticize or make fun of religion.

I am hard-pressed to name a pious Jew, dead or alive, who is a household name worldwide — except for Jesus.


 

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16 comments on “Who Is a Jew? What Is a Christian?

  • A Jew (like a Christian or a Hindu) is anyone who says he/she is. That being the case, it should be a simple thing to stop being a Jew. I don’t care for the term “Jewish atheist” since no one would ever say “I’m a Christian atheist.”
    Better to state, as a woman I recently met said, “I’m an atheist with sentimental attachments to Jewish culture.” My response was “I’m an atheist who loves Christmas.”

    And, as a side note, let me add that I find it bizarre that Israel welcomes atheist Jews to reside in Israel (as long as they say they are Jewish and have a Jewish mother) but not Palestinians who share their DNA almost completely with Jews.



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  • justinesaracen Oct 21, 2014 at 7:33 am

    A Jew (like a Christian or a Hindu) is anyone who says he/she is. That being the case, it should be a simple thing to stop being a Jew. **I don’t care for the term “Jewish atheist” since no one would ever say “I’m a Christian atheist.” **

    .. .. Unless your answers are being “reinterpreted” on an Irish census form!!!

    http://www.secularism.org.uk/blog/2012/12/how-to-make-nones-disappear–a-lesson-in-statistics-from-northern-ireland
    For the purposes of the NI census, it seems, atheists really are ‘catholic atheists’ or ‘protestant atheists’



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  • Jews argue about everything, including who is a Jew. Disagreements
    usually develop along sectarian lines.

    I “thank God” that I was born into the one where it’s easy to be an
    open atheist.

    These two lines contradict one another for a start as well as the second contradicting the rest of the article. The “Jewish” term seems to be more for convenience than anything else. It was a well known fact, and a local joke, that when Brick Lane market was predominantly jewish, and sunday trading laws were in practice, that the traders were Jewish on sunday and christian on saturday. To see the same traders wearing the Star of David on sunday and a Cross on saturday was normal.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_iENMor5V5o



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  • 62 percent of American Jews say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15 percent say it’s a matter of religion

    This is completely believable and fits in with my understanding that Jews are quite exceptional in terms of religious labelling. I used to work in northwest London (there are large Jewish communities there) and I had several Jewish colleagues who regarded their identity as much more cultural than religious.

    The only Christian label I can think of that even comes close would be “Church of England”. Many people put down “CofE” as their religion (when required on forms etc.) even when they’ve barely ever though about it. It’s almost a default position for being English and having been to church once or twice. Accepting this lazy default is what leads families to blindly follow traditions of baptism and marriage etc. without any real knowledge of why they’re doing it!



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  • I absolutely love Larry David. This was a great episode and Larry’s attempt to ‘befriend’ Mr Heinemann ends up with Larry and Mr Heinemann’s daughter in the ski lift scene:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUc77Dn8Me0

    Classic. And it’s not off-topic because it covers the interesting contrast between being culturally Jewish and ultra-religiously Jewish!



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  • Barry
    It’s almost a default position for being English and having been to church once or twice. Accepting this lazy default is what leads families to blindly follow traditions of baptism and marriage etc. without any real knowledge of why they’re doing it

    I suspect such people comprise the growing number of “nones” on the census. At one stage it was almost a form of tribal alligence, but our growing awareness of atheism being a legitimate label have made it acceptable thanks to Richard Dawkins et al.

    If I remember correctly it was the atheist Howard Jacobsen, author of “The Finkler Question” who said that he still put down ‘Jewish’ on his Census form as an act of loyalty to his heritage. I can understand this position. Until quite recently I identified as being Presbyterian. A sort of warm glow comes over me when I think of my ‘tribe’.



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  • growing awareness of atheism being a legitimate label

    It certainly is much more acceptable nowadays (in the UK at least) to describe oneself as an atheist. The percentage of “nones” in the UK census leapt from 15% in 2001 to 25% in 2011. It still feels a long way to 2021 but it certainly seems likely that the number will jump again quite significantly.

    Interesting point about identifying with a ‘tribe’. Perhaps as time goes on more and more people will start to think of atheism in this way. The growing number of prominent atheists can only help with the legitimization of being a “none”.



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  • Nitya:

    A sort of warm glow comes over me when I think of my ‘tribe’.

    God I’m a lucky bar steward ! My “tribe” sent me on my way with a great deal of empathy for my fellow humans without any of that religious nonsense. Yes indeed, – a warm glow !



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  • I’ve said it before: it depends on what the person asking the question understands as the meaning of “Jewish”;

    Jewish religion
    Jewish heritage/ancestry
    Jewish culture

    You can call yourself whatever you like, but if the perceptions of others are what concern you, their understanding is what you must consider in talking to them (at least until you can explain your position).



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  • . Barry.
    Interesting point about identifying with a ‘tribe’. Perhaps as time goes on more and more people will start to think of atheism in this way. The growing number of prominent atheists can only help with the legitimization of being a “none”.

    Yes, I have a new ‘tribe’ now. 😉



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  • There’s a big difference. “Jew,” over thousands of years became a distinct ethnicity. This was in part due to the Jewish diaspora and Jews being small communities scattered all over the world, often the minority surrounded by a hostile or at least indifferent majority, connected to other Jews only by a common cultural heritage and by genetics and ancestry. It is almost universally accepted that being Jewish has little to do with being religious. It can be both an ethnicity and a religion. Christianity never was and never became an ethnicity. Christianity, after the conversion of the Roman Empire, was a religion for the whole world not a small select group of people. Christians did not have rules about intermarriage or about how was or was not Christian by birth. Christians welcomed new converts into the religion unlike Jews that made it very difficult. It makes no sense at all to consider “Christian” an ethnicity, and generally speaking nobody ever has. So trying to say using “Jew” as an ethnicity by bringing up the example of Christians also makes no sense.

    Regarding Israel, it was founded in part as a national home for Jews, the scattered ethnicity whose cultural and biological ancestral home was in Jerusalem and the land of Israel and who had suffered persecution and genocide all over the world, because before Israel no such country existed. There were countries for ethnic Germans, ethnic French, ethnic Japanese and so on but nothing for ethnic Jews. And bear in mind that ethnicity does not relate directly to DNA. Israel was not founded as a Jewish religious theocracy in the same way that the Islamic Republic of Iran was founded as an Islamic theocracy. It is a secular, liberal, inclusive and pluralistic country that was also intended as a national homeland for an ethnic group without a homeland. All people in the state of Israel upon the country’s founding were welcomed to participate in the country and given full citizenship, regardless or their DNA, ethnicity, or religious affiliation. Since that time, Israel has defended itself from the constant threat of annihilation in many “Arab”-Israeli wars and two major “Palestinian” uprisings known as the Intifadas. There is a history of political and security reasons for why some people might find it difficult to immigrate to Israel now. You’d have to pretend like the last 100 years of history did not exist to be genuinely confused about this.



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  • Ryan Oct 23, 2014 at 4:09 am

    All people in the state of Israel upon the country’s founding were welcomed to participate in the country and given full citizenship, regardless or their DNA, ethnicity, or religious affiliation.

    But that was while it was under colonial rule.
    Once the Zionist terrorists took over, there was persistent discrimination against the native Palestinian Arabs.

    Since that time, Israel has defended itself from the constant threat of annihilation in many “Arab”-Israeli wars and two major “Palestinian” uprisings known as the Intifadas.

    Like many oppressors, the Zionists think they can treat the locals as they please, and then play the persecuted victim card themselves, while acting as an army of occupation over increasing areas of lands conquered by using superior foreign-supplied weapons.

    There is a history of political and security reasons for why some people might find it difficult to immigrate to Israel now.

    . . . . and even why the native Arab population cannot retain their ancestral lands, without them being appropriated by armed Zionist “settlers”.

    You’d have to pretend like the last 100 years of history did not exist to be genuinely confused about this.

    It seems you have been confused, – by taking your version of history from media propagandists and “re-written” history, rather than from accurate historical records!

    http://whatreallyhappened.com/WRHARTICLES/kd.html
    July 2, 1946: The King David Hotel in Jerusalem was bombed. Killing 91 people

    Menachem Begin planned the destruction of the King David Hotel and the massacre of Deir Yassin. Ex prime minister, Shamir, was originally a member of the Jewish “terrorist” gang called Irgun, which was headed by none other than Menachem Begin. Shamir later moved over to the even more radical “Stern Gang,” which committed many vicious atrocities.

    Shamir himself has defended the various assassinations committed by the Irgun and Stern gangs on the grounds that “it was the only way we could operate, because we were so small. So it was more efficient and more moral to go for selected targets.” The selected moral targets in those early days of the founding of the state of Israel included bombing of the King David Hotel and the massacre of Deir Yassin.

    April 9, 1948: A combined force of Irgun and Stern Gangs committed a brutal massacre of 260 Arab residents of the village of Deir Yassin. Most of whom were women and children. The Israeli hordes even attacked the dead to satisfy their bestial tendencies. In April, 1954, during Holy Week, and on the eve of Easter, The Christian cemeteries in Haifa were invaded, crosses broken down and trampled under the feet of these miscreants, and the tombs desecrated. The Israeli military conquest, therefore was made against a defenseless people, who had been softened up by such earlier massacres as Deir Yasin {250 Arabs; men, women and children were massacred there}.

    Accounts by Red Cross and United Nations observers who visited the scene, said that the houses were first set on fire and the occupants were shot down as they came out to escape the flames. One pregnant woman had her baby cut out of her stomach with a knife.

    . . .

    May 1948: The U.S. appointed Count Folke Bernadotte of Sweden to mediate between the Arabs and the Israelis. In his first progress report (of Sept. 16, 1948) he recommended that the U.N. should affirm “the right of the Arab refugees to return to their homes in Jewish controlled territory at the earliest possible date.” The Israelis responded in their own quiet way. The following day Bernadotte was murdered in Jerusalem.

    . . .

    October 14-15, 1953 — Under the command of Ariel Sharon, Israeli squads attacked the unarmed Arab village of Qibya in the demilitarized one. Where they blew up 42 houses and killed more than sixty residents who were trapped inside. The details were so gruesome that the U.S. joined in a U.N. condemnation of the Israeli action, and for the first and only time, suspended aid to Israel in reprisal.

    Many of these terrorist acts have been condemned by Jews and Moderate Jewish organisations, but the fact remains, that the terrorist leaders have for many years, held power in the Israeli government, where they have expanded their theft of land and repression of native Arabs, who now find themselves second-class citizens ruled by an army of occupation.



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  • Thank you, Alan. I find that arguing with the mainstream Zionist narrative is as exhausting as arguing with a creationist and I almost never bother. I’m glad to see you demolish the ‘talking points’ the pro-Israel camp is so fond of.
    I would add here that the “we are a tiny helpless nation surrounded by hostile Arab countries” is also bullshit. The surrounding Arab governments, Islamist or not, all have their own reasons for indifference to the Palestinian plight, as evidenced by their thunderous silence during the recent massacre in Gaza.



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  • Barry.M Oct 22, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    It certainly is much more acceptable nowadays (in the UK at least) to describe oneself as an atheist. The percentage of “nones” in the UK census leapt from 15% in 2001 to 25% in 2011. It still feels a long way to 2021 but it certainly seems likely that the number will jump again quite significantly.

    The census had biased questions which would have included lapsed believers of Xtian origin as Xtians.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2012/02/15/how-religious-is-britain-not-very-says-richard-dawkins/

    Some less biased surveys give much higher percentages of “nones” and a clearer analysis.

    https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/2921/Religious-and-Social-Attitudes-of-UK-Christians-in-2011.aspx

    This UK 2010 poll puts the nones at 51%, while only 42% said they were Christians.

    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/dec/24/religion-respecting-the-minority



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