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Who is a Jew? - Some insight from Rebbetzen Chana Bracha Siegelbaum

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Recently we had a debate concerning why Judaism establishes Matrilinear Descent. This article from does a good job of discussing the reasons.

Parashat Va’etchanan
The issue of “who is a Jew?” arouses much debate. In the wake of numerous immigrants entering Israel, the subject has taken on new relevance, since many of them are intermarried. Naturally, people who have been persecuted due to their Jewish ancestry feel the right to enjoy the privileges of being Jewish as well. Not everyone is ready to accept that the Jewish lineage depends solely on the mother, and that, according to Halacha (Jewish law), a child born to a gentile mother is not considered Jewish, even if the father is Jewish. The popular explanation that only the identity of the mother can be ascertained is no longer valid in our time, since the identity of the father can now be verified through genetic tests.
The Scriptural source for the law of “who is a Jew?” is found in this week’s parashah:  “Neither shall you intermarry with them; your daughter you shall not give unto his son, nor his daughter shall you take unto your son. For he will turn away your son from following Me, that they may serve other gods...” (Devarim 7:3-4) Scripture speaks here of two cases of intermarriage:
1) A Jewess becomes the wife of a gentile.
2) A Jew becomes the husband of a gentile woman.
It is not quite clear from the verse who will be the one to turn the other away from following G-d. If the verse referred to the negative influence of the non-Jewish party over his/her Jewish spouse, then we would expect two parallel statements expressing the reason for the prohibition.
1) “For he will turn away your daughter from following Me.”
2) “For she will turn away your son from following Me.”
Yet, Scripture mentions neither of these two cases, stating only the following unexpected third possibility: “For he will turn away your son from following Me,” Rashi explains that “he” refers to the gentile husband of the Jewess, but who is then “your son?” that this gentile man may turn away from following Hashem? “Your son” then must refer to your descendant the son of your daughter, who is at risk of being turned away from the Torah path by his non-Jewish father. Grandchildren are often called children in Scripture (See Rashi, Bereishit 20:12). This teaches us that only the son of a Jewess and a gentile father is called “your son,” but the son of a non-Jewish mother with a Jewish father is not defined as your son. Therefore, in regards to the statement,“his daughter you shall not take to your son”, it does not add, “for she will turn away your son (grandson) from following Me”, since Scripturedoes not consider the son of this gentile mother “your son” because he does not belong by birth to the Jewish people. The Halacha follows Rashi’s explanation which is supported by the Talmud stating, “The son from a Jewish mother is called your son, but the son from a gentile mother is not called your son” (Kiddushin 68b). Based on this source, Rambam establishes as Halacha that a child born of a gentile woman is not considered Jewish (Prohibited Relationships, chapter 12, halacha 7).
THE MOTHER GIVES OVER HER ESSENCE                                                   
How do we explain the fact that only the mother determines the Jewishness of her children? What magic power does the mother have to influence her children more than the father? Rabbeinu Bachaya on Bereishit 29:25 explains that the mother gives over her essence to her offspring. This is why the matriarchs named their children, as the name expresses a person’s essence. Rachel's children inherited her craft of silence. When Ya’acov sent her gifts, Lavan took them and gave them to Leah, yet Rachel remained silent. Therefore, all her children were masters of silence. Binyamin, the son of Rachel, knew that Yosef was sold, but kept silent. Esther, from the tribe of Binyamin, son of Rachel, did not reveal the identity of her people   (Megillah 13b). Leah was the master of the craft of thanksgiving and praise (hodaya). Therefore, all her children were masters of hodaya, as it states, “Yehudah, your brothers shall praise you” (yoducha) (Bereishit 49:8). David, her descendant, said: “O Give thanks to Hashem...” (Tehillim 136:1)
The Imrei Shefer compares the womb, to the mikvah, which has the capacity to convert a person to Judaism. He explains that the mother determines the spiritual genetics of the Jewish people because of the great impact the womb has on the unborn child. The fact that the mother carries the baby within her reveals her capacity to carry on the Jewish lineage. The mother is characterized as one who makes space within herself for another being to grow. This ultimate kindness which continues throughout the role of motherhood can be compared to the way G-d created the world. In order to allow the existence of the Universe, G-d, so to speak, had to constrict His own essence and make space for something other than Himself. This is the secret of the “tzimtzum” (constriction) explained by our kabbalistic masters. When pouring wine out from a glass, a reshimo (residue) adheres to the glass. Likewise, when G-d made space within Himself, a drop of Divinity remained within the vacuum. This imprint affects G-d's creation and imbues it with His essence. By sacrificing her own personal space for the sake of her unborn baby, the mother imparts her essence to her offspring in the same way that G-d, by constricting Himself, imparts His essence to mankind - the crown of His Creation. This explains why the mother is the carrier of the Jewish lineage.
(Rebbetzen Chana Bracha Siegelbaum is Director of Midreshet B’erot Bat Ayin in Gush Etzion. Her full book on the weekly Torah portion can be ordered from [email protected] . There are also still dedication opportunities available)

Ok, good post.

Now: my mom was born Roman Catholic (she is Atheist now, though), and all her family is descended from Asturians (North Spaniards) and North Italians. I'm absolutely proud of that lineage, by the way.
My paternal side is Ashkenazi. Though Atheists by religion, they are still Jews.

Am I a Jew?
I don't know, you tell me

Do I want to be a Jew?
No, I don't "want" to be a Jew, I'm not religious, I don't do Sabbath and I don't eat Kosher (even though I don't like pork and don't eat it). Still, I like most Ashkenazi traditions and history. I'm proud of my Ashkenazi lineage too, and I like Poland and Russia as nations.

Am I Zionist?
Yes, I'm a radical Zionist. I 100% support Israel and I like some Kahanists (but I don't like the JDL that much). I support the Jewish Task Front, obviously.

I just don't see that the message of the Torah and Talmud are that precious. I mean, acording to the Torah, Jews are a diasporic people that need to be in an eternal diaspora. Why? Why can't Jews have a homeland now?
If anybody watched Defiance, the movie, when they see the marsh, Tuvia is actually hoping for a miracle. His brother says "Tuvia! G-d will not part this waters, we have to do it ourselves!"
"But how?"
"Not by miracles! By our strenght!"

That's why I think that being religious is not that important. I want to preserve Ashkenazi traditions as an European nation that was essential in the development of Europe and thus the West as a whole, but I won't sit here waiting for G-d to make things for me
Let him choose another people, Jews suffered enough already. I mean, where was he in the Second World War? The Jews who survived didn't wait for miracles, they survived by their own strenght as a group.
I also think that while Ashkenazi, Sefaradi and Mizrahi Jews should all work together in Israel united as Jews, each group should have the right to preserve their own identity. Arabic should be no longer an official language in Israel, the official languages should be Hebrew and Yiddish (yes, Yiddish, they were and are a mayority, why shouldn't they have their language as official?)

Anyway, if I was a little bit agressive or offensive, please, believe me: I don't mean that. I don't mean any disrespect for religious Jews or anything, it's just my own, personal opinion. Thanks for understanding.

Dunadan, you are not Jewish if your mother isn't Jewish. You don't have to observe Jewish law. In your post, you associate religious Jews with doing nothing and waiting for miracles. There are some religious Jews who want to do nothing and wait for miracles, but that's not what Judaism is all about. Rabbi Tarfon said in Pirkei Avot, "It is not your part to finish the task, yet you are not free to desist from it." You also wrote that the Torah says that Jews need to be in an eternal diaspora. That's not true. Living in Israel is a requirement in Judaism.  There are some anti-zionists who oppose leaving the exile now, but even they don't believe that the Jews will eternally be in exile. One more point is that Jews of all backgrounds need to be unified. Ashkenazim, mizrachim, Sefaradim, teimanim, etc. all have the same Torah.

Here you can read about Judaism and living in Israel.

Ok, that's true and I understand.
But still: what would you say if you start researching ancestry and you find out that your great great grandmother bu your mkother side was not Jewish? Would you be Jewish then? What if a Rabbi discovers that?
It's not that I want to burst your bubble or be considered a Jew, but I know about Jewish ethnic makeup, and especially about Ashkenazis, and most of the Yiddish Jews are descended from Slavic tribes (actually some Ashkenazis consider themselves Slavs) as well as Khazars and Germanic tribed. Russian Jews are totally Russian. And I bet that at least some Jews can find a non-Jewish ancestor by their maternal side (I mean the mother of the mother, etc).
And all of this is if you consider only the Hebrews to be Jews (which is a fair point, of course)

And as for Jews living in Israel, a good deal of Jews, especially Americans, say that real Jews are only the diasporic ones (which is nonsense in my opinion, but maybe it actually has a religious source, I don't know).

By the way, do you then believe that Israel's policy (only one Jewish grandparent to enter Israel) is wrong and that it should be replaces by having a Jewish mother?


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