What Does It Mean To Be Jewish?

King Louis XIV of France asked Blaise Pascal, the great seventeenth century French philosopher, to give him proof of the supernatural. Pascal answered: “Why, the Jews, your Majesty—the Jews.”

The Jewish people as a whole certainly present a challenge to rational thought! Many great thinkers of history have pondered the remarkable story of the Jewish people; their against-all-odds survival, and ability to thrive wherever they may be. In 1935 Nikolai Berdyaev, one of the most famous Russian philosophers of the 20th century wrote:

“The survival of the Jews, their resistance to destruction, their endurance under absolute peculiar conditions and the fateful role played by them in history; all point to the particular and mysterious foundations of their destiny.”

Divine preservation

If we read Jeremiah 31, we shouldn’t be surprised at the miraculous survival of the people of Israel. In verses 35-36 this declaration is made by God himself:

Thus says the Lordwho gives the sun for light by day
    and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the Lord of hosts is his name:
   “If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the Lord,
then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever.”

In other words, as long as the sun and moon and stars are still with us, so will Israel be. We’re not going anywhere!

Many people wonder about the ten tribes but we see that God is not concerned about where they are – the book of James begins with a greeting to the twelve tribes, showing that Yeshua’s own brother was pretty confident they were not entirely lost. Similarly we see the twelve tribes mentioned right at the end of time, in the book of Revelation. Right there in the penultimate chapter of the entire Bible. They’re going to make it to the end, despite every attempt of the enemy to the contrary.

There have been multiple attempts to annihilate the Jewish people, as a quick survey of history will tell you. Plus, the Jewish people are the only ones in the world to have been dispersed for millennia without disappearing. As Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, put it; “A Jew who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.”

Yet one of the threats that worry many in the Jewish establishment, even more than neighbourly promises to “wipe Israel off the map”, is the subtle threat of cultural assimilation.

It is true that one of the main reasons that the Jewish people have survived is due to careful preservation of Jewish laws and culture. It is often said, “The Shabbat has kept the Jews more than the Jews have kept the Shabbat”, meaning that the tradition of keeping Saturday holy has helped the Jewish people remember who they are, and kept families together wherever they may be in the world. God’s laws have been central to keeping the Jewish identity alive and intact. The prohibition against marrying Gentiles is reiterated several times in the Bible, and the determination to stay separate as God commands has, in many ways, been their preservation. Perhaps there was more wisdom in some of the apparently odd commands than anyone could have ever foreseen?

Who is Jewish?

This all begs the question, who is Jewish and who is not? How do you know? It was extremely dangerous to “look Jewish” in 1930’s Germany, and for many, the tattooed numbers on their arm is brutal evidence of their Jewishness, but neither of these criteria are watertight. The question of who is Jewish has been the source of much debate in the past, and was particularly important to nail down when the Jewish state opened its gates to any Jew who wanted to come and live in Israel. Who would that include?

What the State of Israel defines as eligible for the Law of Return.
Since Hitler considered anyone with a Jewish grandparent to be worthy of destruction, this is the yardstick by which Israel welcomes people to find sanctuary in Israel. If you can prove that one grandparent was fully Jewish, you have the right to citizenship.
But then how do you know if that grandparent is “fully Jewish”? According to rabbinic thinking, anyone who has a Jewish mother is considered Jewish. This ruling came into effect in Roman times, when there was so much chaos and rape that paternity was harder to determine. In the Bible, the paternal line was all-important but now Jewish identity is inherited from the mother.

And how can you prove that the mother is Jewish? The signs by which Jewish identity is recognised would be involvement in the Jewish community – that births, deaths and marriages would involve the local synagogue; circumcisions, coming-of-age bar- or bat-mitzvahs, weddings and funerals would be performed according to Jewish tradition. The Jewish calendar would inform when to celebrate the holidays, rather than the Christian calendar, and surnames often are a sign of Jewish heritage, along other indicators. Lastly, an officially recognised connection to the Jewish community must be verified by a letter from a rabbi.

Can you prove Jewish descent genetically?
The last two decades have also seen a lot of work in genetics that shows that there are identifiable Jewish genetic markers, which can be traced back to the Middle East, and link Jewish people through their DNA.  In 1997, Karl Skorecki, Director of Medical and Research Development at Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center, led a study that became famous for what has become known as Y-chromosomal Aaron – a chromosome found in Jewish men who identified as Kohanim (Cohen), suggesting they share a single male ancestor, Aaron, the original Kohen, or priest. Like other ethnicities, there are certain diseases and allergies that are more prominent within the group, and because the Jewish people have remained so distinct until recent decades, they were a useful source of study for geneticists. However, due to centuries of persecution at the hands of those such as the Inquisition and the Nazis, identifying physical Jewish traits can be a squeamish subject.

True Jewish identity

Lately many ethnically Jewish people, both in Israel and abroad, are abandoning the aspect of religion and any attempt to keep God’s laws. There is great concern that these secular Jewish people will intermarry with Gentiles, fail to preserve the Jewish way of life, and that the following generations will subsequently lose their identity.

This looming spectre of assimilation is as alarming as nuclear warheads aimed at Israel, as far as some are concerned. Either way, they reason, the Jewish people are wiped out.
So given this concern, you might understand the hostility that some religious Jewish people hold towards Messianic believers, who in their eyes have “abandoned” Judaism in order to become a Christian, and now worship three gods. They have assimilated, it is claimed, and have become like the gentiles. And worse, they persuade others to do the same! A Messianic Jew is not welcome in Israel.

Of course, this perspective is only correct if Yeshua is not the Jewish Messiah. But he is.

For a Jewish person to embrace Yeshua as Messiah makes them even more Jewish than ever before, as they step into their true identity and destiny – into living relationship with the God of Israel.

It is God who can be found at the birth of the people of Israel; it was God who chose Abraham, Isaac and Jacob for his purposes in history. It was God who miraculously carried and preserved his people through every danger and threat to their survival. Their destiny is written in his Book, and it was the Jewish people that he chose to deliver that Book to the world. God is the only One with the right to define who is Jewish and who is not, and furthermore, he has not finished with his people yet! The Bible is full of plans and promises regarding Israel, much of which is still to come. He has brought them this far, and he will not let a single one of his words fall to the ground… every word will come to pass. The rabbis need not worry that the Jewish people will be eliminated – God will take care of them as he always has done.

The true source of Jewish identity lies only with God. Indeed, the very existence of the Jewish people started with him and from him came the call, the directions, the commands, and the very definition of what it means to be “set apart” as his people. Much of Jewish culture today comes from man rather than God, but at its core, the true heart of Judaism is found in God and his Word.

A Jewish person who receives Yeshua has come closer to the God of Israel, not gone further away. They have received atonement for their sins, and can now be reconciled with their Father.

Culture shift

A recent survey 1 of Jewish people in America, primarily looking at the issue of assimilation, showed some surprising results. There was a distinct shift away from religion, and less connection with rabbinic Judaism and beliefs, along with a willingness to embrace other beliefs and practices. We see this often in Israel too – Jewish people who practice Transcendental Meditation, New Age philosophy, Buddhism, and many who are atheists, rejecting the Bible and God completely.

In the survey, 22 percent said that they have “no religion,” but identify as Jewish because they have a Jewish parent or were raised Jewish, and feel Jewish by culture or ethnicity, and this rises to a third (32%) of those born after 1980. Alan Cooperman, Deputy director of the project, said; “It’s very stark. Older Jews are Jews by religion. Younger Jews are Jews of no religion”. 2

Although statistics show that Jewish people in America are drifting away from traditional rabbinic Judaism, we are also seeing an encouraging side effect: Now that people feel free to believe anything (or nothing) and remain “Jewish”, 34 percent believed that it was possible to remain Jewish if you believe that Jesus was the Messiah.
This is a historic shift. For millennia, acceptance of Yeshua was considered the ultimate betrayal of the Jewish people, and a step that would sever links with the Jewish community. Now, a new open-mindedness also includes the possibility to believe in Jesus and retain Jewish identity. For many in rabbinic Judaism, this statistic is just another nail in the coffin, but perhaps Judaism is not dying at all, but rather getting ready to bloom into new life! Just as God has always kept and led his people, so this shift is opening his chosen ones up to the possibility of accepting Yeshua.
If you would like to help more Jewish people come to faith in Yeshua, please join with us as we work to bring them the good news!

1.  “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” from Pew Research
 Joel C. Rosenberg’s blog

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