Dear Straight Dope:
Once, I was talking with a close jewish friend of mine about a very popular, and sadly now-deceased, scientist who was a hero of mine. My friend said: "I'm proud of the fact that he was a Jew." This dumbfounded me, for this scientist, while perhaps not strictly an atheist, was (like myself) at least a notoriously devout agnostic. We argued over quite a few beers for hours about racial descent versus religious affiliations. I have since been shocked by the number of people who agree with my nutty friend. How can a person of Jewish descent be considered a Jew if he doesn't believe in God? What if he converted to another religion? Please help before I am forced to perform a home lobotomy on my poor, once-smart pal!
Well, there are answers on several levels here. My dictionary offers two definitions of Jew: (1) An adherent of Judaism; and (2) A descendant of the Hebrew people.
Hitler’s definition was that anyone who had as much as one Jewish grandparent was Jewish, regardless of conversion. He murdered as Jewish many people who thought of themselves as Christian, whose parents had been raised as Christian, but who had one grandparent who had converted.
In that kind of scenario, I will start from the premise that what makes someone Jewish is acceptance as Jewish by other Jews. A little circular, that reasoning, but we gotta start somewhere.
Let me take the definitions in reverse order. First we have the demographic side, that Jews are descendents of the Hebrew tribes. This definition asserts Jews are a people, not just a religious group. They trace their ancestry back to the biblical “children of Israel,” that is, descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel). One is a member of a tribe by being born to it, regardless of beliefs or practices, much as one is born Swedish or Italian, without regard to beliefs.
The strict Orthodox definition of what it means to be born into the Jewish tribe (dating back at least 2,000 years) is to be born of a Jewish mother. Reform Judaism has tried recently to broaden that definition to include being born of a Jewish father. The argument over who is Jewish is causing severe strain within Judaism.
But basically, under the ethnic definition, if you’re born Jewish, you’re Jewish. Period.
The second definition is that a Jew is a follower of the religion of Judaism. As a religion, it is possible for someone to convert to Judaism by accepting the beliefs and practices of the religion. Conversion to the religion means acceptance into the people, so that the child born to a woman after she had converted to Judaism would be born Jewish (by the first definition) while a child born before her conversion would NOT be Jewish (the child would have to be converted).
Conversion is accomplished (in all branches of Judaism) by replicating the experience of Sinai. There are three elements needed: (a) circumcision for males; (b) public affirmation of commitment to the Commandments/Covenant/Faith; and (b) ritual immersion. The public affirmation is the trick here, since it is unlikely that someone who does not believe in God would publicly affirm commitment.
Thus, while it is possible for a born-Jew to be an atheist or agnostic, it is highly unlikely for a converted Jew.
So those are the two principle ways of being Jewish: be born to the peoplehood, or convert to the religion.
There is a third way, although it’s not talked about much, and that is someone calling himself Jewish (although not strictly fitting the prior definitions) where ancestry is uncertain. The major examples of this are the Ethiopian Jews, a group of black Ethiopians who thought of themselves as Jewish, although they had only a few half-remembered Jewish traditions and beliefs. But when faced with extinction, murder and martyrdom unless they gave up their religion, they stood firm and said they were Jewish and would not convert. The state of Israel recognized them as Jews, and evacuated them to Israel, educating them, and integrating them into modern society.
Back at the ranch, if those are the ways to become Jewish (birth, conversion, recognition), how does one stop being Jewish? Well, if one was born Jewish, then generally speaking, one doesn’t. Even if one converts to another religion, it does not take formal conversion to return to Judaism. So mere passive non-belief in God (or even active agnosticism or atheism) does not negate one’s Jewishness.
OK, all that has to do with who is Jewish, but there’s little about belief unless someone converts to Judaism. Your scientist hero could have been born Jewish, and thus would BE Jewish, regardless of his belief or lack thereof.
So now let me tackle your question in a different way. On a theological basis, one of the differences between Judaism (as a religion) and Christianity is that belief is extremely important in Christianity. One must BELIEVE to participate in the religion, and that’s about all one need do. Moral behaviour is preferred, of course, but one who behaves immorally but than repents and comes to BELIEVE is forgiven and accepted. Christianity thus modelled itself as a religion for the world, where anyone can join by professing BELIEF.
Belief is almost irrelevant to Judaism. Abraham is not told to BELIEVE in God, but to walk with God. What is important to Judaism is action, not belief. Doing the right things for the wrong reasons is viewed as sinful (or at best, ambiguous) in Christianity; but in Judaism, doing the right things for the wrong reasons still means you’ve done the right things. Thus, being Jewish is not about believing in God, but about doing the right things. (I decline to get into the discussion of what the “right” things are, since different sects of Judaism have different thoughts on this issue.)
Thus, it is not inconsistent for an atheist to be Jewish.
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