Judaism/Who is a Jew?

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The question of who is a Jew? (Hebrew: ?מיהו יהודי) is a religious, social and political debate on the exact definition of which persons can be considered Jewish. As Judaism shares some of the characteristics of an ethnicity and a religion, the definitions of a Jew may vary, depending on whether a religious, sociological, or ethnical approach to identity is used. This question has been tackled not only within the Jewish community, but also by outside parties trying to understand and/or regulate it.

According to most definitions, a Jew is either born into the Jewish people, or becomes one through religious conversion. The debate centers around the following questions:

  • Mixed parentage: Debate tries to identify when people with mixed parentage should be considered Jewish, and when they should not be.
Traditional view: If one's mother is Jewish, then the person is Jewish, and if one's mother is not Jewish, then the person is not.
  • Conversion: Debate centers around the process of religious conversion in an attempt to specify which conversions to Judaism should be considered valid, and which should not.
Traditional view: There are two or three required steps for a valid conversion: A male must be circumcised. Both males and females must freely consent to all the obligations of being a Jew. Both males and females must immerse in a mikveh (ritual bath) in the presence of a beit din (rabbinic court).
  • Life circumstances: Debate focuses on whether people's actions (such as conversion to a different religion) or circumstances in their lives (such as being unaware of Jewish parentage) affect their status as a Jew.
Traditional view: Judaism does not recognize conversion to another religion as valid: "Once a Jew, always a Jew." However, one who does so is viewed as having turned his back on his people, and therefore is denied many of the privileges of being a Jew (such as being counted towards a minyan (quorum for prayer) or being eligible for burial in a Jewish cemetery). In theory, a person is Jewish even if he was raised as a non-Jew and later learned that his mother (or his maternal grandmother, or his mother's maternal grandmother, and so on) was Jewish. But in practice, such cases might be founded on rumor or even just wishful thinking, and so (depending on how much evidence can be found) many rabbis might want the person to undergo a ritual conversion just to be sure.

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