Who is born a Jew?

The question of who is born a Jew has been much debated. We consider first the views of Orthodox Judaism and Karaite Judaism.

Orthodox Judaism considers that according to the Torah a person is born a Jew only if that person's Mother is Jewish. On the other hand, Karaite Judaism considers that according to the Torah a person is born a Jew only if that person's Father is Jewish.

We will examine the two readings in the Pentateuch that imply a status of the child of Israelite intermarriage to a non-Israelite. We will first examine these two readings in light of the Orthodox position, of the Karaite position, and our own Beta-Gershom position. The two readings are: from Deuteronomy 7:3-4, and Leviticus 24:10-16.


First, from Deuteronomy 7:3-4 "Neither shall you make marriages 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 you may serve other gods." 

The first interpretation of this is as follows (we have added in brackets the interpretation of the text):
";Neither shall you make marriages with them; your daughter you shall not give unto his son ["he" being the Canaanite man, and "his son" being the son of that Canaanite man], nor his daughter [again "he" being the Canaanite man, and "his daughter" being the daughter of that Canaanite man] shall you take unto your son ["you" being the Israelite to whom the Torah speaks to, and "your son" being the son of that Israelite]. For he ["he" being the Canaanite man] will turn away your son ["your son" being the son of the Israelite] from following Me, that you may serve other gods. "  In this interpretation, the concern expressed in the Torah is that the Israelite's son is given in marriage to a pagan woman and the pagan woman's father will teach paganism. In this interpretation there is no implication being made on the status of any possible offspring between the mixed couple.


The second interpretation of this is as follows (we have added in brackets the interpretation of the text):
Neither shall you make marriages with them; your daughter you shall not give unto his son ["he" being the Canaanite man, and "his son" being the son of that Canaanite man], nor his daughter [again "he" being the Canaanite man, and "his daughter" being the daughter of that Canaanite man] shall you take unto your son ["you" being the Israelite to whom the Torah speaks to, and "your son" being the son of that Israelite]. For he ["he" being the son of the Canaanite man] will turn away your son ["your son" being the grandson of the Israelite, i.e. the son of the daughter of the Israelite] from following Me, that you may serve other gods. So, in this interpretation, the concern expressed in the Torah is that the Israelite's daughter's son will be taught paganism (i.e. the Torah is concerned about that because the Israelite's daughter's son must be a Israelite).


A third interpretation of this is as follows (we have added in brackets the interpretation of the text):
Neither shall you make marriages with them; your daughter you shall not give unto his son ["he" being the Canaanite man, and "his son" being the son of that Canaanite man], nor his daughter [again "he" being the Canaanite man, and "his daughter" being the daughter of that Canaanite man] shall you take unto your son ["you" being the Israelite to whom the Torah speaks to, and "your son" being the son of that Israelite]. For he ["he" being the Canaanite man] will turn away your son ["your son" being the grandson of the Israelite, regardless of whether its from Canaanite father-Israelite mother or viceversa] from following Me, that you may serve other gods. So, in this interpretation, the concern expressed in the Torah is that the Israelite's grandchildren will be taught paganism (i.e. the Torah is concerned about that because the grandchild is Israelite from either situation, Canaanite father with Israelite mother, or viceversa.)


A fourth interpretation of this is as follows (we have added in brackets the interpretation of the text):
Neither shall you make marriages with them; your daughter you shall not give unto his son ["he" being the Canaanite man, and "his son" being the son of that Canaanite man], nor his daughter [again "he" being the Canaanite man, and "his daughter" being the daughter of that Canaanite man] shall you take unto your son ["you" being the Israelite to whom the Torah speaks to, and "your son" being the son of that Israelite]. For he ["he" being the son of the Israelite] will turn away your son ["your son" being the grandson of the Israelite] from following Me, that you may serve other gods. So, in this interpretation, the concern expressed in the Torah is that the Israelite's grandchildren will be taught paganism, where the son of the Israelite is swayed from God by his Canaanite wife's clan and accepts his Israelite son to be taught paganism.  

The Rabbinical interpretation is the second one above (that the implication is that child of the Israelite mother is Jewish; keep in mind that even with this interpretation, there is no explicit implication that the child of a Israelite father with Canaanite mother is or isn't Jewish).

The Karaite interpretation is either the first one above (that there is no implication made) or the fourth one (that the implication is that the child of the Israelite father is Jewish; keep in mind that even with this interpretation, there is no explicit implication that the child of a Israelite mother with Canaanite father is or isn't Jewish). Furthermore the Karaite position will highlight the first phrase of this quote: "Neither shall you make marriages with them". Who is this speaking to? Certainly it is speaking at least to male Israelites, which means that there is a concern about males Israelites marrying pagans. Why? because the offspring must be Jewish. of course, one may easily argue that this is also speaking to female Israelites, in which case the concern is also that female Israelites should not marry pagans because the offspring must be also Jewish.

Beta-Gershom's interpretation is the first one (hence that there is no implication made about the status of the offspring of a mixed couple, but rather the only focus of the passage is to avoid a Jew (male or female) from marrying into a pagan family and ending up following false gods.)

The third interpretation in not adopted as a position by either Karaites or Rabbanites.

Many Bible translations incorporate the first interpretation. For example, the NSRV translates this passage in English as: Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to ther sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods.


Now, regarding Leviticus 24:10-16  "A man whose mother was an Israelite and whose father was an Egyptian came out among the people of Israel; and the Israelite woman's son and a certain Israelite began fighting in the camp. The Israelite woman's son blasphemed the Name in a curse. And they brought him to Moses - now, his mother's name was Shelomith, daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan - and they put him in custody, until the decision of the Lord should made clear to them. The Lord said to Moses, saying: Take the blasphemer outside the camp and let all who were within hearing lay their hands on his head, and let the whole congregation stone him. And speak to the people of Israel saying: anyone who curses God shall bear the sin. One who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to death; the whole congregation shall stone the blasphemer. Aliens as well as citizens, when they blaspheme the Name shall be put to death."

The Karaite interpretation is as follows:
a) Twice, the son of the mixed couple is referred to as "The Israelite womans's son", as opposed to the individual who he was fighting with, who is referred to simply as "a certain Israelite"). That must mean that the Israelite woman's son is not considered a Israelite. If he was, the entire passage wouldn't even bother discussing the fact that the person was a child of intermarriage. Instead, the passage would simply say that there were two Israelites that engaged in a fight, and then one of the blasphemed. 
b) As if to stress the point, the reference at the end of the passage is made to the fact that "Aliens as well as citizens... shall be put to death", probably indicating that the "Israelite Woman's son" was considered a Egyptian (alien). Otherwise there would be no need to state that aliens too should be put to death for blasphemy.

The Rabinnical interpretation is that the passage says that the son of the Israelite woman "came out among the people of Israel", which must imply that he was "of the people of Israel". A rebuttal to this point is that "came out among the people of Israel" is similar or identical to the way in which resident aliens (Ger Toshav) are normally referred to (i.e. as aliens living among the people of Israel) and therefore just saying "came out among the people of Israel" could easily refer to a resident alien and does not imply "of the people of Israel".

Beta-Gershom's interpretation is that the passage does not rule regarding status of the offspring of mixed couples, because "the Egyptian" father was likely a convert (since all people gathered at Sinai, whether Israelite or Egyptian, became Israelite when the Law was given). Hence, the son of Shelomith was the offspring of a Israelite father AND mother. Also, if he was already born when the Law was given, then he is to be considered Israelite regardless of his parents. In summary the fight is between two Israelites. The text about aliens refers to any aliens joining the congregation after the Sinai Law has been given (and must therefore abide by Ger-Toshav Laws).


In summary:
- the Karaite interpretation of the two passages (Deuteronomy 7:3-4 and Leviticus 24:10-16) results in Karaite Judaism defining Judaism by birth as being thru patrilineal descent;
- the Orthodox interpretations result in Orthodox Judaism defining Judaism by birth as being thru matrilineal descent;
- Beta-Gershom does not derive any implication of status from these two passages, but rather from a third passage: Genesis 28:12-15 And Jacob dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the LORD stood beside him and said, "I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." In other words, a descendant of intermarriage (no matter how distant the Jewish ancestry might be) is indeed a offspring of Jacob, and, because of Genesis 28:12-15, the promise of the Sinai covenant is available for that person, should such person consider him/herself part of it. It is available without needing to undergo any type of conversion. Hence, according to Beta-Gershom, we consider any descendant of intermarriage as Jewish if that person considers him/herself Jewish (i.e. accepting being part of Israel, and upholding the Sinai Covenant between God and Israel).


In addition to Karaite Judaism and Orthodox Judaism, there are four other denominations (all of which are Rabbinical): Conservative Judaism, Reform Judaism, Liberal Judaism (mainly present in the UK and Brittish Commonwealth countries), and Reconstructionist Judaism.
- Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism outside of the US take the same position as Orthodox Judaism.
- Liberal Judaism and Reform Judaism in the United States have adopted the position that a person with one Jewish parent (whether mother or father) is considered Jewish if that person was raised as a Jew and self-identifies as a Jew; and, conversely, that such a person is not considered Jewish if he/she was not raised as a Jew (regardless of how the person self-identifies as a adult).
- Reconstructionist Judaism generally recognizes as Jewish anyone of Jewish descent who was raised as a Jew or identifies with the Jewish people. It is not as concerned with scriptural / halachic interpretation, as much as it is concerned with providing peoplehood to all generations of Jews.

The reader will need to assess for her/himself what is the best interpretation of the two passages. Because that the Karaite position is for patrilineal descent, and the Orthodox position is for matrilineal descent, the fact is that for all children of a mixed couple, one of these two Jewish institutions already accepts them as born Jewish (which institution depends on whether the person is a child of Jewish mother or of a Jewish father).

The same is not true for all grandchildren of intermarriage: a person with Jewish Maternal Grandfather, non-Jewish Maternal Grandmother, Jewish Paternal Grandmother, non-Jewish Paternal Grandfather. In this case the person is not considered Jewish-born by Orthodox Judaism (because the Mother is not Jewish, because the maternal grandmother is not Jewish) and is not considered Jewish-born by Karaite Judaism (because the Father is not Jewish, because the paternal grandfather is not Jewish).

Conversely, there is also a subset of grandchildren of intermarriage that are considered Jewish-born by, both, Karaite definition and Orthodox defintion. That is for a person with Jewish Maternal Grandmother, non-Jewish Maternal Grandfather, Jewish Paternal Grandfather, non-Jewish Paternal Grandmother. In this case the person is considered Jewish-born by Orthodox Judaism (because the Mother is Jewish, because the maternal grandmother is Jewish) and is also considered Jewish-born by Karaite Judaism (because the Father is Jewish, because the paternal grandfather is Jewish).


In case the reader concludes that the Orthodox position is correct, and the reader is of Patrilineal descent but wishes to be Jewish (according to the Orthodox definition), there are many resources in Orthodox Judaism that can assist with conversion requests. Some of these are:
http://www.convertingtojudaism.com
http://www.conversion2judaism.org
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/orthodoxconversiontojudaism/

In case the reader concludes that the Karaite position is correct, and the reader is of Matrilineal descent but wishes to be Jewish (according to the Karaite definition), the following resources are available:
http://www.kjuonline.com/FAQ.htm (website of Karaite Jewish university)
http://www.karaite-korner.org/conversion_faq.htm (Karaite corner website).

In case the reader concludes that the Orthodox position is correct, and the reader is of Patrilineal descent and wishes to remain a non-Jew (from a Orthodox Judaism standpoint) but still wishes to honor and uphold the Torah as a non-Jewish descendant of Jewish intermarriage, there are resources also available:

http://www.bnainoach.com ("Children of Noah". Website for observants & friends of the Noahide covenant)
http://www.bnti.us/ (Bnai Noah Torah Institute website)
Also, this website http://www.half-jewish.org contains information about how Torah applies to Gentiles who descend from Intermarried Jews as well as information about other belief systems and their compatibility or incompatibility with Judaism.

Likewise if the reader concludes that the Karaite position is correct, and the reader is of Matrilineal descent and wishes to remain a non-Jew (from a Karaite standpoint) but still wishes to honor and uphold the Torah as a non-Jewish descendant of Jewish intermarriage, the same resources mentioned above are applicable.

For those readers who are interested in learning more about, and possibly converting to Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist Judaism, there are a multitude of resources available. We list only a few:

http://www.mindspring.com/~brownstev/conversion.htm (Reconstructionist)
http://www.jrf.org/ (Reconstructionist)
http://urj.org (Reform)
http://www.liberaljudaism.org (Liberal Judaism, UK)
http://www.uscj.org (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism)
http://www.convert.org
http://www.ujc.org/content_display.html?ArticleID=32584
http://www.joi.org (The Jewish Outreach Institute - dedicated to creating a more open and welcoming Judaism)