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Next page: The term ‘Jew’ in the Bible
[from Judah], traditionally, descendants of Judah, the fourth son of Jacob, whose tribe, with that of his half brother Benjamin, made up the kingdom of Judah; historically, members of the worldwide community of adherents to Judaism. The degree to which national and religious elements of Jewish culture interact has varied throughout history and has been a matter of considerable debate. There were approximately 17.8 million Jews in the world in 1990, with 8 million in the Americas (of which about 5.7 million were in the United States), 3.5 million in Israel, and 3.5 million in Europe.- Source: The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001.
In common speech, the word "Jew" is used to refer to all of the physical and spiritual descendants of Jacob/Israel, as well as to the patriarchs Abraham and Isaac and their wives, and the word "Judaism" is used to refer to their beliefs. Technically, this usage is inaccurate, just as it is technically inaccurate to use the word "Indian" to refer to the original inhabitants of the Americas. However, this technically inaccurate usage is common both within the Jewish community and outside of it, and is therefore used throughout this site.
Who is a Jew?
A Jew is any person whose mother was a Jew or any person who has gone through the formal process of conversion to Judaism.
It is important to note that being a Jew has nothing to do with what you believe or what you do. A person born to non-Jewish parents who has not undergone the formal process of conversion but who believes everything that Orthodox Jews believe and observes every law and custom of Judaism is still a non-Jew, even in the eyes of the most liberal movements of Judaism, and a person born to a Jewish mother who is an atheist and never practices the Jewish religion is still a Jew, even in the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox. In this sense, Judaism is more like a nationality than like other religions, and being Jewish is like a citizenship. See What Is Judaism?
This has been established since the earliest days of Judaism. In the Torah, you will see many references to "the strangers who dwell among you" or "righteous proselytes" or "righteous strangers." These are various classifications of non-Jews who lived among Jews, adopting some or all of the beliefs and practices of Judaism without going through the formal process of conversion and becoming Jews. Once a person has converted to Judaism, he is not referred to by any special term; he is as much a Jew as anyone born Jewish.
Although all Jewish movements agree on these general principles, there are occasional disputes as to whether a particular individual is a Jew. Most of these disputes fall into one of two categories.
First, traditional Judaism maintains that a person is a Jew if his mother is a Jew, regardless of who his father is. The liberal movements, on the other hand, consider a person to be Jewish if either of his parents was Jewish and the child was raised Jewish. Thus, if the child of a Jewish father and a Christian mother is raised Jewish, the child is a Jew according to the Reform movement, but not according to the Orthodox movement. On the other hand, if the child of a Christian father and a Jewish mother is not raised Jewish, the child is a Jew according to the Orthodox movement, but not according to the Reform movement! The matter becomes even more complicated, because the status of that children's children also comes into question.
Second, the more traditional movements do not always acknowledge the validity of conversions by the more liberal movements. The more modern movements do not always follow the procedures required by the more traditional movements, thereby invalidating the conversion. In addition, Orthodoxy does not accept the authority of Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis to perform conversions, and the Conservative movement has debated whether to accept the authority of Reform rabbis.- Source: Who is a Jew? Judaism 101. Last accessed Jan. 16, 2006
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