Jew is a term used to denote both followers of a religion and members of an ethnicity (adj. Jewish). In a religious sense, the term refers to followers of Judaism whether they are ethnically Jewish or not. In an ethnic sense, it refers to those who trace their ancestry from Jacob, the son of Issac, the son of the ancient patriarch Abraham and Sarah. Ethnic Jews include both Observant Jews and those who, while not practicing Judaism as a religion, still identify themselves as Jews in a cultural or ethnic sense.

Judaism is a combination of a religion and a non-exclusive ethnic group (i.e. this ethnic group has a way to allow others to join). Its religious beliefs are discussed in detail in the entry on Judaism; this article discusses the ethnic group.

The mere belief in the principles of Judaism does not make one a Jew. Similarly, non-adherence by one who is Jewish to Jewish principles of faith does not make one lose one's Jewish status. However, the Israeli legal definition of a Jew excludes those who have joined other religions.

Table of contents
1 Who is a Jew?
2 Conversion to Judaism
3 Ancient Israelites
4 Ethnic Divisions
5 Ancient sects of Judaism
6 Religious leadership
7 Population
8 The Jewish community today
9 Related articles
10 Etymology of the word
11 External links

Who is a Jew?

Halakha, Jewish law, defines a Jew as someone who is either:

  • the child of a Jewish mother; or
  • A person who converts to Judaism in accord with Jewish law.

This standard is mandated by the Talmud, the record of Oral Law that explicates the Torah, the text on which Jewish law is based. According to the Talmud, this standard has been followed since the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai some 3500 years ago. Non-Orthodox Jewish historians, claim that this standard was not followed that long ago, but admit that it has existed for at least the last 2,000 years.

In the last half of the 20th century, two theologically liberal (primarily American) Jewish groups Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism have allowed people who do not meet these criteria to define themselves as Jews. They no longer require converts to follow traditional Jewish procedures of conversion, and they accept a person as a Jew even if their mother is non-Jewish, so long as the father is a Jew.

This has thus resulted in a serious schism among the Jewish people; today many Reform Jewish and secular Jewish-Americans consider themselves Jews, although they are not considered Jewish by Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews, and even by many Reform Jews outside of the United States.

Some Reform Jews view Judaism as a religion alone, and thus they view Jews who convert to another faith as non-Jews. In contrast, traditional rabbinic Judaism views Judaism as a peoplehood, and not merely a religion. In this view, those who leave Judaism by converting to another religion are still seen as Jewish people; however, they are seen as apostates who by their actions have chosen to remove themselves from the Judaic religion.

According to Jewish law, Jewishness is determined by the mother; thus the immediate descendants of a female Jewish apostate are still considered Jewish; the descendants of all her female children are also considered Jewish. While most of these descendants probably would not be practicing Judaism, or in many cases aware of their Jewishness, their status as Jews technically still would be in effect. As such, all Jewish denominations welcome the return of any of these people back to the Jewish community; such people would be considered Jews in good standing without the need for a formal conversion. Generally, people who have been raised as non-Jews would be expected to make some sort of public sign that they are returning to Judaism, for instance engaging in a course in Jewish education, joining a synagogue, having an adult Bar Mitzvah ceremony, etc. If not circumcised, males would be expected to have a circumcision.

Jewish peoplehood is not inherited from one's Jewish father alone, even if he were not an apostate from Judaism. This traditional rabbinic view is still held by many in the return-to-tradition wing of Reform, and by all of Orthodox and Conservative Judaism.

Conversion to Judaism

The laws of coversion to Judaism are based in discussions in the Talmud; throughout history different Jewish communities have always agreed on the basic requirements, although minor details have varied from community to community. Specifics can be found in the responsa literature, and in the various codes of Jewish law. Whenever someone converts to Judaism their sponsoring rabbi has the role of a mara d'atra, local halakhic authority, who has within bounds, the final say in deciding how to apply and interpret Jewish law. A good summary of the process of conversion to Judaism can be found in the Shulchan Aruch, a classic 16th century code of Jewish law:

Jewish law forbids proselytizing. Any non-Jew who wishes to become a Jew is gently discouraged not to do so. However, if the Rabbi approached is convinced of the prospective convert's sincerity, then he will allow him to follow the process of conversion. This process requires that he be taught the basic laws and beliefs of Judaism. The convert must show an ability to keep the laws, and make a commitment to keep them.

The conversion takes place in the presence of a three person court; the three may be rabbis, but in pressing circumstances some or all may be Jewish laypeople generally recognized in the local Jewish community as religiously observant and trustworthy. The court must give the convert a summary of the laws and the convert must undertake in the presence of the court to keep the laws.

If the convert is a man he must undergo circumcision. If he is already circumcised, he undergoes a symbolic circumcision in which a tiny drop of blood is drawn. The convert then immerse him or herself in a mikvah (ritual bath) in the presence of the court. If the convert is a woman, she immerses herself, in a standing position, in the presence of women, leaving her head above the water. The court then witnesses the immersion of the head from another room. (This fulfills two goals. 1. The immersion (of the head and therefore the whole body) is witnessd by the court, and 2. the privacy and modesty of the woman is protected.

Upon immersion the convert becomes a full fledged Jew. He or she is from that moment on a required to keep the laws of Judaism; according to classical Jewish theology, a convert will get an additional heavenly reward for doing so, yet can incur heavenly punishment if he or she fails to keep them.

Conversion in Reform Judaism

These rules of conversion to Judaism are still followed by Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, and by some of Reform Judaism outside of the USA. However, Reform Judaism within the USA no longer follows these rules. The Central Conference of American Rabbis (the official body of American Reform rabbis) formally resolved to permit the admission of converts "without any initiatory rite, ceremony, or observance whatever." (CCAR Yearbook 3 (1893), 73-95; American Reform Responsa, no. 68, at 236-237.)

Although this resolution has been examined critically by some Reform rabbis, the resolution still remains the official policy of American Reform Judaism (CCAR Responsa Circumcision for an Eight-Year-Old Convert 5756.13, and Solomon B. Freehof, Reform Responsa for Our Time, no. 15.) Thus, American Reform Judaism does not require ritual immersion in a mikveh, circumcision, acceptance of any part of Jewish law as normative, the appearance before a rabbinical court, or a minimal course of Jewish study. As such, their conversions are generally rejected by non-Reform Jews.

Recognition of converts between denominations

Converts who have undergone non-Orthodox conversions will find that many Jews will not marry them or their children. Orthodox Jews generally accept the validity of most Orthodox conversions to Judaism, but reject the validity of most Conservative conversions, and reject the validity of all Reform and Reconstructionist conversions. Even among Orthodox Jews, disputes sometimes arise.

Conservative Jews accept the validity of all Orthodox and Conservative conversions to Judaism; they are willing to accept the validity of individual Reform and Reconstructionist conversions if those cases are carried out in accord with Jewish law; however these are examined on a case by case basis.

Since they do not consider themselves bound by Jewish law, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews accept the validity of conversions to Judaism from all Jewish denominations.

It is sometimes not made clear to converts that their conversions would not be accepted by all Jewish groups. This can lead to circumstances when a Rabbi will not agree to let somebody who thought he was Jewish marry until he undergoes a new conversion. In the case of a woman who underwent a less stringent conversion, those who require a more stringent conversion would consider her and all her children non-Jewish until they undergo the more stringent conversion.

In addition the more stringent accuse the less stringent of causing intermarriage and the deterioration of the Jewish people as they are watering down what it means to be a Jew and making it easier for people to leave Judaism by allowing them to easily join non-Jewish families.

See Reform Judaism on the issue of "Who is a Jew?"

"Jew" in Israeli law

The State of Israel allows any Jew to acquire citizenship; this is known as the Law of Return. For the purposes of the Law of Return, anyone with a Jewish grandparent or who converted to Judaism is considered Jewish, and Israeli law also allows the immediate non-Jewish family of immigrants to immigrate under the law. This definition is not the same as that in traditional Jewish law; it is a deliberately wider, so as to include those non-Jewish relatives of Jews who were perceived to be Jewish, and thus faced anti-Semitism. More on this topic can be found in the article on Population groups in Israel.

Ancient terminology: In one place in the Talmud, the word Israelite refers to somebody who is Jewish but does not necessarily practice Judaism as a religion. "An Israelite even though he has sinned is still an Israelite." In this usage, the distinction is not made between Jew and Israelite and they are both called Jew, though in modern day English, this terminology is not used.

Modern day English speakers often refer to "religious Jews" or "secular Jews".

Ancient Israelites

For the first two periods the history of the Jews is mainly that of Palestine orJudea. It begins among those peoples which occupied the area lying between the Nile river on the one side and the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers on the other. Surrounded by ancient seats of culture in Egypt and Babylonia, by the mysterious deserts of Arabia, and by the highlands of Asia Minor, the land of Canaan (later Judea, then Palestine, then Israel) was a meeting place of civilizations. The land was traversed by old-established trade routes and possessed important harbors on the Gulf of Akaba and on the Mediterranean coast, the latter exposing it to the influence of the Levantine culture.

Jews descend mostly from the ancient Israelites (also known as Hebrews), who settled in the land of Israel. The Israelites traced their common lineage to the biblical patriarch Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. A kingdom was established under Saul and continued under King David and Solomon. King David conquered Jerusalem (first a Canaanite, then a Jebusite town) and made it his capital. After Solomon's reign the nation split into two kingdoms, the Israel (in the north) and the Judah (in the south). Israel was conquered by the Assyrian ruler Shalmaneser V in the 8th century BC. The kingdom of Judah was conquered by a Babylonian army in the early 6th century BC. The Judahite elite was exiled to Babylonia, but later at least a part of them returned to their homeland after the subsequent conquest of Babylonia by the Persians.

After the Persians were defeated by Alexander the Great, the Seleucid Kingdom was formed which sought to incorporate Greek culture into the Persian world. When the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, supported by hellenized Jews, attempted to rededicate the Jewish temple to Zeus, the orthodox Jews revolted under the leadership of the Maccabees and created an independent Jewish kingdom known as the Hasmonaean Dynasty which lasted from 165 BCE to 63 BCE. This was followed by a period of Roman rule. In 66 CE, Judeans began to revolt against the Roman rulers of Judea. The revolt was smashed by the Roman emperors Vespasian and Titus Flavius. The Romans destroyed all but a single wall of the Temple in Jerusalem and stole the holy menorah. Judeans continued to live in their land in significant numbers, and were allowed to practice their religion, until the 2nd century when Julius Severus ravaged Judea while putting down the bar Kokhba revolt. After 135, Jews were not allowed to enter the city of Jerusalem, although this ban must have been at least partially lifted, since at the destruction of the rebuilt city by the Persians in the 7th century, Jews are said to have lived there.

Many of the Israeli Jews were sold into slavery while others became citizens of other parts of the Roman Empire. This is the traditional explanation to the diaspora. However, a majority of the Jews in Antiquity were most likely descendants of convertites in the cities of the Hellenistic-Roman world, especially in Alexandria and Asia Minor, and were only affected by the diaspora in its spiritual sense, as the sense of loss and homelessness which became a cornerstone of the Jewish creed, much supported by persecutions in various parts of the world. The policy of conversion, which spread the Jewish religion throughout the Hellenistic civilization, seems to have ended with the wars against the Romans and the following reconstruction of Jewish values for the post-Temple era.

Before the rise of Islam the Jews inhabited the entire Roman empire; with the Arab expansion, some of them would move as far as India and China. Some Jewish people are also descended from converts to Judaism outside the Mediterranean world. While the Avars Hebrew origins/conversion debate continues, it is known that some Khazars, Edomites, and Ethiopians, as well as many Arabs, particularly in Yemen before, converted to Judaism in the past; today in the United States and Israel some people still convert to Judaism. In fact, there is a greater tradition of conversion to Judaism than many people realize. The word "proselyte" originally meant a Greek who had converted to Judaism. As late as the 6th century the rump Roman empire (i.e. Byzantium) was issuing decrees against conversion to Judaism, implying that conversion to Judaism was still occurring.

Ethnic Divisions

The commonly-used terms Ashkenazi and Sephardic refer both to a religious and an ethnic division. Some scholars hold that Ashkenazi Jews are descendants of those who originally followed the Palestinian Jewish religious tradition, and Sephardic Jews are descendants of those who originally followed the Babylonian religious tradition.

Jews have historically been divided into four major ethnic groups:

  • Ashkenazi (Jews who lived in Germany or France before migrating to Eastern Europe)

  • Sephardic (Jews who lived in Spain or Portugal)

  • Oriental Jews (Jews who lived in the Middle East and North Africa, but later spread to Central Asia and South Asia). Note that in common usage, most Oriental Jews are called Sephardic, as the religious rites of Oriental Jews and Sephardic Jews is essentially the same.

  • The Yemenite Jews (also known as Teimanim). These are Oriental Jews whose geographical and social isolation from the rest of the Jewish community allowed them to develop a liturgy and set of practices sufficiently distinct from other Oriental Jewish groups so as to be recognized as a different group.

Smaller groups of Jews include the following:

  • The Ethiopian Jews, also known as the Falasha or Beta Israel.

  • the Bene Israel, i.e. Jews who lived in Bombay, India.

  • The Romaniotes, i.e. Greek speaking Jews living in the Balkans from the Hellenistic era until today (almost 6,000 people worldwide)

Yiddish is the tradition language of the Ashkenazi, whereas Ladino (Judeo-Portuguese) is that of the Sephardim. Most Oriental Jews spoke Arabic, but others spoke Aramaic or Persian.

Following the Spanish Inquisition the Sephardic Jews were dispersed, some migrating to Europe, where they were assimilated into the Ashkenazi, others migrating to the Middle East where they were assimilated into the Oriental Jews. Most Oriental Jews practice Sephardic rite and are therefore sometimes referred to as Sephardic. Ashkenazi Jews practice Ashkenazi rite.

Out of these communities, the largest by far are the Ashkenazim, comprising ~80% of the Jewish total, with Oriental Jews comprising most of the remainder.

Sub-groups of Jews include the Gruzim (Georgiann Jews from the Caucasus), Juhurim (Mountain Jews from Daghestan and Azerbaijan in the eastern Caucasus), Maghrebim (North African Jews), Abayudaya and (Ugandan Jews)

Ancient sects of Judaism

Almost all Jews today are Rabbinical Jews, who follow Judaism through the lens of the oral law, contained in the Mishnah and Talmud. A much smaller group known as the Karaites still exists. They reject the teachings in the Mishnah and Talmud. (Members of this group refer to themselves as Karaites, not as Jews.)

One small community of Samaritans is still extant; however, their religion is not the same as rabbinic Judaism. The Samaritan faith and that of other Jews diverged over a millennium ago; Samaritans do not consider themselves, nor call themselves, Jews. The Samaritan religion is based on some of the same books used as the basis of rabbinic Judaism, but these religions are not identical. Samaritan scripturess include the Samaritan version of the Torah, the Memar Markah, the Samaritan liturgy, and Samaritan law codes and biblical commentaries. They do not recognize the legitimacy of the oral law, nor most of the Jewish Bible (Tanakh).

Religious leadership

Jewish synagogues are led by rabbis (spiritual leaders). In many synagogues there is a hazzan (cantor) that leads many parts of the prayer service. Many Sephardic rabbinic Jewish communities refer to their leaders as hakham. Among Yemenite Jews, known as Teimanin, the term mori (teacher) is used.

The spiritual leader of a Karaite community is often called a hakham.


Prior to World War II the world population of Jews was around 14-16 million. The Holocaust reduced this number to around 10-11 million. Today, there are an estimated 13 million Jews worldwide in over 134 countries. Of these, around 5.8 million live in the United States and 4.3 million live in Israel. Most of the remainder live in Canada, Hungary, Ukraine, France, Argentina, Russia and Germany, including 2.4 million in Europe. At the moment, an increasing number of Russian Jews are emigrating to Germany. According to the AJC, Berlin is "die weltweit am schellsten wachsende jüdische Gemeinschaft".

Israel is the only country in which Jews form a majority of the population. It was established as an independent state on May 14, 1948. The symbol on the Israeli flag is known as the Star of David ("Magen David" in Hebrew).

Despite the small number of Jews worldwide, many influential thinkers in modern times have been ethnically Jewish. These include Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand (only born Jewish), Noam Chomsky and Milton Friedman. See List of famous Jews

The Jewish community today

European's largest Jewish community can be found in Antwerp, Belgium, where some thousands of orthodox Jews live.

Today Germany, especially its capital Berlin, has the fastest growing Jewish community worldwide. Some ten thousands of Jews from the former Eastern Bloc settled in Germany since the fall of the Berlin wall. The experiences during the Nazi era, a cosmopolitan and anti-nationalistic post-war education and especially the political 68ies movement created just the right tolerant atmosphere in Germany, which still is missing in some post-communist states.

Related articles

Judaism, Jewish history timeline, Gentiles, History of Jews in the United States, History of the Jews in Russia and Soviet Union, List of famous Jews, Australasian Union of Jewish Students

Etymology of the word

The most common view is that the Middle English word Jew is from the Old French qiu, earlier juieu, from the Latin iudeus from the Greek corresponding to the Hebrew y'hudi, ultimately from Judah, name of a Hebrew patriarch and the tribe descended from him. The Old English equivalent was Iudeas. An alternative and much less common view is that Jew is from Jewry from the greek evrei meaning "Hebrews." Under the latter view, Abraham, Israel and other patriarchs are regarded as Jews while under the former only the descendants (ethnically or physically) of the Judaeans would be Jews, strictly speaking.

External links