Who is a Jew?
By Baruch Litvin
Edited by Sidney B. Hoenig
Ktav Publishing House, 2013, 420 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - March 19, 2013
This is a reprint with 43 pages of additional material of the important very informative 1965 first edition. The book has forty-three responses that Prime Minister David Ben Gurion received in the 1950s from distinguished rabbis and Jewish scholars from around the world answering the question who is a Jew. The answers delve into the history of Judaism, what were the people who were later called Jews named at different times of their history, what is conversion, what if anything does the Bible say or indicate about conversion, when were people first converted into the Jewish religion, the development of the halakhah (law) concerning conversion, is Judaism a religion, race, culture, or something else, matrilineal vs. patrilineal descent, do converts need to promise to observe all of the biblical and rabbinical laws, and many other subjects that can help both Jews and non-Jews understand Judaism and its history.
Professor Rabbi Dr. Sidney B. Hoenig, a noted historian and the book's editor, reveals the historical situation that prompted the Israeli prime minister to secure an answer to the question "Who is a Jew?" It was a law suit file by a monk who was born a Jew but insisted on remaining a monk. He wanted Israeli citizenship under Israel's Law of Return that allowed Jews citizenship if they asked for it and met minimal requirements. Although Jewish halakha states that once a Jew always a Jew, the Israeli Supreme Court decided against the monk because he considered himself a Christian. Dr. Hoenig lists a sampling of 42 different subjects which are very relevant to Jewish history that are discussed in the responses. The respondents frequently disagreed with each other, and these disagreements are thought-provoking and instructive.
Among the more than several dozen prominent respondents are the Chief Rabbi of Israel, the Court of the Chief Rabbi in London, the Chief Rabbis of France, Amsterdam, Livorno, Rome, and Switzerland, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Aaron Kotler, Louis Finkelstein, Solomon B. Freehof, Yehezkel Kaufman, Ephraim E. Urbach, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Saul Lieberman, Harry A. Wolfson, S. Y. Agnon, and Immanuel Jacobovits. The volume also has a forty page article on the battle for Jewish unity, an eighteen page exchange between the prime minister and Simon A. Dolgin, and an eye-opening thirty page article by the historian Solomon Zeitlin, "An Halakic-Historic Study."
Some of the interesting ideas in this book include Solomon Zeitlin's idea that the Sadducees were the righteous Torah-oriented Jews and the Pharisees rose around the third century BCE to reform Judaism by interpreting the Bible to fit then-current situations. Also Shaye J. D. Cohen wrote he proved by an historical analysis that determining Jewish status by the mother is a "legal innovation of the first or second century of our era" and that it resulted from an "influx of new ideas into rabbinic Judaism." Additionally several respondents pointed out that the Bible does not say that Ruth converted to Judaism; she didn't have to; the concept of conversion did not exist during her lifetime.