Can ‘Jewish’ Be Defined In An Open Society?


As we all know, defining who is a Jew — for centuries agreed upon as the child of a Jewish mother or of a halachic convert — has become increasingly complex and controversial in recent times. How does that play out in practical terms, and what does it tell us about prospects for a cohesive world Jewish community?

A prestigious Jewish think tank in Jerusalem recently set out to explore “the Jewish spectrum in a time of fluid identity,” taking the pulse of Jewish communities around the world in defining Jewishness today, and seeking ways to maintain a sense of peoplehood at a time when the search for identity is increasingly personal.

The result is an incisive and thoughtful 115-page report produced by the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), written by two of its senior fellows: Shmuel Rosner, an Israeli journalist with a special interest in the diaspora, and John Ruskay, the former executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York (and a member of the board of The Jewish Week).

“There was a recognition that times are changing,” Ruskay explained in an interview, “and we need to think through issues of Jewish identity that are taking place culturally and have policy implications.” Like how financial and educational resources should be allocated in Israel and the diaspora, the effect that definitions of Jewishness have on Israeli law and institutions (marriage, divorce, conversion), the sense of mutual responsibility Jews have for each other, and how the number of Jews in the world impacts on the community psychologically.

In Israel, Rosner told me, “Judaism is primarily seen as a religion defined by the Orthodox rabbinate, which most people dislike — so they tend to dislike religion.” (Less than 30 percent of Israeli Jews say they trust the rabbinate, the report notes.) In the U.S., though, according to the Pew Report and other studies, “religion is not the main aspect of Jewish identity,” Rosner said. (Only 19 percent of American Jewish adults say observing Jewish law is essential to their Jewishness.) He asserted that “it’s important for Judaism to find a language that isn’t just a religious language” or we stand “to lose many people.”

The JPPI’s “world dialogue” was conducted last spring and included 715 participants in 49 discussion groups from North America, Israel, Europe, South America and Australia.

The chief finding in the report: “a remarkable consensus among engaged Jews regarding the need for the Jewish world to be inclusive and welcoming toward all those who seek to participate in Jewish life, and [yet] maintain selective communal norms when necessary for practical or symbolic reasons.”

How the community can be welcoming and inclusive to all who seek to participate while at the same time holding to some form of standards was acknowledged to be the key challenge. “It is hard to be united as Jews when we don’t have boundaries of what is ‘Jewish,’” as one Australian put it.

The participants in the project, many of whom were leaders in their own communities, felt that senior communal leaders, like rabbis, philanthropists and professionals, should be held to a higher standard of Jewishness, however defined, and should serve as “ambassadors and greeters for a welcoming community.”

Given the dramatic increase in intermarriage in recent decades and the move away from religious and organizational affiliation among younger people, most of those interviewed understood that the more rigid standards of Jewish attachment that applied in the past no longer hold up today.

Among the report’s main recommendations: “support programs that reach out to Jews with weak Jewish identities,” develop leadership training programs, “acknowledge those who have cast their lot with the Jewish people” (including self-declared Jews, partial Jews and behavioral Jews), and “convene inter-denominational dialogues” among Jews from the different religious streams. This last point is especially important at a time when groups like the Synagogue Council of America, which for decades brought together leaders of the different denominations, are long gone and anachronistic.

With inclusion widely accepted today as a high priority, “the question is how,” Ruskay noted. “This report takes to the next level the rhetoric of welcoming.” It recognizes that the religious denominations will respond in their own ways, but for the broader community — federations, Hillels, JCCs, etc. — it addresses issues of helpful language, messaging and best practices.

For most of the dialogue participants, the key aspects of Judaism are peoplehood and culture rather than religion and ancestry. More important than following the laws of the Torah, they said, was caring for one’s fellow Jews. (Younger Jews, it was noted, place less emphasis on peoplehood and taking care of other Jews.) Still, most of the participants continue to define who is Jewish based on religion. And when asked who should determine who is Jewish, most participants said “the local community” rather than any national or international body. And many Jews want the “right of self-definition reserved for the individual.” (Only 20 percent said rabbis should decide, a low number attributed to both the growth of secularism and the “strictness of Orthodoxy.”)

On the issue of intermarriage, while the participants accept it as a reality and approve welcoming non-Jews, they were about evenly split on whether intermarriage could be a blessing to Judaism in the future — the Israelis were far more skeptical than diaspora respondents — and 80 percent of the participants said the Jewish community should encourage in-marriage.

There was a kind of sliding scale of commitment proposed, based on specific goals and activities. So it was widely thought that funds should be available for Jewish projects reaching anyone interested in participation, but there was an expectation that religious leaders be “unquestionably Jewish,” according to the report. And “most participants want their communal leaders to be Jewish, while there was disagreement about “whether a leader must have a Jewish spouse.”

Shmuel Rosner noted that in asking participants “who is Jewish for what purpose?” rather than just “who is a Jew?” he and John Ruskay were “allowing the community to lower the bar when necessary, but on other issues to raise the bar.” Rosner suggested that providing such flexibility permits the community to be “more creative and nuanced” in making a range of decisions, based on specific circumstances.

The co-authors are hopeful the report will have a practical effect, encouraging communities, and specific institutions within communities, to come together and discuss when and how to apply standards and boundaries in making important decisions.

Both mentioned the importance of more inter-denominational dialogue. “We’ve regressed into our bubbles,” Ruskay said, “and we need to find ways to sit down and talk together.” It need not be about religious issues, where the divide is most pronounced, he said. “Let people talk about issues of security for the community or doing chesed projects together.”

Rosner said discussions about religious issues should be on the table, too. “Maybe not everyone will show up, but that’s not a reason not to try.” Based on his own experience in such dialogue, he said that keeping the gatherings private, at least initially, and “making people feel comfortable, not manipulated,” can go a long way toward building trust.

The heartening — and challenging — takeaway from the world dialogue and JPPI report is that Jews from around the world want to find new and creative ways to connect even as they acknowledge that a definitive definition of who is a Jew is impossible.

In a sense, what could be more Jewish than that?

For the full report:

was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at