Dear Matchmaker Rabbi:
I’m thinking of joining JDate, but I’m only partly Jewish in my ancestry. I was sent to a Jewish kindergarten, but had no other Jewish education. Since I’m not 100% Jewish, is it wrong to date Jewish girls, even if I tell them the truth on the first date?
I would have no problem committing to converting (which as I understand is a long process). And I would feel funny dating a non-Jewish girl. What do you think?
― Only Sort of Jewish
Dear Only Sort of Jewish:
The answer to the heart of your question (“Who is a Jew?”) is complicated and is not answered the same by everyone. The short answer is: “It all depends on whom you ask or whom you consider authoritative.”
Orthodox and Conservative strands of Judaism define Jewishness by matrilineal descent (i.e., if the mother is Jewish). Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements define Jewishness by the religion of the mother OR father. In all movements, how a person is choosing to define themselves is also important. A “Jew” who is actively practicing Christianity is no longer deemed “Jewish.”
Most people don’t realize this, but the notion of Jewishness being something “in the blood” is a tragic consequence of The Inquisition. That was the first time we have records of such a notion. Prior to that, at least until the advent of Christianity, we have evidence of widespread conversion into and out of Judaism. Given that, how can there be any validity to the notion of Judaism as a “race”? The Nicaea Council, which formally converted the Roman Empire to Christianity in 325 CE, would not have bothered to make conversion to Judaism a crime punishable by death if many people were not actively doing so.
Many people also don’t realize that defining Jewishness with the religion of the father (i.e., patriarchal descent) is actually an older tradition than the matriarchal descent mandated by modern orthodox and Conservative movements. For the people in the Torah (i.e., biblical era texts), it was the father’s religion that mattered.
Examples? Joseph’s children had an Egyptian mother, but his sons (Ephraim and Menases) were considered Jews. Moses married a non-Jew, but there is no debate as to whether his children were Jewish. King David himself, the reputed forefather of the messiah, is a descendant of a woman who converted to Judaism (Ruth).
In my mind, these are two great reasons to honor bilineal descent (religion of father or mother). I don’t want to re-enforce notions that are a result of anti-Semitism, and I don’t believe rabbinic-era laws necessarily supersede biblical-era laws.
But, that’s just me. It is a hotly debated issue marred mostly (in my mind) by a lack of knowledge of Jewish history. Most Jews who defend matrilineal descent don’t know these two historical facts.
If you have one Jewish parent and consider yourself Jewish, I don’t think joining JDate is “misrepresenting” yourself. But, I would challenge you to spend time learning about Judaism and becoming involved with an organized Jewish community; if you identify with Judaism enough to join JDate, why not enjoy more of Judaism’s treasures?
I also don’t think you are obligated to “qualify” or explain your Jewishness on a first date. If it matters to your date ― she will ask. Spend your time asking questions about her, not talking about yourself.
Finally, just one final piece of advice I can’t help, but mention: Please refer to your dates as “women” rather than “girls.” Unless you are a teenager, many women in this day and age would find such a reference demeaning.
― The Matchmaker Rabbi
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