A comprehensive study examines the attitudes of Jews in Israel regarding the question “Who is a Jew?”
“Judaism,” said Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem, “is what every generation of Jews chooses from the past, takes from it and adds to it, and redefines as the essence of Judaism in the eyes of the current generation.”16 This is a statement that is hard to argue with on the factual plane. But we may add to it a question that has no unequivocal answer:
To what degree do Jews in any generation enjoy latitude to add to Judaism or subtract from it; and to what degree are they able to redefine the essence of Judaism so that it will still be recognizable to members of the current and future generations as Judaism?17
This question is woven in various ways throughout the present study; in many of the dilemmas that we presented to the participants, the choice is, in effect, between adherence to tradition and flexibility/change to tradition. As we begin our discussion of the flexibility component, we can already say that:
1. Flexibility levels differ depending on the issue at hand.
2. Not all Jews display the same level of flexibility.
3. Many Jews are inconsistent: on some issues they make choices evincing flexibility, while on others they display a lack of flexibility (and it is not always clear why).
In the following pages we will briefly address a few aspects and examples of the Flexibility component. It should be clarified that our discussion of this component in the present study refers solely to Flexibility in terms of delineating and understanding the space of belonging to the Jewish collective. Clearly, with regard to other Jewishness-related questions, ones pertaining to beliefs, opinions and, in particular, to the observance of Jewish practices, most Jews worldwide see themselves as free to move about within the Jewish space with great flexibility.
This space, which was discussed in detail in an earlier JPPI study (#IsraeliJudaism), includes Jews who for the most part are not halachic, meaning that they do not see themselves as subject to certain behavioral imperatives in the expression of their Judaism. The vast majority do not adhere to a Jewish way of life in the traditional sense. They are not Shabbat-observant. A recent THEMADAD.COM study found that a substantial majority not only travel on Shabbat but also go shopping on Shabbat, do not attend synagogue services, do not comply with modesty requirements or halachic kashrut, do not don tefillin (phylacteries), and more.
The Jewish Mother
An important issue through which we can study spheres of flexibility is that of the automatic transmission of Jewishness from generation to generation. Age-old Jewish tradition, which is not a matter of dispute, maintains that Jewishness is automatically transmitted from a mother to her sons and daughters. There is no certainty, and disagreement exists, about when and why this tradition began.
Nevertheless, there are both major branches of the Jewish people and important thinkers among the Jewish people who feel that, in the modern age, flexibility regarding this unyielding tradition is called for, and that that tradition should be changed.
In 1983 the American Reform movement made the tremendously important decision18 to recognize, under certain conditions, the Jewishness of the offspring of a Jewish parent, father or mother. The two documents issued by the Reform movement at the time set forth the rationale and the rules pertaining to the decision. The report of the committee handling the issue focused on the sociological crisis then facing the American Jewish community, a crisis that the community still confronts today. A counterpart public statement by Reform rabbis discussed halachic changes in the definition of Jewishness over the generations. The outcome of the investigation carried out by the Reform movement was a new sphere of flexibility.
Children with one Jewish parent who formally identify with the Jewish faith and the Jewish people will, according to the Reform approach, be considered as Jews by birth. Today, most of the non-religious Jewish communal institutions accept the offspring of a Jewish father as full Jews, including them in the Jewish population counts of each community. For example, the Chicago community study (2020) looked at whether participants had a Jewish parent, without asking whether that parent was the mother or the father. In all instances of a Jewish parent and Jewish identification, the participant was counted as a member of the Jewish community.19
The factors behind this decision by the Reform movement, and the consequent inclusive policy of communal organizations around the world, have mainly to do with the lifestyle of US Jews and other Diaspora communities and with the challenges they face. They do not pertain to Israeli Jewry to the same degree. The adoption of a flexible approach to the automatic transmission of Jewishness was mainly intended to cope with the high prevalence of mixed marriages in the Diaspora – a phenomenon that has become even more widespread since the Reform movement’s decision was made.
The most recent figure for mixed marriages in the US is 61%, for those married after 2010.20 In Israel, where Jews are the majority, there is only a low rate of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews; accordingly (as clearly seen in the Israeli Judaism study), the degree of confidence among Jews regarding the Jewish continuity of their descendants is very high, and their need for flexibility in defining Jewishness is, apparently, not great.
It should be noted, however, that a substantial majority of Israeli Jews support the possibility of civil marriage, which does not presently exist. Such an option could potentially open the door wider, given a dimension of governmental legitimization, to marriages between Jews and non-Jews in Israel. Although, and this can be seen in some of the data presented below, mixed marriages outside of Israel ultimately result in a strong possibility of slipping away from the Jewish people within one, two, or three generations (per current data21 ). These marriages are not the same as mixed marriages in Israel, where the outcome is continued everyday life amid the Israeli-Jewish majority.
In the present study we can see that a large majority of Israeli Jews tend to favor the traditional rules and to rely on transmission from mother to child when determining how Jewishness will be passed down automatically from generation to generation. A major gap thus exists between the accepted norm in a large number of Diaspora communities, both on a practical level and in terms of consciousness, and the Israeli norm. This is also true regarding the question of whether patrilineal descent is a possible means of transmitting Jewishness (most Israeli Jews answer in the negative). It is also true regarding the weight of self-definition in determining a person’s Jewishness. Self-definition carries great weight in the Diaspora, but little or none in Israel.
Israeli Views in Detail
On the question of whether Jewishness is a matter of self-definition only, or whether additional criteria are needed to be considered a Jew, a substantial majority of respondents say that other criteria are necessary beyond that of self-definition.
When we look at these criteria, we find a significant preference for the Jewish mother as the factor defining a child’s identity, compared with all other options. Thus, among more than a quarter of Israeli Jews who chose Ethnicity as the chief component of Jewishness – thereby already emphasizing the familial context of Jewishness – 74% feel that ethnicity means having a Jewish mother.
Incidentally, a 2022 Israel Democracy Institute survey yielded a similar finding:22
• 70% of the Jewish Israeli public do not consider those with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother to be Jews.
• 26% see them as Jews.
• 4% don’t know.
A breakdown of the data by religiosity level indicates that the more secular the respondent, the more likely s/he was to see the children of a Jewish father as Jews. Even so, a small majority (50% versus 44%) of the secular do not regard such people as Jews.
In our study we found that:
• 13% concurred with a position similar to that of the American Reform movement, indicating that a Jewish parent is an acceptable option for them.
• 14% felt that it was enough to have some kind of Jewish ethnic background, i.e., dating to the grandparents’ generation, for a person to be designated Jewish.
A similar preference could also be seen among other questionnaire respondents who chose Nationality, Culture, and other main components of Jewishness. Among these respondents, the percentage of those who chose Jewish mother was five times greater than the percentage of those who chose Jewish parent as a Jewishness-defining criterion.
One must, of course, consider the possibility that this response on the part of Israeli Jews is largely a matter of habit. The Jewish-mother test has been accepted by Jews for many generations, and in Israel no urgent need has ever arisen to rethink this definition. The data indicates that the habit has been devoutly maintained in conservative circles that have no wish to create a large leeway for defining affiliation with the Jewish collective. By contrast, the data also shows that Jews from sectors that do not see themselves as obligated to the same degree by stringent tradition (i.e., those who self-define as secular) have a much stronger tendency to allow Jewish classification not only on the basis of matrilinear descent, but also on the basis of other possible options (Parent, Ethnicity, or Self-definition).
Accordingly, two-thirds of the secular who feel that Jewishness is a matter of Ethnicity also accept Ethnicity via a Jewish parent, or some kind of Jewish ethnic background (not necessarily via the mother) as a sufficient test of belonging. Furthermore: a third of secular Israeli Jews agree that Jewishness is a matter of self-definition, that is, they are willing to allow maximal flexibility that would define Jewishness as an individual affair with no other conditions beyond personal decision. In other, more traditionalist sectors, the percentage of those who accept self-definition as a sufficient condition for Jewishness, or who agree that Jewishness can be passed down automatically from a Jewish parent or via some kind of Jewish ethnic background, is much lower.
The tendency of Israeli Jews to rely on the Jewish-mother criterion as the factor that determines a person’s Jewishness is very easy to identify when we look at the responses to the study’s first questions.
As mentioned above, the study was conducted, in part, as a kind of game. One feature of the game was the presentation of 12 fictional characters, each of which came with a brief description – a kind of résumé. The respondents were asked to decide, for each character, whether s/he was Jewish or not Jewish, or to state their inability to decide. The characters appear in the Appendix of this document.
When all the characters presented to the study participants are divided into two groups – those whose résumés mention a Jewish mother, and those whose résumés do not mention a Jewish mother – we can discern, even without reviewing the characters’ detailed biographies, that Jews almost universally regard having a Jewish mother as a meaningful, and usually decisive, criterion of Jewish affiliation. Each fictional character in the study has other attributes
besides maternal parentage:
• Some converted while others did not.
• Some see themselves as Jews while others do not.
• Some live in Israel while others do not.
However, excluding Conversion, most of these attributes are largely overridden by the matrilineal issue. Basically, apart from Zamir (who, according to his résumé, converted in Israel, and is discussed in detail below), all those who do not have a Jewish mother were not designated Jewish by most participants who had an opinion on the matter.
By contrast, all characters with Jewish mothers were declared to be Jews by most of the participants who had an opinion, regardless of how the character currently self-identifies. Some of the characters’ descriptions explicitly state that they do not identify as Jews.
The insights gleaned from the chart listing all characters are emphasized when we investigate a specific character for whom we made an explicit effort to examine the maternal component.
During half of the research process, the fictional Geva was described as having Jewish parents (mother and father). This was later changed slightly and Geva was described as having only a Jewish father. Apart from this, no other changes were made to the character. When we examined the discrepancy between these two versions of Geva, which we refer to here as Geva A (Jewish parents) and Geva B (Jewish father), we saw clearly how the switch from a Jewish father and mother to a Jewish father, negated Geva’s Jewishness in the opinion of most Jewish respondents:
• Geva A is Jewish for 75% of the Jewish respondents.
• Geva B is not Jewish for 69% of the Jewish respondents.
Flexibility and Traditionalism
As with nearly all questions pertaining to Jewishness, whether ideological or practical, the Flexibility component was closely linked to the traditionalism scale for Israeli Jews, and it does not matter whether traditionalism is divided into four, five, or seven levels.
In the analysis of the present study, use was primarily made of a corresponding Central Bureau of Statistics scale:
In JPPI surveys we sometimes use a seven-group scale:
• Totally secular
• Secular-somewhat traditional
• Liberal religious
• National Haredi
However, it should be noted that the traditionalism level, which for the survey participants sets the rules pertaining to the basic level of affiliation with the Jewish collective (the need for a Jewish mother) does not necessarily imply binding behaviors beyond that.
The fact that the desire exists to use a traditional-halachic criterion to determine Jewishness does not attest to a desire to implement halachic criteria on other issues of any kind. The fact is that when we consider the critical stance taken by many Israeli Jews toward the Rabbinical establishment, and the reality that a substantial majority of Israeli Jews do not observe Halacha, we can assume that, at least for some Israelis, the Jewish-mother criterion was not chosen because it is the accepted halachic criterion of the Rabbinate (or of rabbis), but rather despite its being the Rabbinate’s accepted halachic criterion.
Accordingly, only a very small number of Jews, whether from the secular or the religious and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) ends of the spectrum, agree with the statement: “Jews are only those who observe mitzvot (religious commandments).” One percent of all Jews, and 5% of the Haredi sector (the highest level of agreement) concur with this statement. The idea that Jewishness depends on faith in God also receives little backing from any of the sectors. Only 7% of all Israeli Jews agree with that criterion. The sector with the highest level of agreement is the traditional-religious sector, at 12%.
The gaps pertaining to flexibility and its absence can thus be discerned mainly with regard to the formal basis of belonging to the Jewish collective and not in terms of expectations about specific behaviors, beliefs, or opinions of Jews. Even regarding a custom such as circumcision, which a near-absolute majority of Israeli Jews uphold (per the Israeli Judaism study), we find a considerable percentage of Jews (over half of all Jews) who do not see it as a criterion of Jewishness or agree with the statement that those who do not observe the custom are less Jewish than others. We see the answer to this question as a kind of testimony to Jews’ hesitation to set a behavioral criterion of any kind for determining who is a Jew or even who is “more” Jewish.
Principles and Reality
One conclusion that clearly emerges from a review of the respondent data is that a great many Jews find it very hard to maintain complete consistency in their answers, especially with regard to complex human situations. The game structure of the “Who is a Jew” project did not only present the participants with abstract theoretical questions, as noted; it also confronted them with fictional characters, each of whom had a story of their own. The participants were asked to say, about each of the characters, whether they considered him or her Jewish or not.
In most cases, we could see a correspondence between the participants’ abstract views and the way in which they judged and understood the specific situations of the characters to whom they were introduced. For example, the game included a character named Yael, whose story was that she had been raised in Los Angeles by non-Jewish parents, but had decided, as an adult, to live according to Jewish values. When participants were asked to say whether, in their opinion, Yael was Jewish or not, most of those who had said that Jewishness is primarily a matter of ethnicity stated that Yael was not Jewish in their view as she does not have Jewish parents or grandparents.
They stated that Yael is not Jewish in their view as she does not have Jewish parents or grandparents. On the other hand, most of those who said that Jewishness is mainly values, recognized Yael’s Jewishness (63%). In general, one finds that those who chose softer definitions of Jewishness, definitions based on personal choice regarding values, or on culture, tended to regard Yael as Jewish. By contrast, those who chose the stricter definitions of a distinct collective (Nationality, Religion, Ethnicity), tended not to see Yael as Jewish.
However, also regarding Yael we can see that a fair number of Jews said one thing in a theoretical context about the requirements of Jewishness, and another in a practical context of whether Yael is Jewish. For example, between 10% and 20% of those who stated that being Jewish is a Religion first and foremost, felt that Yael, by virtue of her decision to self-define as a Jew, deserves to be considered as belonging to the Jewish collective (which they regard as primarily a religious collective).
Such discrepancies can also be seen in other instances. Here is another example: The game included a character named Betty, born to non-Jewish parents, who came to Israel for love and is serving in the IDF. Most Israeli Jews (58%) see her as non-Jewish, but a substantial minority (34%) think that Betty should be considered a Jew. Why? Apparently, living in Israel and serving in the IDF are the explanations for this, as is evident from a cross-referencing of the responses pertaining to Betty’s Jewishness with those of another question, in which the participants were asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement “Those who serve in the IDF and self-define as Jews, are Jews.”
Four out of ten Israeli Jews concur with the proposition that IDF service reflects a process of joining the Jewish people. Among secular Jews 64% agree. Agreement declines among the more traditional groups with traditional-not-so-religious – 36%, traditional-religious – 18% and so on.
In order to test the consistency of the responses, we cross-referenced the answers given in the specific case of Betty, the IDF soldier, with those given to the theoretical question about IDF service constituting a gateway to Jewishness. The correspondence level was very high.
• 79% of those who feel that IDF service is enough for someone to be considered Jewish also said that Betty is a Jew.
• 87% of those who did not agree that IDF service is a key to Jewishness said that Betty is not a Jew.
• 10% of those who felt that IDF service is sufficient, nevertheless declared Betty non-Jewish.
• 5% of those who stated that IDF service is insufficient, nevertheless said that Betty is a Jew.
• Nearly 10% were unable to say whether they considered Betty a Jew.
The Exclusivity Question
In one question, the respondents were asked to answer directly regarding the degree to which they feel that Jewishness entails exclusivity. The question was worded in a focused manner, such that responses to it cannot be seen as comprehensive statements about possible preferences for flexibility versus rigidity. However, the question may be able to provide indications on this matter as well. We asked: “In your view, is being Jewish a Yes or No situation, or can one also be a partial Jew or Jewish to a certain degree?” Israeli Jews lean toward exclusivity in answer to this question, with 70% saying that Jewishness is a binary state. One is either Jewish, or not. Even most secular respondents stated that there is no partial state of Jewishness, though a significant proportion (45%) do feel that such a state is possible.
The question about the exclusivity of Jewishness is especially interesting to analyze in comparison with another question: “If someone self-defines as Jewish, but says s/he also has another identity (such as Buddhist, atheist), is this person a Jew in your opinion? Not all of the survey participants were requested to answer this question. It was answered mainly by secular participants, a large majority of whom felt that it is possible to have both a Jewish identity and an additional identity. When these respondents were posed a follow-up question presenting a list of possible identities and were asked to state which could or could not be maintained alongside a Jewish identity – that is “Do you regard someone who says s/he is both a Jew and a … as Jewish?” – it emerged that several parallel identities, such as Jewish and French were acceptable to nearly all respondents, while other combinations like Jewish and Christian were matters of dispute. However, as we can see, there are a fair number of Jewish Israelis who feel that it is possible, in theory, to be both Jewish and Christian. A similar percentage feel that one can be both Jewish and Muslim. A larger percentage feel that it is possible to be both Jewish and Buddhist. And a still larger percentage think that one can be both a Jew and an atheist.
Various types of identity were deliberately included in the options list, including:
• An additional national Jewish and French identity.
• Ideological position regarding God’s existence (Jewish and atheist or agnostic).
• Additional religious identities, referring to sister faiths (Christianity and Islam), and to religions theologically and historically distant from Judaism (Buddhism).
Most secular respondents to the questionnaire, who feel that one can be both Jewish and Christian, or Jewish and Muslim, were probably not taking a halachic stand. Their answer is based on other modes of reasoning. For example: there are those who feel that Judaism is primarily affiliation with the Jewish nation. If that is the main thing, and if the religious element of Judaism is less important, than a person can, at least in theory, belong to the Jewish nation even if s/he adheres to a different religion, say, Islam. Furthermore: there are those who accept the idea of Jewishness with an additional identity based on the understanding that in the postmodern world, people sometimes maintain several different, and occasionally conflicting, identities simultaneously.
It is worth noting that even this question has implications for relations between Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews, who are accustomed to a category of Jewishness that is not an exclusive identity. Studies conducted in the US have indicated that a fair number of people see themselves as both Jewish and something else. In a 2013 Pew Center study, 34% of the respondents said that they see no contradiction between Jewishness and believing that Jesus is the Messiah. Several years later in a study conducted by the known and respected Brenner Institute, which sparked professional controversy, a fifth of young Jews believe that Jesus is the son of God. Returning to last year’s study of Jews in Chicago, 7% of all those designated Jewish by the researchers were classified as Jews of several faiths. That is, people who are not exclusively Jewish, at least in terms of their religion.23
This is an interesting position for many reasons, one of which is the Israeli legal stance, as established in the Rufeisen ruling (discussed in the next section), according to which Jews who have converted to other faiths are not considered Jews.
But in the context of Israeli research, a similar situation can be based on that found in other communities, in which no active conversion takes place and people are educated from the outset to embrace a dual identity, Jewish and something else. (Israeli Supreme Court interpreted conversion as a choice to leave the Jewish people).
Such a situation exists among a certain percentage of mixed families in communities around the world.24 As noted, 30% of Israeli Jews feel that there can be a Jewishness that is not exclusive, but rather coexists with another identity that leaves Jewishness as a partial identity.
The Rufeisen Case
In 1962 a priest named Shmuel Oswald Rufeisen (known as Brother Daniel) petitioned the Supreme Court to instruct the state to recognize him as a Jew according to the Law of Return. Rufeisen was born Jewish but converted while hiding in a Catholic convent during the Holocaust. In the late 1950s he came to Israel as a Carmelite priest. He asked to be recognized as a Jew, despite having embraced a different faith. The Supreme Court denied his request, arguing that Jews themselves do not regard a Jew who converts to another religion as Jewish. The justices did acknowledge that according to Halacha, Rufeisen would be considered a Jew. This is not a consensus view of all halachic decisors but is accepted by a large proportion of them.25 However, the term Jew in the Law of Return is not a matter of religious law but rather reflects a national and cultural outlook, according to which an apostate is not considered Jewish.
In essence, as the late Professor Ruth Gavison noted, the Supreme Court decided that the “test of a person’s affiliation with the Jewish people per the Law of Return is not subjective (dependent solely on the petitioner’s sense of belonging), nor is it halachic (since, according to Halacha, a Jew who converts to another religion remains Jewish for some purposes), but is objective, popular.” By this, the Court meant that, because the accepted view among the general public is that a person who has converted to Christianity is no longer a Jew, the Law of Return should make the same determination. Justice Haim Cohen gave the minority opinion, stating that “all those who declare in good faith that they are Jewish, even if they adhere to another faith, should be registered as Jews”.
Justice Berensohn, for instance, put it thus: “The people […] decided otherwise and acted otherwise throughout the generations. For the people, an apostate has dissociated himself not only from the Jewish faith, but also from the Jewish nation and has no place in the community of Israel. It is not for nothing that a Jew who converted to another faith was called a meshumad (a destroyed one), as from a national point of view he was seen as one who was exterminated and cut off from the people, he and his descendants, and his family would ritually rend their garments as for a dead person and cut off all contact with him. In the people’s common understanding, Jew and Christian cannot coexist in the same person, Jew and Catholic priest even less so, they are a contradiction.”
In this study, we sought to put to the test the Supreme Court’s ruling on what Justice Berensohn called “the people’s decision,” i.e., the popular view regarding a Jewish apostate. In practice, we did this by presenting a fictional character with a very similar story to that of Brother Daniel. We called this character Daniel, and his brief biography states that he converted in order to survive the Holocaust. He remained Christian and came to live in Israel, considers himself both Christian and Jewish. What do the Jews say about this? The answer is that today, at least among Israeli Jews, a large majority feel that he is Jewish. Furthermore: a substantial majority in all Israeli sectors regard Daniel as a Jew, from the secular (87%) to the ultra-Orthodox (90%). Basically, of all the characters we presented, Daniel was one of the least controversial. What the Supreme Court justices debated over seems altogether clear –and the opposite of what the justices decided! – fifty years later.
This is a fascinating outcome, and a number of conjectures can be made about the factors behind it. But first we should note that the question in the study, unlike the issue faced by the Supreme Court justices, was not whether Daniel is entitled to be admitted to Israel as an immigrant per the Law the Return, but whether the respondents consider him a Jew. The question on which the Court deliberated was that of the Law of Return’s applicability – who is a Jew in the context of the Law of Return. The question asked in the study was: “Who is a Jew in your opinion?” One may reasonably speculate that the answers would have been similar had we asked about the Law of Return’s applicability to Daniel, but this is not certain.
This being the case, what are the potential explanations behind so very unequivocal an opinion on the part of Israeli Jews? One possibility is that the popular decision effectively aligns with the halachic view, and because Jewish law tends toward recognizing a Jewish apostate as still being Jewish, so do Israeli Jews. This possibility is definitely supported by the fact that a large majority of ultra-Orthodox and religious respondents said that Daniel is Jewish in their opinion. It is difficult, however, to fully embrace this option, as a majority of non-religious or non-ultra-Orthodox Jews are unlikely to be well-informed about Jewish law on this issue. Another possibility, therefore, is that the popular view in this case is influenced less by the viewpoint held by Daniel who says that he is a Jew, or that he feels Jewish, than by his life circumstances (Holocaust survivor).
In our estimation, a substantial proportion of Israeli Jews may justifiably assume that someone whose extreme life circumstances led him to apostasy should not be judged according to standard criteria, and that his expressed desire should be prioritized over common custom. Here it is absolutely worth noting that when, in a different question, we asked whether a person can be Jewish and Christian, a large majority of the respondents from all sectors except the secular sector did not answer in the affirmative. Also note that when we looked at how the respondents answered regarding Daniel compared with how they responded on the exclusivity of Jewishness (whether one can be part Jewish, or whether a Jew is a Jew), a large majority of those who felt that Jewishness is a binary state also said they consider Daniel (the Jew and Christian) to be Jewish.