Ask The Rabbi

Ask The Rabbi


Am I a Jew or not?

The Rav Name: Rabbi Yitzchak Arad


I have a halachic question. I was raised frum (Orthodox), but stopped observing later in life and became irreligious. Eventually, years later, I married a non-Jewish girl, and converted to Christianity for her.

I later ended up getting divorced and realized it was the wrong decision (not necessarily for the conversion, but more for the person I married). However, I would not say I didn’t believe in Christianity at the time and was “just doing it for marriage”, as I did earnestly try to convince myself and I guess at times “felt” something. I continued to go to church for a while, even well after the divorce.

I grew up in a very Christian area with not many Jews, for what’s it worth, so the pressure was always there. But now I realize the mistake.

Do I have to formally convert back to Judaism and undergo giyuros? Or is this simply “once a Jew, always a Jew”? The issue is that I don’t necessarily want to go back to observing anything (Shabbos, kosher, davening, etc), but I would like to be considered “Jewish” again.

Thank you for answering this difficult question,

Am I a Jew or not?

Shalom and thank you for your question. The short answer is as you mention in the last paragraph of your question: “Once a Jew, always a Jew.” No, you do not have to undergo any form of conversion, simply because according to Jewish law and belief your Jewishness is not something that can be changed.

Truthfully books can be written on this subject, and in fact the amount of Torah literature that exists is staggering and continuously increasing! Why would this be so? The Ten Commandments sound like a nice set of rules, why do we need anything more? It’s important not to steal and murder, anyone can tell you that, it also makes sense to honor your parents for having given you the gift of life. What if my parents were awful though? Isn’t it also a bit childish to think of G-d as having created the world in six days and then needing to rest? Does G-d get tired even? There is so much to say about each one of these questions, and I believe that in order to make any sense of these questions and your questions, we have to take a look at G-d, the world, and the Jews.

The Torah begins with the account of creation, and right there we cannot go beyond the first word of the Chumash, the ‘Bible’, without looking to the commentary, which is part of the Oral Law, to help us understand it. The first word in the Torah is ‘Bereishit’, ‘In the beginning’, and right there and then the commentaries explain (Genesis 1:1 Rashi) that if the Torah wanted to teach us chronological sequence here, grammatically a different word should have been used, ‘barishona’. However, one of the reasons for the Torah starting out with this word is to teach us that should the nations of the world claim that we are robbers who took away the land from others, this is where we can learn that it was promised to us by G-d. Other commentaries explain that the word ‘bereishit’ is a combination of two Hebrew words meaning ‘for (the sake of)’ and ‘the first part’. This refers to the Torah and the Jews, meaning that the purpose of Creation was and is in order that the Jewish people use the Torah through study and practice of its precepts, to elevate the physical world and reveal its inherent spirituality, bringing about a perfected world where the forces of evil are recognized for what they are and good rules. Nothing in effect is separate from G-d, only we human beings cannot see it with our physical eyes. Does this mean that we are racists, talking about being the chosen nation? G-d created and continually recreates the world and everything in it, and everything, every person and every type of phenomenon, has a role to play.  Everybody’s role is significant, and there is a lead role which the Jewish people play, but without the rest of the world we cannot do it.

You may ask, who made up all these ideas, I know the Bible is holy, why do we need explanations at all? I will give you an example. Exodus 21:24 says ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth..’. It is absolutely NOT a Jewish practice to gouge out, G-d forbid, someone’s eye or tooth because they caused your eye or your tooth to fall out. The Oral Law explains that someone who caused such damage to the next person is obligated to take responsibility for the damage and pay for the medical and/or other expenses incurred by the accident. Details will vary according to each specific situation. Without the Oral Law a lot of statements in the Torah would not be understood, and there are many more examples. The Oral Law was given together with the Written Law – the Bible, and is called Oral because it was meant to be studied and handed over through the generations. Due to the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and the consequent dispersion of the Jewish people the Oral Law had to be written down in order not to be forgotten. Both the Written and the Oral Law are Divine in origin, but the Oral Law has a growth factor. Since various circumstances change over time, the Oral Law comes with a system to help us apply it to the current circumstances. For example at the time the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai electricity had not yet been discovered, so Oral Law came with a set of thirteen specific rules which enable true Torah scholars to decide how we can apply Torah principles on the Sabbath for example, when we need to use electricity. Based on the original Divine principles of Torah interpretation, the Sages laid out for us how to deal with such issues, when we need to disobey Torah law in order to save life, and much much more.

It may seem as though I have digressed from your question, but I hope that you can glean from all the above that you are a Jew, who was created with a very specific purpose, and that is to ‘be a light unto the nations’, for which purpose G-d created you with tremendous spiritual potential. This potential can be accessed effectively by actually learning and practicing the Torah, just as a vehicle needs fuel to travel and a body needs nourishment, so does your soul. Nothing in the world will change the fact that you are Jewish, but you will not really connect with it and reveal your potential as a Jew without study and performance of the Mitzvot. The Hebrew word ‘mitzvah’ is often translated as ‘commandment’, and it does mean that. However it is also connected to the word ‘tzavta’, meaning ‘connection’. Studying Torah and performing the mitzvot help you connect to G-d – to that which deep inside yourself you know is true and good, even when there are many questions and all is not yet understood. We are all a work in progress. No one has all the answers. The Torah is the place to start looking.

Addendum: Although as was said previously, nothing can change the fact that you are Jewish, nevertheless due to your exposure to and involvement with, matters that are not considered holy according to Jewish law, you may need to undergo some procedure such as immersion in a mikveh. The best thing is for you to consult with a competent orthodox scholar who is well versed in such situations. You can ask your nearest Chabad house or other orthodox community to refer you to such a person. In general there is blessing in maintaining a connection with a spiritual mentor, as it says in Pirkei Avot, 1:6 “Aseh lecha Rav…” – acquire for yourself a spiritual guide.