Ask The Rabbi

Ask The Rabbi


Jewish or Not

Hello my name is Nicholas. Although I am from Long Island, I am currently studying in Salzburg, Austria where this is no Jewish community.
I was hoping to ask you for advice on a particular issue I was struggling with. My father is a semi practicing Jew, but my mother is Catholic. Growing up I was raised Jewish, but my father lost his relationship with his faith due to the death of his parents. My mother wanted religion to be a part of my life, and since she did not know how educate us on Judaism I was baptised and raised Catholic.

After following this I became a teenager and aggressively Atheist, but now that I am in my early twenties I have returned to Judaism. But I am often hearing the same comment said to me and I do not know how to respond. People often say that because my mother is not Jewish then “I am not a real Jew”, or “according to Jewish law, I am not a real Jew”. I never know how to respond to this, since Judaism has given me such a strong sense of identity and guidance in life I find it very painful to be discredited because of circumstances beyond my control. Do you have any advice for me?


Jewish or Not

Dear Nicholas,

Thank you for turning to us with your important question.

According to Jewish law, Halacha, the definition of a Jew is either a person born to a Jewish mother or a person who underwent a Halachic conversion. People who tell you this have no intention of hurting you G-d forbid, rather they wish to clarify the situation because there can be many repercussions to functioning under a misconception.

Indeed the fact that you are in this situation is not at all your fault, but it IS related to your mission in life. You are obviously seeking meaning and purpose in your life and this is a wonderful thing. The situation you find yourself in is not a coincidence. Perhaps you have heard of a woman called Helen Keller. At nineteen months old a disease left her blind deaf and mute, in an era which was far less advanced technologically and also in terms of dealing with various disabilities. Her parents actually kept her in a large cage simply to protect her because they had no idea how to communicate with her. They hired a governess, Anne Sullivan, to look after her. This governess decided that there must be a way to get through to the child and she found it. With tremendous care and perseverance she was able to teach her the manual alphabet and help Helen develop into a mature person who was able to communicate very intelligently despite her disabilities, using braille and even learning how to speak by feeling the vibrations of her governess’ throat. Helen surely did not choose to undergo such challenges, but she used every ounce of her resources and achieved a college degree, after which she worked to help others with disabilities. You too, like all of us, have been given certain challenges. Let’s see what you can do about them!

After Noah, who was the most righteous person in a very un-righteous generation, left the ark and was faced with the formidable task of rebuilding the world, G-d gave him certain guidelines. These guidelines are recorded in the Bible for all the generations since Noah. They are called the Seven Noahide Laws and are intended for all mankind. They include things like not blaspheming, not stealing or murdering, setting up courts of justice, and more. If you look up the Seven Noahide Laws you can find many more details. There are congregations of gentiles who do study these laws, (there are many details,) and use them as a guide for life. This is a possibility for you to look in to, since it is clear that you seek spiritual guidelines.

Regarding your Jewishness – or not, it is worth examining the matter more closely. Firstly check out your mother’s lineage if you haven’t yet done so, if possible. If you discover a great or great great grandmother on your mother’s side, whose daughter’s daughter’s daughter etc, is your mother, then you are Jewish. If not, there is the option to undergo a formal conversion. A couple of weeks ago we met a person who is studying Judaism and is in touch with a Rabbinical court that deals with conversion. This person grew up believing that she was Jewish and practising certain Jewish traditions. Recently it came to her attention that there was a problem with her Jewishness. The Rabbinical court she is in touch with wants her to live in an observant framework in an established Jewish community for a period of time, and then undergo a formal conversion.

When examining Judaism it is important to realize that the Jewish people have six hundred and thirteen commandments, many of which will only be practiced in full when the Holy Temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem, may that take place in the very near future!! Those commandments which are dependent on the rebuilding of the Temple can be fulfilled on a certain level by studying them. Nevertheless enough commandments (mitzvoth) to keep are left to give us endless subjects for study, and many many opportunities to carry them out. The Sages of the Talmud tell us in tractate Avot 5:22, “Turn it and turn it again (go through Torah as you would leaf through the pages of a book,) for the Torah contains everything, life lessons, ways to connect to G-d through our everyday experiences, insights and more. It is worth checking out your nearest Chabad house to see if you can participate in classes on Judaism and see for yourself if it is for you or not.

To sum up, you have been placed in a situation where you must make your own informed decision about which path you would like to follow – that of a righteous gentile or that of a righteous convert to Judaism. We wish you success in the path you choose to follow and are here to answer further questions. All the best!

P.s: Halachic conversion must be done through a competent Rabbinic court that specializes in it. The Torah practice is that the Rabbis should try to deter the potential convert a few times. Judaism can be demanding and a sincere commitment to accept Torah lifestyle without compromise is a prerequisite.