“Who is a Jew?” is the recurrent question in the Jewish community. We are sure we are Jewish but we do not know why. The confusion comes from non-Biblical additions the rabbis have introduced into the definition. Why is a clear understanding important? A precise definition of “Who is a Jew?” is important because the number one (usually unspoken) reason we will hesitate to accept the Gospel is the thought, “I do not want to stop being Jewish. If I believe in Jesus, I will become a Gentile.”
The number one obstacle to salvation is emotional, not biblical, or theological. If a Jewish person can get past this barrier, the rest will more easily fall into place. What is the biblical definition of “Who is a Jew?” When you study the Bible, you discover that God entered into an unconditional, eternal, covenant relationship with Abraham (Genesis 12, 13, 15, 17). The Abrahamic Covenant was passed on to Isaac rather than Ishmael (Genesis 17:19-21, 26:2-5, 24), Jacob rather than Esau (Genesis 28:13-15), and then to all 12 tribes (Genesis 49). From this information, the definition is easy to derive. According to the Bible, a Jewish person is a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Descent is primarily counted through the father as seen in the Bible’s genealogical lists. However, it also can be counted through the mother as seen in Ezra 10:2-3, in the life of Yeshua (Matthew 1:18, Luke 1:35), and in the life of Timothy (Acts 16:1-3).
A Jewish person is a member of a very large, extended family. Please note carefully that theological belief cannot alter this relationship. No matter what you believe, you cannot lose your Jewishness. In the Bible, Israel often wandered after idol worship and false “gods.” Did God ever say, in the Bible, “You are no longer Jewish?” No. Rather, He said, “I will discipline you” (Deuteronomy 29:26-28). If you are born a Jew, you will die a Jew, no matter what you believe. Jewishness cannot be lost. The rabbis know this truth. However they tend to withhold this information from Jewish people who are considering the Messiahship of Yeshua. Here is the way the rabbis state the issue in the Talmud:
Israel hath sinned. R. Abba b. Zabda said: Even though [the people] have sinned, they are still [called] ‘Israel’. R. Abba said: Thus people say, A myrtle, though it stands among reeds, is still a myrtle, and it is so called.
Encyclopedia Judaica explains the idea in the article “Apostasy.”
In Jewish religious law, it is technically impossible for a Jew (born to a Jewish mother or properly converted to Judaism) to change his religion. Even though a Jew undergoes the rites of admission to another religious faith and formally renounces the Jewish religion he remains -as far as the halakhah is concerned-a Jew, albeit a sinner (Sanh. 44a)
In other words, Jews never lose their Jewish identity even if they do not embrace Rabbinic Judaism. The rabbis know, and the Talmud teaches, that a Jew is a Jew forever. Believing in Yeshua is the most Jewish you can do. Yeshua is a Jewish man. He is the Jewish Messiah. He will reign over a Jewish Messianic Kingdom. The Bible (OT and NT) is a Jewish book. What is the rabbinic definition of “Who is a Jew?”
The rabbis have introduced confusion into the minds of Jewish people and Christians. They have done this by inserting a non-Biblical idea into the definition. The rabbinic definition, and its variations, would go something like this.
“A Jew is anyone born of a Jewish mother and who practices Rabbinic Judaism.”
The confusing addition is the phrase “practices Rabbinic Judaism.” This addition allows the rabbis to state that a Jewish person who trusts in Jesus is no longer Jewish. The Jewish person is no longer practicing Rabbinic Judaism and can be excommunicated from the community of Israel. The threat of excommunication places us under tremendous pressure to conform to the wishes of the rabbis. You do not want to change your religion. You want to remain Jewish. Unfortunately, many in the Church have bought into this definition and tell Jewish people that they will no longer be Jewish if they trust in Jesus. This misunderstanding makes it even more difficult for you to place your trust in Jesus. In reality, you are not changing religions. You are completing or fulfilling the faith revealed to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Holy Hebrew Scriptures.
If your Jewish friend is struggling with this issue what can you do? The most important things you can do are:
- Elevate the Bible as the authority over the traditions of the rabbis.
- Clearly compare the biblical definition with the rabbinic definition so that the difference between the two is obvious.
- Understand that Jewishness cannot be lost; it is a matter of birth and heritage, not religious practice.
- Clearly and consistently maintain that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah.
- Since Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, then trusting Him is the most Jewish thing you could ever do.
And, by the way, point out that ninety percent of the Jewish people in this world do not follow Rabbinic Judaism. If the rabbis were consistent, they would have to declare that ninety percent of the Jewish people are no longer Jewish. Ninety percent of the Jewish people, today, worldwide, are atheistic or agnostic. They do not believe in God. Therefore, any practice of Rabbinic Judaism without belief in God is hypocrisy from the beginning and does not qualify the person as a Jew under the rabbinic definition. A Jew always has been and always will be a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.