The news today brings multiple promptings to remind ourselves that the question of what a Jew really is can be answered in a couple of different ways.
Jeffrey Goldberg reminds some of his anti-Semitic email correspondents that Treasury secretary Tim Geitner isn’t Jewish. Meanwhile, accused war criminal and ex-dictator of Liberia, Charles Taylor, claims (through his wife on BBC radio) to have embraced Judaism. Mrs. Taylor says he’s now a practicing Jew, while remaining a Christian. Go figure. She didn’t say whether he still practices cannibalism. Finally, Brooklyn assemblyman Dov Hikind is up at arms that non-Jewish victims of the Nazis would be included in a Holocaust memorial: “These people are not in the same category as Jewish people with regards to the Holocaust,” commented Hikind.
There’s a simple, standard definition of a Jew, which is someone who either has a Jewish mother or who has converted before a rabbinic court, accepting Jewish belief and practice. But there’s a sort of a meta-definition alluded to in various places in Torah and rabbinic literature, provocatively suggesting a broader concept. It comes out most radically in the Medieval sage Menachem Ha’Meiri’s Talmudic commentary, which includes Christians and others “possessing religion” under the category of “your fellow,” as the phrase is used in Leviticus 25:17. Those who practice a Western theistic faith are treated as Jews for various purposes. Further complicating the standard picture of a Jew defined by race, a born Jew can loose his Jewish status by embracing idolatry, under which category Ha’Meiri would include ancient paganism and, it seems clear, modern secularism.
The Talmud itself defines a “Yehudi,” a Judahite, as any person who rejects idolatry (Megillah 13a).
Among Medieval Jewish authorities, Maimonides splits the world into two stark categories, those who affirm idoltary and those who affirm God’s teaching, the Torah (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 2:5). You’re either one or the other. On Deuteronomy 11:16, “Beware for yourselves, lest your heart be seduced and you will turn astray and you will serve other gods and prostrate yourselves to them,” Rashi writes: “Once a person separates himself from the Torah, he goes and attaches himself to idolatry.” Between Torah and other sources of moral authority, there is no middle ground. Turn from the one and you have automatically embraced the other.
That stark distinction could be understood as cutting different ways. Bearing Ha’Meiri teaching in mind, it creates a philosophical definition of a Jew that includes some but not all of those who fit the legal definition, but also including those who cast their lot with the Torah even if they don’t meet the legal definition of Jewishness.