Most Jews don’t want rabbis to determine who is Jewish — study

Most Jews don’t want rabbis to determine who is Jewish — study

Participants say culture and peoplehood most significant aspects of Judaism, trumping religion and ancestry

Star of David necklace (image via Shutterstock)
Star of David necklace (image via Shutterstock)

Most Jews do not want rabbis to determine who is Jewish, and suggest the Israeli government consider changes to the Law of Return, a new study has found.

The report issued this week by the Jewish People Policy Institute recommends strengthening the sense of “Jewish peoplehood” among mixed families, partial Jews and non-Jews affiliated with Judaism.

It is the Jerusalem-based institute’s third report on the Structured Jewish World Dialogue, a systematic discourse that took place in 49 seminars worldwide on issues that are at the core of the collective interests of the Jewish people globally.

Participants were asked to classify the importance of culture, ancestry, peoplehood and religion by ranking them on a scale from one through four, with four being the most important.

Culture and peoplehood were cited as the most significant aspects of Judaism, more than religion and ancestry. Participants indicated that they valued caring for other Jews more than keeping the laws of the Torah.

Additionally, 37% of participants said the local community should determine whether an individual is Jewish and 30% said one’s Judaism should be self-defined. Only 23% said rabbis should determine who is considered Jewish.

While recognizing that religious denominations will continue to set their own standards for life cycle and other events, participants in leadership seminars strongly endorsed the general posture of being welcoming to all who seek to participate in Jewish life. The more than 600 leaders also affirmed the desire to maintain selective communal norms that would affirm the more traditional standards. For example, the leadership almost universally wanted the professional head of North American federations to continue to be Jewish according to halachah, or Jewish law.

The report also suggests, in the wake of cultural and demographic developments in the Jewish world, that Israel might consider changes in the criteria governing the Law of Return, which guarantees every Jew a place in Israel, to determine eligibility.

In addition, fewer than 25 percent of the participants believe that rabbis should decide “who is a Jew,” saying that self-definition and community were better determinants.

The 129-page report considers other topics researched within the scope of the Jewish People Policy Institute’s project, such as intermarriage, Israel’s role in defining Judaism, and the Jewishness of leaders and material resources.

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