Who is a Jew?

Who is a Jew? Anyone involved with Judaism or with Jewish people, our yearnings, politics, religious life or Homeland, will at some point stumble or trip up over this question. Like its parallel question of ‘what is Judaism?’ it looms large in any debate, any discussion about anything connected with us. And anyone and everyone who has attempted to crystallise the definitions will eventually tell you with a smile that it’s a work in hand. Almost everyone that is. For there are some who ‘know’. In fact the questions on an absolute scale are probably false to begin with and almost certainly mere flights of semantic fancy. Upon closer examination the questions are not ‘who is a Jew’ and ‘what is Judaism’ but ‘who has the right to define?’ Definitive answers stand not upon their intrinsic value or worth but upon the authority of the Gatekeepers who decide. It is the privilege of those in authority to make rulings and lay down definitions, to give clarity to the meanings of words. It is why we see most heat and light expended on ‘turf’ warfare, Jewish community pitted against rival community, the battle for the supremacy of ideas, philosophical core paradigms/values and religious inheritance. In layman’s terms it is possible for sausages to become unkosher just because they are on a train journey. So today when people talk about ‘Judaism’ they are inadvertently using a word loaded with the assumptions of generations of Gatekeepers. Whoever has the authority decides the answers.

And yet if only it were that simple.  Authority does not exist in a vacuum; it can only exist once validated, or to put it another way, there is no authority without legitimacy. Legitimacy too doesn’t exist without a source; the democratic legitimacy of elected Governments bears witness of this. The question we have to ask is what is the source of legitimacy for Jews, Judaism and the Gatekeepers thereof? Surely it is not the voices of the majority, that has never been our tradition. In Judaism the source is The Source: G-d Himself. It is His voice we listen to, His words that command our every breath and frame our very lives. All Jewish legitimacy and therefore authority must come from the One whose authority is eternal and absolute. To read the Tanach is to sense, know, see and feel the daily Jewish experiential world of the immanence of G-d, expecting Him to speak either through the Torah or directly through the Prophets. His presence was our existence, His nature and character our legitimacy.

And deep down we as Jews know this. At the end of the first century the last two forms of Judaism left standing, Pharisaic Judaism and Messianic Judaism, were defining precisely the legitimacy and therefore the derived authority to function and influence our people. As Pharisaic Judaism morphed into Rabbinic and Talmudic Judaism the question of legitimacy was answered with the formation of the Oral Torah, a meta-narrative that lent credibility to the authority taken. That G-d spoke at Sinai is self-evident from the Tanach. That He spoke a second Torah is much debated, even within the broad sweep of (the various forms of) Judaism. Within Messianic Judaism the answer to the question of legitimacy was soon given by the revelation of who Yeshua was and is. Not for nothing did the Prophet say the One to come would be ‘Immanuel’ G-d with us. Even during the life of Yeshua our people were heard to cry ‘G-d has visited His people’ as He ministered and taught. The legitimacy question was therefore answered in Yeshua Himself. G-d spoke again to His people. The derived authority then created the authoritative texts we now have and the explosion of a revived and dynamic form of Judaism across the known world of the time.

Tradition in itself is not a bad thing, but it is deeply inadequate as a basis of legitimacy and authority. It becomes a human construct, bending and yielding to human needs, society and culture. ‘Traditional’ Judaism stands today at a crossroads: Rabbinic, Talmudic Judaism was created as a response to a political situation on the ground in the early second century. It was designed, built and created to enable us to survive a diaspora, continue to exists as a people. In that it did a good job. But today we have our Land back again, the old forms of Judaism that kept us distinct amongst the gentiles are in need of reforming, and to do that we need legitimacy and authority from G-d Himself. The question is, to which form of Judaism will we look for such legitimacy? Rabbinic or Messianic Judaism? The answer must come urgently if we are to renew and revive the ancient paths once more.

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