Who Is a Jew? What Is a Christian?

Both Jews and Christians argue about who they accept into their respective camps.

Who is a Jew? While I’m often asked how I can be both a Jew and an atheist, this question hardly ever comes from Jews. According to all branches of Judaism, a person is Jewish if born to a Jewish mother. Since my mother was Jewish, so am I. End of story. But it isn’t.

Jews argue about everything, including who is a Jew. Disagreements usually develop along sectarian lines. Reform Jews are willing to accept into the tribe someone with a Jewish father and a gentile mother, but Orthodox Jews are not. Some ultra-Orthodox rabbis won’t even accept a child as Jewish when born to a devout Jewish mother from a donated gentile egg. All branches of Judaism allow for converts, but Orthodox Jews don’t recognize conversion of gentiles to Judaism unless that conversion is approved by a three-judge religious court comprised of three Orthodox men (usually rabbis), ritual immersion in a mikvah, and a commitment to perform all the Torah’s commandments according to Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law.

Gentiles are often surprised to hear that there is no religious belief requirement to be a Jew. Well-known Jews with no belief in God include intellectuals like Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx, as well as comedians like Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Jon Stewart, and Sarah Silverman (no relation, unfortunately). In fact, these Jews openly criticize or make fun of religion.

I am hard-pressed to name a pious Jew, dead or alive, who is a household name worldwide — except for Jesus.

A Pew survey shows that 62 percent of American Jews say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15 percent say it’s a matter of religion. Secular Jews, atheist Jews, and agnostic Jews comprise the largest constituency of Jews. I am hard-pressed to name a pious Jew, dead or alive, who is a household name worldwide — except for Jesus. Which brings us to . . .

What’s a Christian? I think it’s more difficult to define a Christian than a Jew. Christians believe that Jesus was/is a very special person with important teachings. But Christians differ on countless significant issues: whether Jesus is the only begotten Son of God, whether he was born of a virgin, whether he was resurrected bodily, whether he died for your sins, whether everything in the New Testament is literally true, whether and when he will be returning, and whether such beliefs will be the difference between going to heaven or hell.

What all Christians, whether liberal or conservative, seem to have in common is a belief that many who claim to be Christian are not real Christians. Personally, I prefer letting people self-identify, though this appears not to be the “Christian thing” to do.

I’m not a Christian by any definition, but if I were, I’d be a liberal one. I periodically receive emails from a liberal Christian group addressed to “Faithful American,” requesting I sign a petition. Recent examples include a petition against Georgia state judge Michael Boggs, who is under consideration for a lifetime appointment to the federal bench, for his shameless efforts to exploit the Christian faith by condemning homosexuality and advancing an extremist right-wing agenda and a petition denouncing Sarah Palin for equating Holy Baptism with torture, since she wants to baptize terrorists by waterboarding them. I almost always agree with this group’s positions, but never sign them because I’m a faithless American.

Most of these petitions criticize so-called Christians for not being true Christians. Yes, they are. I would never call “unchristian” people who are motivated by their interpretations of Christian biblical principles. I just don’t think all such biblical principles or Christians are admirable.

What all religions have in common is that they contain atheists.

Now for the cross (pun intended) between Jews and Christians — Messianic Jews (Jews for Jesus). Most Jews want nothing to do with them, even if they have Jewish mothers, believing that their primary goal is to convert Jews to Christianity. That might be true, but ultra-Orthodox Jews have more religious beliefs in common with Messianic Jews than with atheist Jews like me. Both sects believe that a Messiah is coming, though they differ on whether it will be his first or second trip to earth.

There have been dozens of Jewish Messiah claimants over the centuries. Some in the Lubavitcher Chassidic sect are still expecting the imminent return of Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994. I’m as confident of Schneerson’s return as I am of Jesus’ return. Jesus purportedly said about 2,000 years ago that he would return before his own generation passed, and that clock is still ticking.

So Jews are generally fine with Jews who don’t believe in God, but are concerned and embarrassed by Jews who believe that God has a son.

What all religions have in common is that they contain atheists, though percentages vary considerably. Religion is often more about family, culture, and community than about religious belief. Of the three so-called monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), I “thank God” that I was born into the one where it’s easy to be an open atheist.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Herb Silverman
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  • Steve Gilbert

    As exemplified in Herb’s article, most religions have more in common than we would think, especially relative to factions that range from non-believers, through liberals, moderates, orthodox, and fanatics. It seems that as you progress to the right (direction-wise, not correction-wise) end of this spectrum, where one would think lies the strongest belief in their religious tenets, violation of the “tolerance and acceptance” tenet seems to suffer the most.

  • RichardSRussell

    Re: 1st Coming vs. 2nd Coming: “In fact the entire pro-Israel Jewish-Evangelical alliance comes down to not talking about ‘It’ — the Apocalypse — or about how they’re both using each other and both consider the other equally insane.”

    —Mark Ames, New York Press, 2004 Oct. 12

  • http://WWSHP.ORG William Dusenberry

    Three questions for Professor Silverman:

    (1) In the Torah, it is implied that “Adam” and “Eve” were Jewish. If so, how can anyone be denied access to the Jewish faith?

    (2) A greater percentage of European Jews, were murdered by European Christians, during the Crusades, than during the European holocaust; so, why are Jews disturbed about the sight of the swastika, but not the Christian cross?

    (3) .Why are there so many Jews (at least, the ones I have spoken with) so reluctant, to state: There is absolutely no primary source evidence, indicating that there ever was, an actual historical Jesus?

    • Laurence Charles Ringo

      I can answer that last one, Mr.Dusenberry.Say what you will about our Jewish friends, they’re not in the habit of engaging in wishful thinking; that is to say they KNOW that Yeshua Ha Maschiach was/is just as historical as you yourself will be when you die. Why would anyone prove themselves to be a utter idiot by claiming otherwise?

  • Ed Buckner

    The arguments about who or what qualifies as a “real Christian” are widespread and not new. Mormons–or more formally, members of the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” certainly consider themselves Christians, but many Christians won’t accept that they are. And at least as far back as Thomas Jefferson, American political leaders have “spun” this in various ways. Jefferson called himself a “real Christian,” but Jefferson probably should not be considered a Christian OR a deist; the term “Unitarian” comes much closer to describing him. Jefferson wrote in considerable detail about his various interpretations of Christianity and, unlike me, Jefferson cannot reasonably be considered an atheist. He made clear that he had no animosity towards atheists and that he saw no reason to doubt the virtue of atheists. He did in fact call himself a Christian, but he meant only that he admired what he took to be the person and philosophy of Jesus. A footnote Jefferson added to a letter he sent his longtime administrator, William Short, on October 31, 1819, is probably the most succinct rebuttal to anyone’s out-of-context and false claim that Jefferson was a Christian; in that note, Jefferson listed specific Christian doctrines he rejected as false: “the immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection & visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity, original sin, atonement, regeneration, election orders of Hierarchy etc.” If anyone wants to claim Jefferson as a Christian, he can–but Jefferson did not mean what others do.

    Herb’s solution is best: let everyone self-identity as it suits him or her to. And i identify as an atheist, a secular humanist, an agnostic, a freethinker, a rationalist, and more–and see no contradiction among those terms.

  • anamericanundernogods

    Born to a Jewish, is Jewish?

    Born to a Christian is a Christian?

    Born to a Muslim is Muslim?

    Born to a Zoroastrian is a Zoroastrian?

    Born to a Hindu is Hindu?

    Born to a Sikh is a Sikh?

    Muslims say “Born to Prophet Mohammad is Saint.”

    Muslim Shiites say “Born to an Imam is an Imam.”

    The list goes on and on.

    The Poor God sitting upstairs in the clouds and watching his
    sheep on Earth????

    Well, I am sure about the existence of the latter ones, but
    not the former.

  • Elizabeth Dunlop

    Is that not what religion is all about, the survival of the group with each group having its own rituals distinguishing it from all the other groups? Where religious leaders have to be congratulated is in holding their members when preaching that their God, ….etc , is the one and only.

    When threatened they cling closer together, nothing like a bit of anti-us to keep their halls full. It would be interesting to see as society makes life safer for everyone what effect that has on the need for folk to belong to a group.

  • Eric Ross

    “According to all branches of Judaism, a person is Jewish if born to a Jewish mother.”
    It is circular to define being Jewish in terms of being Jewish; it also allows a person to be both Jewish and Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. I reject this definition, however much others may uncritically accept it.

  • http://jdespinoza.wordpress.com John Espinoza

    This piece is similar to something I’ve recently written. I know a lot of atheists who don’t know they’re atheists. They’re shocked to even hear it suggested, however if they don’t believe in the specific gods of religions, if they don’t think the Creator of the Universe spoke telephatically to a 99-year old man in a Middle Eastern desert and told him to cut the skin off his dick, or if they’re hard pressed to accept that a young woman in Palestine became pregnant without having sex, and that the sperm that fertilized her egg was Holy Ghost sperm, then they aren’t Jews (religious Jews) or Christians, because that’s exactly what their God did. If they can’t accept that the Creator of the Universe whispered in The Prophet Mohammad’s ear and gave him the final communication to mankind, then they aren’t Muslims either. So they’re not theists, at least not monotheists. Perhaps they’re Hindus, but I won’t digress that far. If you aren’t a theist, you’re a non-theist, or more commonly, an atheist.

  • Harry Underwood

    I’ve thought recently: why aren’t adherents to Judaism as well as those who convert from Judaism to another religions just described as “Hebrews of different religions”?