Many Jews are atheists, but more in the Diaspora than in Israel. A religious definition of Jewishness makes little sense to them. Is there a secular alternative?

Secular nationalist Jews often define Jewishness as Jewish descent. That only makes the problem recursive. Who are their Jewish ancestors but those who adhered to Judaism? Defining secular Jewishness as descent from adherents to Judaism makes little sense. If we’re so proud of our religious ancestors that we build our nationalism upon them, then why don’t we perpetuate the very attitude that makes us proud? If we proudly define ourselves as the descendants of those who practiced Judaism, why don’t we practice it ourselves? If Judaism was good for three thousand years but recently has become outmoded, didn’t Jewishness become outmoded along with it?

A wise rabbi defined a Jew as one whose grandchildren will be Jewish. A less beautiful, but more practical definition is someone who strives to raise his children as good Jews. If Jewishness is a matter of descent, however, then personal efforts don’t matter.
What do we do about children who only have some Jewish ancestors? Logically, they could identify themselves as both Jewish and Christian, or Jewish and Ukrainian. A definition so flexible is unworkable. There are tens of millions of Americans with Irish blood, but barely a few dozen of them joined in Ireland’s fight against the British occupation. Nor did the American Japanese help their ancient motherland during WWII. Respect for one’s ancestors is a matter merely of curiosity, insufficient to develop a strong attachment. Ancestor-based nationalism is hardly distinguishable from many other “relevant” attachments: to a school, a football club, or a country of residence, for example. A working definition of nationalism has to be relevant to current events rather than to long-gone ancestors.

Judaism provides a relevant definition of Jewishness, actionable at every moment through religious observance. Israeli nationalism is actionable, too, through military service and taxation, but it fails as a definition of Jewishness. Many people of indisputable Jewishness live outside of Israel. They don’t pay taxes in Israel, serve in the IDF, or run the security risks of living in a Jewish state; although they are Jews, they have no share in Israeli nationalism. And on the contrary, living in Israel and—theoretically—paying taxes doesn’t make Arabs Jews; even if the Arabs start vehemently supporting Israel and serving in the IDF, they still won’t become Jews. Israeli nationalism cannot be equated with Jewishness.

Religious beliefs by themselves do not form nations. There are many religious groups that span continents but don’t claim nationhood; Catholics are spread among many nations, but do not form a nation of their own. Sunday mass does not define behavior. Adherents to Judaism have traditionally been recognized as a nation because of their peculiar routine actions. Jews were Jews not only for two hours on the weekend, but every minute of their existence. Here is the defining characteristic of a nation: a distinctiveness of lifestyle. Nations are defined by what they are not, by how they are different from their neighbors. Totalitarian states take a shortcut to nation-building by defining their nations through common enemies; fear of capitalist aggression united the Soviet people.

Nationalism has to be actionable, but religion is not the only possible action. A person of Jewish descent who fights for Israel and votes for right-wingers is clearly a Jew even though he eats pork. A Jew’s Slavic spouse who serves in the IDF and sends his children to the army is more a Jew than some ultra-Orthodox person from Neturei Karta who insists on separate sidewalks for men and women but opposes the existence of Israel. People are Jews if they identify themselves with Jews and prove that identification by their actions. The degree of proof required depends on the depth of doubt about their Jewishness. A person with two Jewish parents most likely truly identifies with the Jewish people, and need not bring additional proof. Someone with remote descent or no Jewish blood at all has a higher burden of proof of his attachment to the Jewish people. Though the proof can be of any type, including IDF service and continual donations to Israel, observance of the Torah’s explicit commandments is a simple and clear criterion.

Reform and Orthodox Jews each undermine the religious criteria of Jewishness. For the Reformed, Judaism involves no mandatory rules; a Reform synagogue would accept a gay person who is married to a Gentile, eats pork, and works on Sabbath as a Jew. Orthodox demands range from maternal lineage (in contradistinction to the historically accepted paternal lineage) to tearing toilet paper in advance of Shabbat. Israel, nominally a liberal (secular) democracy, cannot determine Jewishness by Orthodox standards. Concessions to Reform “Judaism” will follow, and eventually Israel will have to adopt a secular definition of Jewishness. Pressing assimilation will prompt the Israeli government to embrace the children of Jewish fathers and Gentile mothers as Jews.

Israel can check the Reform dilution of Jewish values by setting minimum standards of observance for converts. The institutional preference for Orthodoxy against Reformism is untenable; Israel will have to give it up. If the state were to set minimum standards for religious observance, unrelated to Orthodoxy, that would de-legitimize the Reform policy of ignoring violations of any commandment, and would provide the State of Israel with a degree of religious credibility. The state cannot take sectarian sides, but needs to maintain a degree of religiosity in order to call itself a Jewish state.

Jewishness cannot be legislated. Sadducees did not marry Pharisees, and Orthodox Jews refuse to marry the Reformed, let alone Reform converts. There can be no commonly acceptable definition of Jewishness. Rather, communities and spouses have to determine whether someone’s actions are sufficiently Jewish for them. Some groups, notably the Reform movement, will assimilate. Others, such as the fringe ultra-Orthodox, might prove utterly uncompetitive and evaporate. Societal evolution will determine the groups whose definition of Jewishness is both cohesive (the group’s self-identification precludes assimilation) and socially competitive (members don’t run away). We’ll see whose grandchildren remain Jewish. My guess is that pork-eating nationalist Jews will eventually adopt at least the basic tenets of Judaism as their ideological platform.

Israeli citizenship requirements, on the other hand, have to be uniform. All Israelis should pay taxes, serve in the IDF (some, okay, in religious units), be loyal to the Jews, and have close Jewish relatives.

In practical terms, these requirements amount to being a Jew.