What About the Partially Jewish ?


Does it matter if some people who are called Jewish are, in fact, not quite that ?  Yes it does.  Plenty.  One may be partially Jewish as a result of one's parents' mixed marriage, because of adherence to a non-Jewish religion, or because of any of a number of other factors, singly, or, more likely, in combination.  And I will suggest that the degree to which a person is Jewish or only partially Jewish has consequences.


First of all : who is a Jew and who is not ?  Of course there is a religious definition, which states that any person born of a Jewish mother is himself Jewish, as are all those who have undergone a proper religious conversion.  But this definition, satisfactory in a rough way much of the time, leaves many unanswered questions when, for one reason or another, doubts arise.


Consider, as starters, the following questions:  how exactly would we know, in any one case, that a woman, the mother here,  is Jewish ?  Her mother, and her mother's mother, and all the mothers before her, would have to have been Jewish.  And how, exactly, can that be verified ?  It cannot.


And when it comes to conversion, how exactly do we know that it was "proper"  ?  I well remember that many years ago I was asked to be a witness to a hastily-convoked "conversion" ceremony.  It was  conducted by someone who called himself a rabbi, but,  it seemed to me, it had the legitimacy of a quickie Mexican divorce.  As I recall, the rabbi in question did not refer to himself as Orthodox, so from an Orthodox point of view the conversion probably had no legitimacy to begin with.  But there are many types of Orthodox and many who call themselves so may not be accepted by others.  As a young Hasidic boy pointed out to me when I invoked a certain rabbi:  "Just where did he get his  smiche (ordination) ?!," the boy exclaimed.  I was silenced.


As a matter of further complication, not everyone accepts the idea of exclusively maternal descent.  Many in the Reform movement feel that a Jewish father is as good as a mother for purposes of establishing Jewishness.  For this and other reasons, the mother-only criterion does not enjoy the universal assent in what can reasonably be called the Jewish religious community.


A religious definition is in many ways similar to a legal definition:  sometimes it is merely legalistic, and applies only to the narrow confines of the legal process, and even then it is open to doubt.  The criminal law describes certain behaviors as criminal, but only if and when it can so be proved in a court of law.  Moreover, a legal definition is only partially informative about which behaviors are acceptable to the community.


Even if it had clarity and definitiveness, which it does not, the religious-legal definition of a Jew leads to absurdities that few can accept.  One example is the famous 1962 case of Brother Daniel, a Carmelite monk who was born of Jewish parents but later converted to Catholicism.  The Israeli Supreme Court refused to recognize him as Jewish for purposes of the Law of Return, a decision widely accepted by Jews around the world.  But from a legal-Orthodox point of view, Brother Daniel is as Jewish as the Chief Rabbi of Israel.  Or take, as a thought experiment, a fictional Mr. David Levi, son of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, brought up in a Jewish household, member of a Reform congregation.  From an legal-Orthodox point of view, Mr. Levi would be strictly non-Jewish.  But would he be strictly non-Jewish in exactly the same way as the Pope of Rome ?  As a practical matter, who would think that, even in the Orthodox community ?


It would seem that no single criterion can define Jewishness in a way that coincides with the social reality of Jewish life, in the United States, in Israel, or anywhere else. (In this regard, Jewish identity does not differ from other ethnic identities in America, such as "Italian-American.") Borrowing from the biological field of Numerical Taxonomy, I suggest that Jewishness is defined by a matrix of traits or criteria, not one of which, by itself,  being either necessary or sufficient.  In other words, as Jews we each share a number of traits or attributes, but not every Jew shares each one of them, nor to the same extent.  Moreover, once we see Jewishness as a bundle of traits, it is possible to conceptualize it as a multi-dimensional phenomenon, open to measurement by means of such multivariate techniques as factor analysis.  This conceptualization results in the recognition that Jewishness, far from being all-or-none, is in fact a multi-dimensional continuum. In other words, some are more Jewish than others.


The idea of factor analysis is regularly used to conceptualize intelligence.   The procedure is approximately as follows.  We start with a large sample of the general population.  We administer a number of tests, each considered to be relevant to mental ability, such as tests of verbal abilities, mathematical understanding, etc. The factor analysis then consists of correlating scores on the various abilities and coming up with an underlying "latent" factor, which can give an overall score on "intelligence."  This latent factor, in the field of intelligence testing, is called g.


How would we go about establishing an underlying j, a Jewishness factor (or a Jewishness scale) from all the relevant "tests" for Jewishness ?  Of course there are all kinds of difficulties, and different investigators will use different procedures, just as different psychologists use different approaches within the field of intelligence research.  One of the most important decisions that researchers must make is the choice of "tests," i.e. the variables to be included in the factor analysis.  Since the number of possible variables is in principle infinite, which variables to use in the research depends on the judgement of the researcher.  Different researchers will make different judgements.


Here is my very preliminary list of suggestions for variables ('tests"):


1) Is mother Jewish ?

2) Is father Jewish ?

3) Do you adhere to a religion ?  Which kind ?

4) Do you belong to a religious organization ? Which kind ?

5) Questions regarding observance of Jewish ritual

6) Questions regarding general and Jewish education

7) Questions regarding Jewish voluntary memberships

8) Questions regarding attitudes toward Israel

9) Questions regarding commensality (friendship patterns) and connubial (marriage patterns), in other words, with whom do you associate ?

10) Questions regarding occupation

11) Do you have a Jewish name ?


Of course it may be objected that some of these variables, for instance attitudes toward Israel, "should not" enter a definition of Jewishness.  But the point here is not one of an a priori  assumption of what the correlates of Jewishness "should be" but rather an empirical investigation of which in fact are the attributes of Jewishness.  And Jewishness, in this kind of procedure, is not directly tested, but rather emerges as the underlying (latent) "factor" from the empirical analysis.


So much for my conceptualization of the (statistical) concept of Jewishness.  Now for some anecdotal evidence of the significance of the partial Jew, i.e. of the person who would rank low on the Jewishness scale.


We know from a number of publications that during the Nazi period there were a number of "Jewish" collaborators with the Nazis.  Of these there were a certain number -- perhaps thirty -- who were active as "catchers" of Jews in Berlin from 1943 to 1945.  These were years in which Jews were not permitted to live in Berlin, and those who did, several thousand at the beginning, lived an underground existence.  Now the "Jewish" catchers were employed by the Gestapo to find Jews and to turn them over to the Gestapo, which, in turn, sent  them to the extermination camps.  (See, for example, "Stella," by Peter Wyden [1992], and "Erzwungener Verrat," by Doris Tausenfreund [2006].)  These "catchers" are usually referred to as "Jews" in the literature, although a careful reading of the materials discloses that at least half of these persons were only partially Jewish.  All of them were considered "Jews" by the "racial" criteria of Nazi legislation, criteria that where more or less uncritically accepted by the authors of these studies.  Stella, the best known of the "catchers," had a Christian religious education. Some were "Mischlinge," products of mixed marriages.  Some of the others had been baptized or were children of baptized Christians. All were "non-Aryan" by Nazi standards, i.e. having had one or more Jewish grandparent.


Obviously, Jewishness in Nazi Germany had a very special meaning.  As we know, it was a crime to be a Jew, punishable by death, and the partial Jews -- often people who felt no attachment to the Jewish people -- were in vulnerable positions at best.  And of course the fact that some of them acted in a hostile manner to Jews is no proof that most of them or even many of them felt hostile.  Nevertheless, the anecdotal evidence, subject of course to a more thorough examination, suggests that partial Jewishness was conducive to hostility toward ("full") Jews in those circumstances.


When it comes to the United States in our day, we are faced, perhaps more so than ever before, with  a number of vocal individuals who both insist they are Jews but who also vigorously denounce the general Jewish consensus of support for Israel.  I have known a very few of these individuals, and in almost every case it was someone who would have a low j rating on a Jewishness scale.  One man stands out in particular:  Rabbi David Mivasair of Vancouver, who, while leading a small Jewish congregation of like-minded people, also acted as a clergyman for a Christian church.  All the while he regularly applauded Hamas bombardments of Israel. Of the other "Jewish" opponents of Israel that I have known, many came from mixed-marriage parents, were married to non-Jews, or had other attributes not commonly associated with being fully Jewish.  A certain kind of connubial, or marriage pattern, seems to be a particularly revealing attribute of partial Jews.  So Rabbi Ellen Lippmann is the spiritual leader of a generally anti-Israel synagogue in Brooklyn.  Her wife, Kathryn Conroy, is not Jewish but is called the "rebbetzin" of the congregation.  She explains that she will not convert (to Judaism) because  "I cannot convert to anything because I am

already who I am and what I am going to continue to be."


Of course all this is merely suggestive and not conclusive to support the supposition that among the anti-Israel "Jews,"  Jewishness is not as strong an attribute as would be found among those supportive of Israel. 


In sum:  some are more Jewish than others;  not all who claim to be Jewish are equally Jewish if the trait is considered to be a continuum;  empirical multivariate research can, and should, throw more light on the Jewishness of our days.  Ultimately it is only empirical research that can answer the question of how much it matters that some are more Jewish than others.


Werner Cohn

April 2015