Among the most complex questions in Jewish life today are those that touch upon identity: what or who is a Jew? A Jew, according to religious, rabbinic law, is the child of a Jewish mother or someone who converts to Judaism and is recognized as a Jew by a religious court. Is the Jewish people today primarily a religious reality? It would be undoubtedly true to speak of the Jewish people as a religious reality up to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Halakha (Jewish religious practice) defined Jewish identity to a very large degree. However, modernity not only shattered the unity of practice at the heart of traditional Jewish identity through the emergence of different streams of Judaism (ultra-Orthodoxy, modern Orthodoxy, Conservative Judaism, Reform Judaism, etc.) but also led many Jews to reject traditional religious practice altogether. Reform movements in Judaism introduced great diversity within the Jewish understandings of the halakha and created the plurality of Jewish currents that no longer agree upon halakhic principles. Even more importantly, many Jews began to disregard halakha altogether, both religious practice and the beliefs that underpinned it, as decisive for Jewish identity. Whereas one part of the Jewish people (a minority) has continued to see the halakha as the central cohesive element of Jewish identity, many modern Jews see halakha as an impediment to life in the modern world. This has led to a radical reformulation of Jewish identity where the religious element is only one part of what defines a modern Jew.
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David M. Neuhaus SJ serves as Latin Patriarchal Vicar at Saint James Vicariate for Hebrew Speaking Catholics in Israel. To learn more please visit www.catholic.co.il