| Second Thoughts |

The Jewish “Jewish Problem”

Many Jews — and many Jewish journalists — could benefit from their own “conversion” to authentic Judaism


Germany is still struggling with a Jewish problem, but thank G-d, this time it does not threaten Jews. Rather, it deals with some phrasing in the famous Duden dictionary of standard German. Its current online edition stated that the word Jude (Jew) is a pejorative term and is considered to be discriminatory, and that phrases like “Jewish people, or people of the Jewish faith” are “usually chosen.”

The German Jewish community — once 600,000 strong but now, post-Holocaust, barely 15,000 — reacted angrily, declaring that Jude is a term of pride to us, and not derogatory in any way — especially in view of the obscene way it was utilized by the Nazis. The dictionary editors, who clearly meant no harm, immediately changed the wording.

The sad fact is that the word “Jew,” though we celebrate it, has for millennia been used as a pejorative long before modern Germany— by the Church, by kings, and by the unwashed — and fully washed — masses.

In the eyes of the world, the Jew remains a mysterious figure, beyond all definition and classification:  race, religion, people, nation, clan. We are the subject of curiosity and myth from time immemorial. Whether we drink the blood of Christian children on Pesach, or we secretly plot to dominate the world, or we are the evil anti-god who stubbornly refuses to accept Christian teaching, Haman’s famous description of the Jews (Esther 3:8) says it all. The world has always been obsessed with Jews. Even China, which has no Jews, has opinions about Jews.

But it is not only the outside world that is bewildered about Jews. Sadly, many Jews are similarly bewildered, and have no idea of what and who a Jew is. They adopt shibboleths and meaningless slogans like “social justice” and tikkun haolam — repair the world, as if concerns about civil rights (as important as that is) or the environment is the sum total of  Judaism. Terms like subservience to the Creator, the will of G-d, thou shalts and shalt nots, self-discipline  are concepts that are never heard by these confused Jews. As a young man from the local Reform synagogue once said to me: “I love being Jewish because you don’t have to do anything special. Judaism doesn’t tell you what to do and what not to do.”

Truly mindful Jews have no trouble in defining a Jew. On a basic level, a Jew is someone born of a Jewish mother. This is the easiest way to become a Jew: Make sure to have a Jewish mother. The more difficult way, but still very acceptable, is to voluntarily accept G-d, Torah, and mitzvos, and to undergo a full halachic conversion. Today there are quickie ways that purport to create Jews: conversions with no commitments required; conversions in order to marry a Jew, or to gain Israeli citizenship. The door to Judaism is always open to serious converts, but they have to come through the front door and not clamber through side windows or sneak in the back door

But not all Jews are mindful. Large swaths of Jews think that becoming a citizen of the Jewish state transforms a non-Jew into a Jew. Wrong. (Forgetting that there are Christian and Muslim citizens of Israel). They are certain that a non-Jew serving in the Israeli army is automatically a Jew. Again — though his service and sacrifice is appreciated and worthy of sincere gratitude — completely wrong. Becoming a Jew involves commitment to Torah observance, and the desire to immerse oneself into the stream of Jewish history going back to Avraham Avinu, plus a commitment to march with us and share our joys and, yes, our suffering. I know many such true converts. They know there is more to conversion than immersion in a mikveh or undergoing circumcision. They know that conversion is not like changing a dress or a suit of clothing, but that it entails changing one’s life.

The current influx into Israel of tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees — among whom inevitably there will be non-Jews seeking haven in Israel — will tempt Israeli authorities to repeat the cynical quickie conversions in Vienna that marked the mass influx of Russian Jews some decades ago. Already, as in a Jerusalem Post column on February 23, 2022, rabbis are urged to make conversion procedures “more welcoming” — as if Judaism were a country club. Translation: Do not require anything; just sprinkle some water on them and declare them Jews. One prays that the admirable impulse to welcome all refugees will not trump the questionable impulse to transform non-Jews into slapdash Jews.

In truth, many Jews — and many Jewish journalists — could benefit from their own “conversion” to authentic Judaism.  The contretemps about the dictionary wording indicates that not only Germans have problems with the Jude; it is also we Jews ourselves.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 904)

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