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Is Feeling Jewish The Same As Being Jewish?

I feel Jewish, so I am Jewish

On my Birthright trip last month, we had to do an activity where we agreed or disagreed on various statements. One such statement was the following: “I feel Jewish, so I am Jewish.”

As an introvert in a group full of outgoing personalities, I didn’t feel comfortable defending my particular point of view during this activity. Therefore, I’d like to take a chance to do that now.

In the paragraphs that follow, I’ll discuss why, in my opinion, this statement isn’t as simple as it seems.

Point of view #1:

You feel Jewish, but that doesn’t make you Jewish

During the initial activity, I agreed with this idea. I thought that simply feeling Jewish didn’t make you actually Jewish. Essentially, I believed someone could be fully ingrained in Jewish culture, but that won’t inherently make that person Jewish until he or she goes through the conversion process.

While this point of view uses clear logic to distinguish between feeling Jewish and being Jewish, this view eliminates the people who genuinely feel like they should be Jewish but have not yet converted.

Even though feeling Jewish doesn’t automatically make you Jewish, I’ve started to feel like there should be something in between to satisfy everyone.

Point of view #2:

You feel Jewish, so you are Jewish

In this second point of view, if a person feels like a Jew, he or she is Jewish.

Take someone who has never felt in harmony with whatever religion or way of life he or she was born into. In a search to find community, this person may start to get interested in Judaism and the Jewish way of life, even to the point where they’re essentially Jewish. In this scenario, all he or she has to do is sign the conversion paperwork for them to be officially “Jewish.”

Alternatively, this individual could be someone who may not be totally intrigued by all of the technical aspects of Judaism, but who, for whatever reason, feels a deep connection to the religion.

In my opinion, this point of view doesn’t work because any random person could potentially call themselves “Jewish” even if they don’t appreciate or practice Judaism. Say you invite your non-Jewish friend to a Shabbat service at your synagogue. While they’ve had no prior integration in the Jewish community, this is a fun opportunity to spend time together and show him or her what your culture is all about. Your friend might be really interested in the service, and being there might even make them feel Jewish, but the truth is, they aren’t Jewish.

Feeling like something doesn’t automatically make you that thing. I can’t truthfully claim that, as someone who eats meat, I am a vegetarian because I feel vegetarian when I eat a salad. As such, someone vaguely interested in Jewish culture can’t truthfully claim he or she is Jewish because they sometimes feel Jewish.  

So what’s the truth?

On a superficial level, the answer to this debate seems relatively obvious. If you weren’t born Jewish or converted into Judaism, you’re not Jewish. However, I’ve also come to the conclusion that a gentile who feels closely connected to Judaism and their local Jewish community should feel like they have a home in Judaism. Despite the fact that they’re not Jewish on paper yet, we should be welcoming toward people who have nowhere else to turn.

Honorary Jews

I think one answer to this question would be for Jewish people to call this group of individuals “Honorary Jews,” at least until the point where they are officially converted.

Not only does this stop random people from labeling themselves as Jewish when they feel Jewish, but it also helps to distinguish random people from those who genuinely are interested in Judaism and conversion, making conversion that much more significant.

Stefani Chudnow

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