Questions for Shavuot (Feast of Weeks)

I usually write with answers; today I'm writing with a LONG list of questions appropriate to the holiday.  On Shavuot, we read the story of Ruth, considered the archetype for the Jewish convert: she joins the Jewish people with a beautiful statement to her mother in law:


And Ruth said, Do not entreat me to leave you, or to keep from following you; for wherever you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; Where you die, will I die, and there will I be buried; the Lord do so to me, and more also, if even death parts me from you. (Ruth 1:16-17)

But the process Ruth follows to become Jewish is not the process we follow today.  So it raises all sorts of questions about "who is a Jew?"  I'm interested in looking at "who was, who is, and who will be" a Jew.  There are a lot of complex questions wrapped up in these simple questions: questions of identity, questions of the relationship between religion, nation, and peoplehood.

I invite your thoughts and answers in the comments. 

Why isn’t Adam considered Jewish?  He talks to God, God gives him orders

Why isn’t Noah considered Jewish?  He talks to God, God gives him orders, he obeys God, he offers sacrifices to God?

If above is not sufficient, what makes Abraham Jewish?

Can Jews accept Abraham as both Jewish and Muslim?

Can Muslims accept Abraham as both Muslim and Jewish?

What makes Sarah Jewish?

Is Hagar Jewish?

Some say Biblical period had “Patrilineal descent.”

Why is Isaac Jewish, but Ishmael isn’t?


Why is Jacob Jewish, but Esau isn’t?

Rachel and Leah?

Are Bilhah and Zilpah Jewish?  Why don’t they get the credit of Rachel and Leah?

Did the “erev rav” (mixed multitude) that came up from Egypt with Moses become Jewish?  How?

What makes Ruth Jewish?

How did David go from being a descendant of a convert – implying the throne is open to ANYONE – to being the head of a dynasty so ingrained all kings must be his descendants?  Why the switch from lineage doesn’t matter to lineage is critical?

Why couldn’t the wives of the men in Ezra’s time convert?

What makes Herod Jewish?

Why did the Hasmoneans insist that the Idumeans become Judeans, instead of allowing them to remain “garei toshav,” resident aliens?

The proselytes who come to visit Hillel and Shammai: why the emphasis on teaching them?

Why did the rabbis come up with the formula they did for defining matrilineal descent and the process for conversion?

The Reform accept patrilineal descent.  Why?  Do they have a good argument?

Does the state of Israel revive the concept of “Judean” as opposed to “Jew?”

Would a secular Israeli object to his son/daughter marrying a non-halachically Jewish Russian Israeli?  Would it matter if he followed Jewish holidays and served in the IDF?

Today has more disagreement over “who is a Jew” than any time in the past.  Where is it leading?

Chag Sameach,

Reb Barry

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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