The subject of Jewish identity has been a long term interest for me. My thesis at the Siegal College of Judaic Studies was on Jewish identity during the Second Temple period. My dissertation at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies was on Iberian Conversos, or Anusim.
In either case, what exactly Jewishness entails became a key focus. I first discovered the complexity of the topic when I read a statement given by Rabbi Dr. Norman Solomon, the Koener Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies:
“What people are is not decided by the halacha. People are what they are. It’s all a question of exercising power. The authorities need to exercise power in order to stay in power and run other people’s lives for them, and one of the most potent weapons that remains in the hands of the orthodox rabbinate is a power of definition. They define who you are, and this very potent indeed. It affects your whole life.”
Of course the context for this statement highlights some of the challenges that exist between the various movements in contemporary Judaism. Now this may be true in the 21st century, but what did Jewishness entail in the Second Temple period? For this, one of the foundational texts is provided by Shaye D. Cohen in his work titled, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties. Cohen’s work explores this fundamental question in antiquity.
In modern times, various Jewish groups have argued whether Jewishness is a function of ethnicity, of nationality, of religion, or of all three. These fundamental conceptions were already in place in antiquity. The peculiar combination of ethnicity, nationality, and religion that would characterize Jewishness through the centuries first took shape in the second century B.C.E.
This brilliantly argued, accessible book unravels one of the most complex issues of late antiquity by showing how these elements were understood and applied in the construction of Jewish identity―by Jews, by gentiles, and by the state.
Beginning with the intriguing case of Herod the Great’s Jewishness, Cohen moves on to discuss what made or did not make Jewish identity during the period, the question of conversion, the prohibition of intermarriage, matrilineal descent, and the place of the convert in the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds. His superb study is unique in that it draws on a wide range of sources: Jewish literature written in Greek, classical sources, and rabbinic texts, both ancient and medieval. It also features a detailed discussion of many of the central rabbinic texts dealing with conversion to Judaism.
I used this for my research and highly recommend it.
 Emma Klein, Lost Jews: The Struggle for Identity Today, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), 205.
Posted by Rabbi Dr. Juan Marcos Bejarano Gutierrez the director of Yeshivat Meor Enaim. He is the author of The Converso Dilemma: Halakhic Responsa and the Status of Forced Converts.
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