Ask the Rabbis | Can You Be Disqualified From Being a Jew?

By | May 08, 2024


Once a Jew, always a Jew. In the words of Gene Wilder in the film The Producers: “No way out, no way out, no way out…” Or in the words of the sages: “Wheresoever a Jew might wander, he can never claim that he is not a Jew. Why? Because he is recognizable, as is written in Isaiah 61:9—‘All who see them shall recognize them’” (Midrash Shir HaShirim Rabbah 6). You will not find, for example, a Jewish convert to Islam or Christianity who isn’t living the newly adopted religion with a uniquely “Jewish” twist. The Spanish Inquisition had a heyday rooting out Jewish converts to the Church because they stuck out—did they somehow seem “different” in their mannerisms, their audacity, their propensity to question everything, maybe even unconsciously roll their eyes when offered the wafer? Bottom line, whether you are born Jewish or are a Jew by choice, you are strapped with being so notably different from everyone else across the planet that if you showed up at a UFO conference, they’d immediately quarantine you for observation. On the other hand, our sages taught, “Anyone who lacks compassion in regard to God’s creations, it is certain that they are not of the seed of Abraham” (Talmud Bav’li, Beitzah 32b). So if you’re an asshole, then regardless of your bris or a certificate from the Israeli rabbinate, you’re not one of us. Go away.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Golden, CO


For a small people that has engaged in minimal recruitment, Jews have developed quite a few criteria about who is considered Jewish. The rabbis maintained that a Jew is a righteous convert or the child of a Jewish mother. Apostasy merited punishments up to and including exclusion from the community. Yet the biological criterion implied that even excommunication was not absolute; apostates can repent and return.

Rabbi Sherwin Wine, founder of Humanistic Judaism, once noted that for Zionists, “even atheists, practitioners of yoga and believers in reincarnation and astrology are Jews so long as they identify with and participate in Jewish national aspirations.” Humanistic Judaism itself further illustrated that even synagogues and rabbis could exist within a Jewish context devoid of God.

During a Federation workshop I attended that addressed this question, the only agreed-upon exclusion was of Messianic Jews, due to their belief in a false messiah. I raised an objection: If belief in a false messiah is disqualifying, what of those who continue to view the Lubavitcher Rebbe as mashiach? My question went unanswered. Decades ago, Humanistic Judaism wisely eliminated belief criteria, defining a Jew as “anyone who identifies with the history, culture and fate of the Jewish people.”
Rabbi Jeffrey Falick
Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Metro Detroit
Farmington Hills, MI


Years ago, as a newly minted rabbi, I had lunch with some members of Jewish and Christian interfaith families. At one point I blithely blurted out, “Well, you can’t be Jewish and Christian at the same time.” The woman I was addressing looked at me intently and said, “But I am.” That gave me pause.

I still think that many Jews would view a belief in the divinity of Jesus as a disqualifier for being Jewish. For most Jewish congregations, “Messianic Jews” are outside the mainstream of Jewish life as we know it. But many Jews are not part of mainstream congregations, and their experiences with Jewish organizations often include disqualification, suspicion or rejection. People often ask me if they would be regarded as Jewish in my congregation. Perhaps they didn’t have a bar or bat mitzvah. Perhaps only one parent was Jewish. Perhaps a grandparent was Jewish but they were raised Christian. My question is, why—in this day and age—are we seeking to disqualify anyone? Why aren’t we throwing the doors open and welcoming them? My congregation, thankfully, doesn’t choose to stamp people “kosher” or “not kosher.” If someone is seeking Judaism, wanting to be part of the Jewish project, yearning to connect with Jews and community—that’s good enough for us.
Rabbi Gilah Langner Congregation Kol Ami
Arlington, VA


To the question “Can you be disqualified from being a Jew?” my first reaction is, “Who gets to do the disqualifying?” Over the course of Jewish history, there have been many unfortunate examples of people eager to fill that job. Israelite kings jailing prophets like Jeremiah because of “disloyalty.” Communal leaders in 16th- century Amsterdam excommunicating Baruch Spinoza for “evil opinions.” Religious authorities in North America in 1945 excommunicating Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, for his dissenting views leading to a new Shabbat prayer book.

Today we see people attempting to “disqualify” fellow Jews because of their views on Israel—calling those Jews they disagree with “self-hating” or even antisemitic. There are better ways than excommunication and name-calling, however, to uphold a Judaism one wants people to follow. One can argue for one’s views with respect, thoughtfulness and humility. One can live out one’s vision of Judaism with faith, kindness and integrity. One can turn the question around and ask not what disqualifies others but what qualifies us, ourselves, to be called a Jew. That was the prophet Micah’s question when he asked, “What does God require of us?” And Micah answers: Only “do justice, love goodness, and walk humbly with your God.” This is a lifetime project for each of us that can nurture our souls, connect us with others and bring to life the precious tradition we share.
Rabbi Caryn Broitman
Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Congregation
Vineyard Haven, MA


The Jewish community is culturally and ritually diverse. For each moment in the Jewish life cycle and calendrical cycle, we see how distinct segments of the global Jewish community vary in their observance. Some name their children only after family members who have predeceased the newborn infant; some name newborns specifically after living relatives. We interpret Torah differently and sing prayers to different melodies with culturally distinctive rhythms. Do a search for Passover charoset recipes and the rich diversity of the Jewish community will shine brightly.

As this feature frequently demonstrates, Jews are also theologically diverse. Our beliefs about the nature of the Divine and about the relationship between God and humanity vary greatly.

Nevertheless, one theological conviction that unites Jews is the belief that Jesus was not the Messiah, nor uniquely the son of God who died for their sins. Once a person religiously embraces this belief about Jesus, they are, by definition, Christian, and not Jewish. While those with this belief may appear Jewish on the surface because they observe Shabbat or wear tallitot (prayer shawls), they have misappropriated Jewish rituals and practices in an effort to live according to a mistaken image of the historical figure of Jesus.
Rabbi Dr. Laura Novak Winer
Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion
Fresno, CA


Our biblical ancestors seemed constantly to cast aside their covenant with God. Nonetheless, the prophets quote God referring to the errant nation as “My people, Israel.” The rabbis of the Talmud follow suit repeatedly and in one frequently used phrase exclaim, “Israel, even when having sinned, is still Israel” (Sanhedrin 44a). In short: A Jew does not become disqualified from being a Jew, even if s/he has sinned.

None of this is surprising. We surely all know Jews who stumble, ignore or desecrate various Jewish laws and yet very much remain Jews. Many of our fellow Jews are unabashed atheists, and still they are Jews.

And what of Israel—the people and the state? I am deeply troubled by any Jew who does not understand the Jewish people’s connection to the land of Israel and the Jewish people’s need for a modern state. Nor can I fathom how fellow Jews can turn their back on more than half of the world’s Jewish population. That being said, “A Jew, although he has sinned, is still a Jew.”

One caveat: Although one can’t be disqualified as a Jew, one can be disqualified from leading the Jewish people. A responsible and suitable leader of the Jewish people must embrace ahavat tziyyon—a love of the land and people of Zion. While there is always room for criticism and improvement of the state, in no way do I accept as legitimate a Jewish leader who turns away from the State of Israel.
Rabbi Amy S. Wallk
Temple Beth El
Springfield, MA


The old rabbinic statement says, “Yisrael, af al pi she-hata Yisrael hu” (“A Jew who sins remains a Jew”). Bad statements or bad actions do not result in loss of status as a Jew. The only exception is in modern Israeli Jewish jurisprudence. A Jew who proclaims belief in Jesus, i.e. converts to Christianity, forfeits status as a Jew and does not automatically receive citizenship under the Law of Return.

If you are born Jewish (or properly convert) you never lose that status. However, bad statements or actions can make you a bad Jew. Case in point: Jews who deny Israel’s right to exist are bad Jews. Given the threat to Israel’s existence through terror and through hostile international/UN actions, I believe that people who use their Jewish status to give respectability and heft to their denial of Israel’s right to exist (such as some members of Jewish Voice for Peace) should be rejected by the community and treated as Jewish enemies of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
J.J. Greenberg Institute for the Advancement of Jewish Life/Hadar
Riverdale, NY


Jewish tradition has an ambiguous relationship with this question. On the one hand, a person born of a Jewish mother or who underwent a halachic conversion is Jewish for life, and nothing can void that Jewishness. On the other hand, there are numerous provisions in halacha for dealing with people who have withdrawn from the community through non-observance of the law so that they are regarded as non-Jewish. So which is it? Rav Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993) points out that in the Bible, God entered two different covenants with the Jewish people. The covenant of nationhood, with Abraham, confers irrevocable membership in the Jewish people. There’s no way to walk away from it. But a second covenant, at Sinai, is clearly about upholding Jewish law and observance, and a person can walk away from that covenant and effectively stand outside it.

As an Orthodox Jew, I deal with halachic definitions. But I also have my own quirky definition of Jewish, built on Rav Soloveitchik’s observation: A person is Jewish if he or she connects to the Jewish past, relates to the Jewish present and has a serious program for relating to the Jewish future. Lots of people are halachically Jewish and yet don’t relate to the Jewish past or to the Jewish present, and there are a growing number who can’t be part of the Jewish future because the odds of their children and grandchildren remaining part of the Jewish community are essentially nil. I find that definition useful, even if self-authored, and at a time when the rest of the world seems to be quite certain who is Jewish and who is not, it may help us to better consider what we mean when we call ourselves Jewish.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Los Angeles, CA /Jerusalem


To answer this question, we have to ask first what makes one a Jew. One who is born to Jewish parents is considered Jewish, even though the ability of this newborn to process ideas of faith and religious practices is still years away. On the other hand, Judaism accepts Jews by choice based on their willingness to adhere to certain beliefs and practices. Being a Jew, therefore, is not about ancestry or belief alone: One can be a non-believing, non-practicing Jew by birth, or a believing, practicing Jew by choice. You’d think that Jews by choice would lose their Jewish status when they stop practicing or believing, but the traditional view is that there is no way back. And as for Jews by birth, it seems logical to say that one cannot be unborn, so that element of Jewish identity cannot be revoked.

On the broader question of disqualification, I would say that people might act or think in ways that renounce elements of their Jewish identity, whether those elements pertain to practice, beliefs or national belonging. By doing so, they actually create a new Jewish identity, one that might not be considered mainstream or even peripheral. Only time will tell if those individuals or their descendants remain part of the larger organism called the Jewish people.
Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Torah VeAhava
Potomac, MD


Unequivocally no. The reason has to do with what it means to be Jewish. One can renounce one’s U.S. citizenship and become a citizen of another country. People can change elements of their identity—jobs, titles, other superimposed descriptions. But being Jewish defines the very soul and essence of the Jew. It’s not about observance, and it’s not about a particular culture or set of rituals and behavior—things that define so many of our institutions. Judaism is soul-based, so can you disqualify someone from their soul? Of course not. Just as you cannot cancel and disqualify a human being from being a human being, from having that spark of the divine image in which they were created, you cannot disqualify them from that divine identity and birthright that is bound up in being Jewish. The only question is whether they are aware of their Jewish soul and whether they are accessing it. A person can be born with an innate musical talent—they may never actualize it, but it’s still always part of them. Similarly, whether or not you are accessing your soul’s innate Judaism, it’s always an inherent part of you.
Rabbi Simon Jacobson
Meaningful Life Center
Brooklyn, NY

One thought on “Ask the Rabbis | Can You Be Disqualified From Being a Jew?

  1. hag says:

    An interesting question…. A few years back, my sons, born of a jewish father, and a non jewish mother, who attended Hebrew School, Shabbas, bar mitzvah and whose Mother had converted to Judaism, were WARNED against converted jews… can’t trust them, etc…..

    they promptly DROPPED OUT…

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