This answer is long, but detailed and will address what it is that determines Jewish identity. I respectfully suggest that for additional questions or confirmation of whether the facts I give are correct, to contact one of the Rabbis at some of the links I will provide and to pursue the references given. This will answer your question in detail and address common misonceptions.
Jews are a nation people, Israel (tribal origin) bound by an eternal covenant of the faith (religion) of Judaism. We are like a huge family and only the family through our laws can determine who is a member of it. It is the laws of Judaism, given to the covenant nation, Israel, in the Torah, that determine Jewish identity. ***It is not a matter of “blood”but of self-determination through the laws of the Jewish people.*** I know that sounds repetitive but I repeated that because that appears hard for some to grasp.
People related to one another share genetic markers. Jews began as a family, then as a small group of tribes and has remained tribal in nature. However, Jews are NOT considered a race. Jews are not *an* ethnicity. There is simply NO single Jewish ethnicity. Neither ethnicity or race define Jewish identity. I repeat, it is Jewish law alone that defines Jewish identity for the Jewish people.
Some modern Rabbis have proposed that Jews change OUR terminology that historically ( beginning in the Torah itself) has identified us as a nation people because of the incorrect assumptions and mistaken definitions of others regarding the word nation. I think that this is actually creating more confusion than repairing it because that would mean that an outside MISUSE of term REdefines us!
We are Klal Yisrael, the community of Israel. . **MANY** different and distinctly Jewish cultures and ethnicities have developed over the millennia in Diaspora lands. The Diaspora refers to the Jewish presence outside of Israel after the destruction of the First and Second Temple periods and the Bar Kochba revolt.
There are many ethnicities that are distinctly Jewish. There are the Mizrahi (from the Middle East and North Africa).The Sephardi (Spanish) and the Ashkenazi, (German, Polish, Russian and other Eastern European), the Beta Yisrael of Ethiopia, and the Cochin of India and others, that are different as to cultural practices and foods, but it is the faith and covenant that binds them all together as Klal Yisrael.
The Jewish people are considered both a nation and a religion. Our connection is primarily one of faith (religion) through the covenant of Israel, yet membership is also conferred by birth, through matrilineal descent. One may also become a part of the nation Israel by adoption of the faith of Judaism and formal procedures of conversion.
One who converts to Judaism is considered as FULLY Jewish as one born Jewish and their children are Jews. This has been the case since the times of the Torah.
However, one may technically be a Jew if their mother is a Jew, but apostate to the covenant of Israel and no longer considered a member of the nation if they leave it for the covenant of faith of another religion. King Solomon even became apostate for a time and his repentance and return are recorded in the latter part of Ecclesiastes. The Tanakh records many instances of apostacy by leaders and rulers, some who returned, others whose idolatrous attempts brought great suffering to Israel.
The Jewish nation began as a group of tribes and our connection to one another is still from the perspective of a tribal nation. (example: as the Lakota nation has tribal procedure and law to determine who is a member of their tribe, who is not, who is expelled and who is adopted, so does Judaism)
One born a member of the tribal covenant nation Israel (Jewish) may not be observant or even believe in God and they’re still a full member, a Jew. They may not be a good member or an active member but they’ve not renounced membership by following something ELSE instead of Judaism. An atheist or a secular Jew is not trying to call something ELSE Judaism. That is how one may be an "atheist Jew". Not believing that there is such a thing as deity, any deity is not following a false deity. An atheist Jew may live Jewish ethics and identify with their people, but they did not take on foreign beliefs contradictory to the monotheism of Torah. An atheist may not convert *to* Judaism to become a member of the tribe because an affirmation of faith in the God of Israel is required to JOIN.
Now if one born into the covenant becomes apostate through rejection of the covenant by adoption of another belief contradictory to the covenant, they are still be considered a Jew, but for all intents and purposes, they're not given the status of a member. According to Jewish law they're not counted in a minyan,( the minimum number of adults required for certain prayers and other mitzvot), they can't be buried in a Jewish cemetery, they cannot be given honors to go up to read Torah at a synagogue, and they may not be allowed to speak for the Jewish people. They CAN however, return without formal conversion should they repent of their idolatrous or foreign god worship and then be embraced again as full members. One who has left the Jewish people for the foreign faith of another people must undergo the steps of TESHUVAH , which means repentance and return to the God of Israel. Some groups may require that the individual also requires immersion in the mikveh before being accepted back, but they do not require the formal steps of conversion should the person wish to return.
Jews are in NO way a RACE..other than as members of the human race.
The notion of Jews as "race" is NOT a Jewish concept. It is a NON Jewish notion that was created out of antisemitism!!Jews here in Y/A have quite literally posted thousands of times here in just the past two years to try to dispel this long held view that unfortunately because of the widespread nature of it’s acceptance decades ago, is sometimes held by people in innocent ignorance without knowing its origins. Other people mistakenly believe the Nazis were the first to disrespect the Jewish laws regarding Jewish identity and attempt to redefine Jewish identity as "race" rather than a covenant nation people who practice Judaism. However, it did not begin there. It was firmly entrenched into European consciousness among a great many non-Jews before Hitler ever rose to power. Ths notion was begun in the mid 1800's among some of the 'philosphers" of Europe, particularly French and German who were developing pseudo-scientific concepts of race. One in particular was highly influential in spreading this toxic notion, and he did not confine his racism to Jews, but his particular form of Jew hate spread to influence millions. Ernest Renan, who lived from 1823-1892 and was from Brittany is credited with popularizing this false notion.
Ernest Renan's ideas about how "Semitic races" were inferior to "Aryan races." These pseudo-scientific theories concerning race, civilization, and "progress" had become quite widespread in Europe in the second half of the 19th century. Others, especially Prussian nationalistic historian Heinrich von Treitschke did much to promote this form of racism. In Treitschke's writings Semitic was synonymous with Jewish.
Both the concept that the dogma of a contradictory religion to Judaism or the pseudo scientific ideas of antisemites who created the concept of Jews as race have authority to determine Jewish identity OVER the right of the laws of the people in question , reveals utter disregard and disrespect of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination according to Jewish law with regard to who is or is not a Jew.
When a Jew adopts a belief that is in conflict with the Jewish religion, the belief does NOT become a " Jewish belief" just because a Jew chooses to believe in it. THAT is the conflict Jews have with the Christians who call themselves Jews if they deceptively try to present their Christian belief AS Judaism. A Jew who converts to Hare Krishna is just as apostate, but there exists no Jews for Hare Krishna or Hare Krishna Judaism evangelical groups spending millions of dollars a year in campaigns to convert secular Jews by convincing them it is a form of Judaism.
You can become a member of a tribe or nation if you meet the criteria of citizenship. And the covenant people, Klal Yisrael, remain as in the earliest days of the covenant..a nation. It hasn't changed.
Reform Judaism (of which I am a member) will consider as Jewish one whose father is a Jew IF the child was RAISED in Judaism actively and exclusively. Even in Reform Judaism, simply having a Jewish father without exclusively Jewish upbringing, would require conversion on the part of the person with only a Jewish father to become a Jew. Reform Judaism also recognizes that only Orthodox conversion is considered acceptable to all branches.
It is against Jewish law for any Jew to discriminate against a convert to Judaism. Since the time of the Torah converts have been accepted as fully Jewish, and this is the case in all branches. We are not even supposed to refer to the fact that they are converts! It is up to them if they wish to identify themselves as such. They are Jews, period.
The covenant people, Israel have also been MULTIRACIAL since the days of Torah, Moses' wife, Zipporah was a black woman. There have been Ethiopian Beta Yisrael since the days of Solomon! And I repeat, one cannot convert to a race. One may convert and become fully Jewish.
The Jewish Bible (Tanakh) tells from the beginning book to the end that the righteous of all nations (Jew or Gentile) have the capacity to connect directly to God, merit blessing and a place in the world to come.
Every human is equal before God according to the Jewish religion. Atonement is directly from God. Shalom
http://geography.about.com/cs/politicalg... < definitions of nation, country, state. Torah calls us the covenant NATION many times.
That above link perhaps explains the confusion with some Jews who may say we aren't a nation..the confusion and misuse with the terms country and state.
http://www.jewish-languages.org/ < The languages of the Jewish people reveal the spread of our covenant people throughout the world...history told through linguistics
http://bible.ort.org/books/torahd5.asp The Torah
The entire Hebrew Bible :
http://www.convert.org < about issues of Conversion
contact Rabbis here, too