Jewish Identity: A Brief Review
Chavurah Zohar Yisrael embraces the traditional definition of Jewish identity, but understands that in today's world, Jewishness cannot, be reduced to purely halakhic status. As Sacha Stern notes Jewish identity is a “multifarious and holistic experience, which can only be described with reference to the whole panoply of Jewish life.“ 
The matter of whom or what is Jew is a source of contention in contemporary Jewish society, in and outside of the land of Israel. Modern perspectives include a variety of proposals on the question of who is a Jew. Some have chosen to articulate a definition of Jewishness purely in terms of the historic connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel (i.e. Zionism). Others have chosen to define Jewishness in terms of race or ethnicity or in terms cultural distinctives. More traditionally inclined movements also maintain definitions of Jewishness based upon classical approaches to Halakhah.
Each of these movement/perspectives provides justification for its definition of Jewish identity. Each of these positions also encompasses a number of strengths and weaknesses which fail to fully appreciate the complexity of Jewish identity.
The Classical Rabbinic Perspective
Since Mishnaic times, classical Jewish orthodoxy has maintained its views quite consistently on the matter of who is a Jew. The criteria for Jewishness until the modern period remained strictly linked to the Halakhic definition of the earliest proto-rabbinic circles existing in the pre and post Second Temple period. The argument from traditional Judaism is that both rabbinical and biblical law define Jewishness on the basis of matrilineal descent.
The emergence of the modern period and the rise of non-orthodox Jewish movements have challenged the legitimacy and authority of Orthodoxy to define Jewishness on the basis of Halakhah alone. The greatest strength of this position perhaps lies in its longevity, though it does not appear to necessarily predate the early rabbinic period.
But defining a Jew simply in terms of halakhah alone is arguably problematic. If for example, Jewishness is only defined by the status of one’s mother that definition can easily devolve into circular reasoning since it fails to articulate what tangible characteristics actually define Jewishness apart from matrilineal descent. According to this definition, a mother might transmit Jewish identity to her children and their offspring for subsequent generations without any action or knowledge of what Jewish life entails be it religious, cultural, linguistic or otherwise.
The Zionist Approach
In the 19th century, the rise of nationalistic movements in Europe affected Jewish groups seeking to re-establish a Jewish homeland in light of continuing bigotry and anti-Semitism. Zionist movements perceived Jewish identity in the same manner that their nationalistic contemporaries saw peoplehood. A nation was characterized by a distinct language, borders, culture, and history. Though many religious Zionists were instrumental in the formation of the modern state of Israel, the majority of Israeli Jews today appear to embrace a definition of Jewish identity largely devoid of any religious connotation and instead often designate Jewish identity as inseparable to the existence of the state and Hebrew language and culture.
This position has considerable deficiencies even though it recognizes the importance of the Jewish state in the history and identity of Jewish life. This position in its extremes places a greater emphasis and importance on the truly astonishing events that have taken place in the course of the state of Israel’s emergence than on the claim of Jewish faith that G-d initiated a covenant with the Jewish people in which the Land of Israel holds a special role. Nationalism cannot be as Jacobs states a substitute for religion.
The revival of the Hebrew language, the rise of Hebrew literature, the creation of a democratic state, etc. are as Louis Jacobs’s notes truly incredible achievements. They do not and cannot however, substitute for a view of Jewish identity that is centered on the service of G-d. A Zionistic approach to Jewish identity renders Jewish existence devoid of any meaning other than the ethnic and historical ties of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland and thus offers no response to the question of Jewish purpose. Hence most Israeli Jews and their non-Israeli Zionist counterparts abroad typically share apathy for towards religious definitions of Jewish identity since they are not seen as integral.
The Reform Position
The 19th century also saw the rise of Reform Judaism. A principle concern of the Reform movement was the legitimization of Jewish life in modernity and the consistency of this life in keeping with the European and American states they lived in. It also sought to dispel accusations that Jews were not faithful or loyal to the countries in which they lived since they were a distinct ethnic/national group. The emerging Reform movement stressed Jewish identity on the basis of religious belief only, and sought to dispel the view that Jewish identity was tied to either the existence of Jewish state or an expected messianic redemption which would culminate in the restoration of Israel. The Reformers instead sought to characterize Judaism as a faith compatible with modernity whose principle tenets could be summed up with the term ethical monotheism comparable to other monotheistic faiths. To those who argued that Jews could never truly be loyal to the state or true citizens of their country, Reform Judaism responded by its emphasis on the spirituality of Jewish identity.
The Reformers, however severed peoplehood from their definition of Jewish identity and hence lost a critical component of Jewish identity. Jews were to view themselves as loyal Germans, Austrians, etc. of their respective countries but of the Jewish faith. Political realities and anti-Semitism highlighted the problems which a severance of Jewish identity from its connection to the land of Israel might entail. Reform Jewish leaders of the 1930’s realized this problem in their rapprochement on Israel’s enduring connection to the Jewish people.
Another challenge of the Reform movement was and is the increasing diminution of the observance of tangible mitzvoth which has also weakened the religious identity of its adherents.
Ethnic and Racial Identity
The cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s largely connected to various racial and ethnic minority power movements in the United States led to the definition of Jewish identity by many in terms of racial or ethnic terms. The justification for this lay in the fact that an ethnic community shares a sense of common origins, claims a common and distinctive history, possesses one or more distinctive characteristics, and feels a sense of collective uniqueness and solidarity. The cultural element has also led many in the Jewish community to perceive Jewish identity in terms of membership in a variety of Jewish institutions (e.g. Jewish Community Centers, Jewish Federations, etc.)
Each of these definitions has major weaknesses. The racial or ethnic definitions quickly lose validity in light of the very visible ethnic and racial differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities or at its extreme for example between Ethiopian and Russian Jews. The cultural argument also loses its basis of validity when language and cultural differences between various Jewish communities are also taken into consideration (e.g. Ladino/Judezmo versus Yiddish).
Membership in Jewish community organizations is largely open to anyone, so a definition of Jewishness solely dependant on this facet is pointless since it includes non-Jews and fails to articulate the distinction of Jewish identity.
The Theological approach
Each of these approaches defines aspects of Jewish identity which have been understood throughout history by various Jewish communities. But non religious or non-theological ideas fail to justify and articulate what makes a Jew distinctive and what purpose Jewish identity serves. Some theologically based definitions such as the initial Reform position, also fail to take into account the idea peoplehood in their definitions. Even the halakhic definition which was predominant for so long, though religiously based, does not express a seminal definition and purpose of Jewish identity.
More specifically, the definitions of Jewish life cannot be understood and appreciated outside the relationship of the Jewish people to the Exodus from Egypt and the theophanic experience at Sinai. The connection of G-d, as the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and consequently the people of Israel must be fundamental to a meaningful definition of who or what is Jew. Regardless of denominational affiliation, any definition that fails to appreciate the centrality of this fundamental principle does little to establish the purpose and existence of Jewish life.
A major problem with these approaches is that they, like the Zionist perspective, do not address the reason for Jewish existence. Secular approaches based on cultural or linguistic bases can also fall into the trap of not recognizing the differences between the great secular literary figures of recent days (e.g. Asher Ginzberg, Sarna, Bialik etc.) and Torah revelation. Jewish or Hebrew culture cannot substitute for Torah.
In contrast, for example to the various national-ethnic groups which are presented in the Torah (e.g. Egyptians, Canaanites, Ethiopians, etc.) which are aboriginal to their areas of settlement, Hebrews or Israelites were not indigenousness to the eventual land of their settlement and are instead created out of the covenant that first begins with Abraham is ratified nationally at Sinai, and continues to be renewed nationally in later Jewish history (e.g. during the times of Joshua Hezekiah, Josiah, Ezra and Nehemiah) .
 Lawrence Schiffman, Who was a Jew? : Rabbinic and Halakhic Perspectives on the Jewish-Christian Schism (KTAV: New York, 1985), 10. J.N. Epstein (Mevo’ot Le-Sifrut Ha-Tanna’im) argues that the available evidence in Mishnaic sources pre-date the destruction of the Second Temple, or at the very least date from the Yavnean period. “If any woman is disqualified from marrying not only this man but also any other Jew, then her child is equal in status to her. And to what case does this refer? This refers to the child of a bondwoman or a non-Jewess.” M. Kiddushin 3:12 . Also “If a non-Jew or a slave had intercourse with a Jewish woman, and she gave birth to a child, the offspring is a mamzer. Rabbi Simeon Ben Judah says in the name of Rabbi Simeon: ‘The child is not a mamzer unless it is the offspring of a Jewish man from a woman who is forbidden to him by the laws of prohibited consanguineous marriages and on account of having intercourse with whom he is liable to the punishment of excision.’” Kiddushin 4:16.
 Louis Jacobs, A Jewish Theology, (Springfield: Berhman House, 1973), 281.
 Ibid. 281.
 Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Revival, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 66.
 Sacha Stern, Jewish Identity in Early Rabbinic Writings (New York: Brill, 1994), xv, xxxiii.