Last week Gavin asked me how Jews define themselves. Since I didn't see how I could reasonably clarify that one with less than a small book, I put it aside to wait for a plausible hook to hang it on. Sure enough, one came along, in the surprising story of Michelle Obama's rabbi cousin. Not, as you might think, the story of a Jew who married into her clan, which wouldn't have been all that surprising. No. This is the story of a tradition started late in the 19th century of American blacks identifying with Judaism to the extent they proclaimed themselves Jews; the cousin, Rabbi Capers Funnye, is part of an offshoot of the tradition which actually seems to be serious about their Judaism.
I admit I've never heard of the entire phenomenon. Just goes to show you how varied the Jewish world is, I suppose. Assuming they're Jews. Are they? And how do you know? More importantly, who decides?
One of the books I'm reading, Paula Fredriksen's Augustine and the Jews, tells about many non-Jews who attached themselves to Jewish communities in the pre-Christian period of the Roman Empire. Judaism was different in those days, but the book makes clear that the gentiles remained gentiles, even when supporting the Jewish communities with funds and participating in their communal activities.
And that was probably the last time Judaism was potentially appealing to large numbers of non-Jews for 18-19 centuries. In the interval, you were lucky if you got through a century with your community intact. There must have been movement on the edges, so there was a definition of being Jewish: anyone with a Jewish mother, or who had been converted halachically - which meant, by a rabbi.
In the second half of the 20th century this changed... twice, and in very different ways. It changed in the US, and it changed in Israel.
It changed in the US because, as touched upon in the previous post, for the first time ever it was possible to be an integral part of mainstream society and Jewish society simultaneously; yet Jewish society was taking on a plethora of new forms that would not have been recognizable as Jewish until recently. This meant a significant number of non-Jews were willing to consider joining the Jews, and intermarriage with non-jews while retaining Jewish identity meant the matriarchal definition appeared too narrow. The Jews lost their consensus on what they were, and then on who they were; today's American Jewry is characterized by a diversity and breadth of expression far greater than any previous Jewish community, including the fractured and disparate one of the final generations of the Second Temple Era. American Jews agree, in a general way, that they have a common history, the kingpin of which is the Holocaust; they sort of agree that being Jewish means having a communal or societal conscience, and they more or less sort of agree that Israel is important. The single most important space for Jewish expression is the liturgical area: American Jews tend to identify by belonging to a temple/synagogue/shul congregation.
Meanwhile, in Israel, it all works differently. Jews are the mainstream society. They speak the ancestral language, Hebrew, as their native tongue, and the national calender is Jewish. The state of war we live in is intrinsically tied up with being Jewish, too. Which means being Jewish in Israel is essentially automatic unless you're an Arab or Druze, and need have nothing to do with liturgy, belonging to a congregation, or any of the fundamental aspects of being Jewish in America; on the other hand, since it's the kind of thing you need the willingness to lay your life down for, it's far more serious than it is for many American Jews. The non-Jews in Israel, and halachically there are hundreds of thousands of them, mostly from the former Soviet Union, are in many ways more actively Jewish than most American Jews, even if they have absolutely no connection with a synagogue.
Which leaves the halachically minded orthodox with two separate battles to lose. In America they've lost the argument about conversion, and are retreating into their own enclaves. In Israel, they're losing the argument, too, though it's a very different argument, and their ability to retreat into enclaves is limited; on the other hand, the demographic dynamic means that within a few generations the problem (if it is one) will largely disappear: The Jews in Israel will be Jews, even if some of their forbears were Slavic non-Jews. I won't hazard a guess as to what will happen in America. Perhaps most American Jews will be African Americans who decided they were Jewish.