If you have a Jewish ancestor that is male, can you say you are part Jewish?

Started by Private User on Thursday, December 23, 2010


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Private User
12/23/2010 at 12:33 PM

Just a hypothetical question. I noticed some ties to some Exilarchs in Babylon (probably a false relationship) but if it is true, they are males and my understanding is that any "Jewishness" comes from your mother's line. So what if that mother's line is where you get the ties to the Jewish Exilarchs of Babylon? (BUT there are no Jews in your family for multiple generations?) I plead ignorant. I am just seeking clarification.

Thanks for anyone to help with this question.

Private User
12/23/2010 at 12:35 PM

My understanding of what an Exilarch is comes from the ABOUT me written by Justin Swanstrom on one of the profiles.

EXILARCH, in Jewish history, “Chief or Prince of the Captivity.” The Jews of Babylonia, after the fall of the first temple, were termed by Jeremiah and Ezekiel the people of the “Exile.” Hence the head of the Babylonian Jews was the exilarch (in Aramaic Resh Galutha). The office was hereditary and carried with it considerable power. Some traditions regarded the last king of Davidic descent (Jehoiachin) as the first exilarch, and all the later holders of the dignity claimed to be scions of the royal house of Judah. Under the Arsacids and Sassanids the office continued. In the 6th century an attempt was made to secure by force political autonomy for the Jews, but the exilarch who led the movement (Mar Zutra) was executed. For some time thereafter the office was in abeyance, but under Arabic rule there was a considerable revival of its dignity. From the middle of the 7th till the 11th centuries the exilarchs were all descendants of Bostanai, through whom “the splendour of the office was renewed and its political position made secure “ (Bacher). The last exilarch of importance was David, son of Zakkai, whose contest with Seadiah (q.v.) had momentous consequences. Hezekiah (a. 1040) was the last Babylonian exilarch, though the title left its traces in later ages. Benjamin of Tudela (Itinerary, p. 6,) names an exilarch Daniel b. Ijisdai in the 12th century. Petabiah (Travels, p. il) records that this Daniel’s nephew succeeded to the office jointly with a R. Samuel. The latter, according to Petabiah, had a learned daughter who “gave instruction, through a window, remaining in the house while the disciples were below, unable to see her.”

Our chief knowledge of the position and function of the exilarch concerns the period beginning with the Arabic rule in Persia. In the age succeeding the Mahommedan conquest tife exilarch was noted for the stately retinue that accompanied him, the luxurious banquets given at his abode, and the courtly etiquette that prevailed there. A brilliant account has come down of the ceremonies at the installation of a new exilarch. Homage was paid to him by the rabbinical heads of the colleges (each of whom was called Gaon, qv.); rich gifts were presented; he visited the synagogue in state, where a costly canopy had been erected over his seat. The exilarch then delivered a discourse, and in the benediction or doxology (Qaddish) his name was inserted. Thereafter he never left his house except in a carriage of state and in the company of a large retinue. He would frequently have audiences of the king, by whoni he was graciously received. He derived a revenue from taxes which he was empowered to exact. The exilarch could excommunicate, and no doubt had considerable jurisdiction over the Jews.

Private User
12/23/2010 at 12:45 PM

The relationship of Thierry I, Count of Autun to these Exilarchs is uncertain but possible. list backwards a few generations from him are the personnages I am questioning. This is on my mothers line but also appears on my fathers' "less certain" line up to Mr. Thierry Count of Autun.

Mar Zutra ben Kahana ha-David Exilarch at Babylon BEN KAHANA

his son

Haninai (Huna VI) BEN KAHANA, VI
his son

Zutra Mar II ben Haninai .
his son

Huna-Mar II ., Exilarch at Babylon
his son

Kafnai ben Huna of the Babylonian Jews, Exilarch at Babylon
his son

Haninai / ben Kafnai חנינאי, Exiliarch of the Babylonian Jews
his son

Bustanai / בוסתנאי ben Haninai / בן חנינאי, Exilarch at Babylon
his son

Hisdai II Shahrijar ben Bustanai ben bustani, Exilarch of Sura
his son

Yomtov-Ruzbihan BEN SHAHRIJAR
his son

Zakkai-Yehuda BEN AHUNAI
his son

Thierry I, Count of Autun
his son

12/23/2010 at 3:18 PM

Hypothetically if your Jewish roots were proven through the female line, you would be Jewish. I have seen the Exilarchs in my lineage (my Jewish side) and frankly, I don't know if we have enough information to prove lines this far back. I tend to discount anything early than the Middle Ages. For both sides of my family, there are good sources going back hundreds of years. To Spain on the Jewish side and to Charlemagne on the non-Jewish side. Before that, I believe we will never know.

Private User
12/24/2010 at 11:45 AM

I appreciate your response. This can be a thorny issue I guess, even if it was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt the relationships purported to belong to Thierry I, Count of Autun. Until then, I guess we can have pretend relatives. LOL.

12/24/2010 at 12:10 PM

Considering how many Jews assimilated and hid their Jewishness in Europe in past centuries and in the U.S. in the past two centuries, even non-Jews will have Jewish ancestors.

Ofir Friedman and Shmuel Kamm are good curators to ask the Exilarch question to. I would also be interested in their answer.

12/24/2010 at 12:11 PM
Private User
12/24/2010 at 2:48 PM

For me it is scary that people people starts to look at being Jewish as a ethnic group related to each other and not a religion.

12/24/2010 at 3:17 PM

If your father is Jewish and your mother isn't, your obviously half Jewish, at least scientifically. According to Orthodox Judaism, and others, you are not because your mother has to be Jewish. I don't think Reform Judaism agrees with this though.

Private User
12/24/2010 at 3:28 PM

I thought the history had learned us a lesson.For me being Jewish is a question of religion and not ethnic relationship.

12/24/2010 at 5:05 PM

A word of caution about the Exilarch line to the counts of Autun -- it does not seem to have gained acceptance among scholars (except of course for Zuckerman who proposed it). I uploaded an article a few days ago by Nat Taylor critiquing Zuckerman's theory. The document is attached to St. Guilhelm de Gellone and to Makhir, but perhaps the following link will work:


12/24/2010 at 5:13 PM

@Bjørn Being Jewish is both. It's an ethnoreligion. The three main ethnic groups (in order) are Ashkenazi (Central or Eastern European Jews), Sephardi Jews (Spanish Jews) and Mizrahi (Jews from the Middle East (except Yemen) and Caucasus). It's an ethnic group because we descend from the Tribe of Judah, a people. And Jews have large amounts of Middle Eastern DNA (probably the wrong word) than the land that some come from, like Ashkenazi.

12/24/2010 at 8:42 PM

It's definitely both an ethnicity and religion.

And since throughout Jewish history, being Jewish depended upon a Jewish mother, that's the "received" tradition. All Orthodox and Conservative Jews follow Halacha in this.

I felt discriminated against since it's my father who was Jewish, but frankly this makes sense since you always can prove who the mother is.

12/25/2010 at 2:59 AM

"Being Jewish" *is* an ethnicity as well as a religious affiliation. DNA has proven out on several strands: the broad categories mentioned up thread of Ashkenazi, Mizarahi and Sephardi follow not only DNA "proof," but the historical and genealogical evidence as well.

By the way, I think this has nothing to do with Exilarchs, this genetic evolution is well *after* that period of history, as I understand it (feel free to correct me here).

Hatte, Israel is no longer following Halechic tradition, which I didn't know until just now:

The Law of Return (Hebrew: חוק השבות, ḥok ha-shvūt) is Israeli legislation, enacted in 1950/5710, that gives Jews, those of Jewish ancestry, and their spouses the right to migrate and to settle in Israel and gain citizenship. The law gives the right of return to those born Jews, those with Jewish ancestry and converts to Judaism. ...

Originally, the Law of Return was restricted to Jews only. A 1970 amendment, however, stated that, "The rights of a Jew under this Law and the rights of an oleh under the Nationality Law... are also vested in a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew".


12/25/2010 at 7:17 AM

Erica - I converted (Conservative) and converted my children (Orthodox). But actually Israel is getting stricter now. To get married in Israel, you have to prove that you are Jewish and they accept a narrow set of proofs. I know that the Law of Return was more lenient when the Russian Jews (1 million strong) immigrated.

But if my niece whose paternal and maternal grandfathers were Jewish wanted to make aliyah, they would reject her.

Wikipedia probably reflects the secular Israeli wishful thinking but the religious parties' hold on Israel have not weakened. They were trying to only allow conversions from a small set of rabbis additionally, one of the American proponents of which was involved in a major scandal ironically.

To answer Gregory's original questions:
There isn't really a status of "part-Jewish". You would be "of Jewish descent", but from the Jewish ethic/religious point of view, that would be of little more than a curiosity.

Reform Judaism recognizes paternal "Jewishness", but this is usually qualified by having "been raised Jewish" by a Jewish father. what that means is open to interpretation.

The Exilarchs line IS very well established AND documented. BUT
1) It's a line of office and NOT a purely genealogical. So while the title always stayed in the immediate family, sometimes it would be the nephew and not a son that took over.
2) We also know that this line is short a generation or two, actually AFTER the period of the Exilarchs, in the wane of Babylonian Jewry and before the relatively recent (after 1500) ascent of the European communities.

Being Jewish has ALWAYS been an ethnic question for most of us Jews. I, for example am a Levitte. This means that for 3000 years the tradition in my family is that we belong to a specific sub-group of the Jews, all of whom claim paternal lineage to Levi ., son of Patriarch Jacob. If anything history has taught us that being Jewish IS an ethnic issue. The Nazis (or The Church) before them, did NOT care if you were religious or not. They were murdered because they belonged to the Jewish people.

regarding making Aliyah, that is PRECISELY the point of the quote that Erica brought. There are TWO entirely separate issues here:
1) You can make Aliyah (with full benefits), and become a citizen if even one of your grandparents is Jewish. This is colloquially known as the "grandfather clause".
2) That said, to be recognized as Jewish for the purpose of religious-legal issues such as marriage, you have to meet stricter requirements. This creates an interesting and problematic middle-ground.

12/26/2010 at 9:00 AM

Thanks Shmuel. When I was living in Israel my husband and I could not get married obviously. And at that time I could not make Aliyah either since it was before the mass influx of the Soviet Jews and the change in the Law of Return. That is why our children were converted Orthodox to ensure their ability to live AND marry in Israel, should that be their choice ever.

My family are Levites also apparently although by my father's generation his branch knew nothing.

Private User
12/28/2010 at 7:02 AM

Every one of your most informative responses and edifying discussions on this matter are VERY appreciated. I love the variety of angles that this topic has raised for the enlightenment of all who are either just curious or very emotionally vested in the subject. I love my GENI family. Thanks.

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