Bernard Beck’s opinion piece gives several false impressions (“Defining a true Jew,” October 18). Firstly, it leads a reader to believe that rabbinic Judaism didn’t define the religion’s parameters until the Common Era. The fact is that rabbis were always in charge; they just has different titles. Prior to the use of the term rabbi, we had judges, prophets, the Great Assembly, and the five pairs quoted at the beginning of Ethics of the Fathers. Maimonides, in his introduction to his Mishneh Torah, traces an unbroken line of 40 generations of Ba’alay Mesorah, essentially chief rabbis, covering approximately 1,800 years from Moses through Rav Ashi (the redactor of the Talmud Bavli), each one giving s’michah to the next.
Secondly, the article seems to indicate that Jewish identity based on the religion of the mother is a relatively new concept. In fact, this fundamental principle goes back to the Torah itself, in Deuteronomy chapter 7. Furthermore, strict standards for Jewish identity can be found as long ago as Ezra the Scribe (Number 22 on Maimonides’ list) at the beginning of the Second Temple Period in the 4th century B.C.E. He understood that clarity of definition was critical to Jewish survival.
Assuming that Mr. Beck’s population figures covering the Common Era are accurate, the steep drop at the beginning, which was maintained for many centuries, can easily be attributed to the continuous genocides, forced conversions, and other forms of persecution taking place during that period. Similarly, the subsequent rapid expansion can be explained by greater acceptance of Jews in the United States, and in many countries in Europe, rather than because of pronouncements by the Ba’al Shem Tov or Rabbi Geiger.
Given how many of the “facts” in the article are subject to question, it is reasonable to seriously question its conclusions.