Numerous times, in various articles, I have discussed what I have felt to be the fundamental challenge of Jewish identity. The question that we are constantly encountering is not ultimately "who is a Jew?" but rather "what is a Jew?". Bluntly, before one can define criteria for membership in a club, one first has to define the nature of the club. This is similar with membership in what I would term the Jewish group. Before we can define the criteria for membership in this group, i.e. who is a Jew, we have to really define the nature of this group, what is a Jew. This may come down to the question: are we a nation or a religion? Most Jews like to say both -- but was does that mean?
This is precisely the essence of a case that is now transpiring in England regarding the status of a Jew. See http://www.forward.com/articles/118773/. Religion and peoplehood reflect two entirely and qualitatively different types of a group. Its like saying that there is a group that is defined by consisting of people with red hair but it is also defined by consisting of people who play squash. These are two totally unrelated criteria for group membership.
The problem within the Jewish world is not just the difficulty of integrating these apparently different structures of group criteria but that that it doesn't even perceive the dilemma and challenge. That is why this English case is so significant. Its like the English created laws regarding groups that define themselves by the colour of their hair and the group we described above wants to work within this law and apply this law but still wants to primarily describe itself through playing of squash -- and group doesn't even understand the problem.
Born to a Jewish mother simply doesn't make sense as a definition of a religion. That's the problem before the English court. The further strangeness within this case is that the specific issue did not really involve this criteria of Jewish identity but the issue of conversion which is a religion criteria -- except that people don't apply it that way. How often does one say "I converted to Reform Judaism" or to "Conservative Judaism". Its simply that one became a Jew -- but what about the major theological distinctions between the branches of Judaism?
What the English court really did is show us that the vast majority of us do not know what we are talking about when confronting Jewishness. Maybe we should meet the challenge.
Rabbi Ben Hecht