Oz Torah: Ask the rabbi – Is a person who has left Judaism still Jewish?


Q.  Is a person who has left Judaism still Jewish?

A.  The general principle is, “Even though one has sinned, he is a Jew” (Sanhedrin 44a).  The Talmud quotes a saying, “A myrtle, though it stands among reeds, is still a myrtle”.   Thus such a person is obliged to give his wife a gett [divorce] if their marriage breaks down.

But there are limits to this recognition as a Jew.

Someone who has joined another faith may not be accorded synagogal honours, such as being called to the Torah.  Nor, if a kohen, may he duchan and bless the congregation.

After the Brother Daniel case in Israel, the Knesset amended the Law of Return to deny automatic recognition as a Jew to a person who has joined another religion.

But since we believe in repentance, any person who finds his way back to Judaism is welcome.  Some say it is as if he has been trying to hide from God and has found that in the end this can not be done.


Q.  Why was 13 chosen as the age for Bar Mitzvah?

A.  The first thing to point out is that Bar Mitzvah was not fundamentally meant as a ceremony but a status.

It denoted the age of responsibility for one’s own deeds, though this was marked by a simple ceremony from an early period in Jewish history (Sof’rim 18:5).

credit: Chabad.org

The concept is that physical maturity went with intellectual and moral awareness, evidenced, according to the sages (Avot d’Rabbi Natan, chapter 16; Zohar I:165b) by the ability to master the “yetzer ha-ra” (the evil inclination) and to live by the “yetzer ha-tov” (the good inclination).

Rabbinic commentary points out that Abraham was 13 when he committed himself to God and abandoned idolatry (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 26).

At 13, Jacob showed his attachment to Torah and Esau his preference for idolatry (Gen. R. 63:10).

13 as the age for responsibility for the mitzvot is regarded as “halachah l’Moshe MiSinai”, a principle dating back to Sinai (rabbinic commentaries on Pirkei Avot 5:21).

Though 13 is the age of religious majority, there is an idea in more recent rabbinic writings that it has two levels – “basic” and “secondary” majority.

Basic majority comes automatically when one reaches 13.  Secondary majority is created by personal dedication to Torah study and observance.

Without the secondary level, one remains Bar Mitzvah in a merely nominal fashion (R. Nachum of Chernobyl, M’or Einayim l’Torah).

One must, of course, add that it makes a travesty of Bar Mitzvah if the party overtakes the serious religious dimension of the occasion, especially if the celebration is non-kosher and morally questionable.


credit: Wikipedia

Q.  Why did God give the Torah to the Jews and not some other people?

A. There are well-known stories about God hawking the Torah around the ancient peoples and only Israel making no difficulties but saying, “We will accept it! We will obey it!”

The Talmud states in Betzah 25b that the Jewish people were chosen for the Torah because they are “azzim”, strong and determined. One view is that Jews are passionate and need the Torah to control them.

Another view says that it was always going to be hard to live by and teach the Torah, and God needed a people who would be stubborn in their loyalty.


Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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