A Little KnowledgeEugene Volokh has a pet peeve . . . Jews who claim that "Jews for Jesus" is an oxymoron. Eugene brings the precept that birth to a Jewish mother confers on one the status of a Jew, and even grave sin does not remove that status. And Eugene is accurate, as far as he goes. A Jew for Jesus remains a Jew, but at best only in the same sense that Karen Anne Quinlan, while connected to life support, remained a life in being. The question of the "Jew for Jesus's" jewishness can be approached from several perspectives, none of them offering much support to Eugene's view. Let us start, though, with the standpoint of halakhah, Jewish religious law (for the precept on which Eugene relies is an halakhic one). While the apostate remains Jewish even after his renunciation of the faith, that is not to say that he retains the same status under halakhah as other Jews. He is indeed, singularly disfavored; even a Jew who professes atheism has greater status under the law. For example, the child of a female "J-for-J" is not to be given brit milah; he may not be brough into the coventant, even though Jewish at birth. Thus, the jewishness of the Jew for Jesus is rather short-lived. Because an apostate is not considered competent to testify in a bet din, a Jew for Jesus may not do so. A family is not sit shiva for a Jew for Jesus when he dies, and a he is to be buried only at the outer edges of the Jewish cemetery. He may not be called to the Torah in a synagogue, may not even touch a sefer torah. Jews may not eat in the home of a J-for-J". . .
But it is not just observant Jews who consider Jews for Jesus tobe an oxymoron. That view is widely held even among Jews who haven't been to synagogue in years, and who would no sooner give up bacon than they would sex or water. What then is the source of their view of Jews for Jesus? It is this: we Jews are a community, one that transcends -- when we are our better selves -- differences of observance, of nationality, of language. Whether yankees fans or red sox fans (or, non-baseball fans pu pu pu), we are all one people. Becoming a Jew for Jesus is not just a bothersome difference of opinion over a matter of observance; it is a very public renunciation of membership in the community. Indeed, Jews for Jesus are without exception people who feel no connection to the Jewish people, and don't want one. That they claim one in their name (devised by evangelical chrisitians, who founded the movement and fund it) only rubs salt in the wound.
Volokh is a bright man, and I'm surprised he can't understand this, or that it should bother him. Perhaps he is just being lawyerly, and his pet peeve is a symptpom of a lawyer's fetish for precision in language. But Jew is a term without "plain meaning," and the oxymoron claim is well justified if one understands the word "Jew" in all its complexity.