Friday, January 21, 2011

ESPN Joins the Who Is a Jew Debate

Since commenting here about how the assassination attempt of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has brought the "Who Is a Jew" debate back into the spotlight, I have had some really intriguing conversations with colleagues about how we define Jewish status. A number of colleagues, including Rabbi Irwin Kula, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, Rabbi Alana Suskin, and Rabbi Sue Fendrick, posted comments and contributed to the discussion on this blog. A Reform colleague and I have had an ongoing private discussion about patrilineal descent. She told me that some Reform rabbis are questioning whether Gabby Giffords would even be considered Jewish according to the Reform movement's definition (there's been no mention of her Jewish education or upbringing which would be required by the Reform movement's policy on Patrilineal Descent).

My rabbinical school classmate, Rabbi Micah Kelber, noticed that the "Who Is a Jew" debate has even made its way into the sports world. Watching ESPN's "First Take," Kelber caught commentator Skip Bayless putting his foot in his mouth while referencing how Judaism defines Jewish status through lineage. He blogged about at

Today Skip Bayless of ESPN’s First Take made a tiny, but amusing mistake while debating whether it is appropriate to call Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers the first great white star because while his father is black, his mother is white. To support his argument, he appealed to the Jews for help in determining someone’s identity.

His slip of the tongue: “I would just like to point out that in some cultures, like in the Jewish culture, if the mom is white, you’re Jewish.”

I don't think that's what he meant or else there'd be a whole lot more Jewish people in the world. I never thought the question of Jewish status would be taken up on ESPN. Maybe it's better if it didn't. In fact, maybe it's better if we all moved on to other subjects now.


Rabbi Kerry Olitzky said...

So here is what troubles me most. While we are having an intellectual debate about who is really jewish, the majority of jews are voting with their feet and choosing not to engage the Jewish community and its institutions. Maybe it is time to stop entertaining a discussion with those who think that folks like Rep Gabby Giffords are not Jewish (we will never convince them) and put our energy into engaging those on the periphery of the community.

Anonymous said...

well the discussion was really focused on why blake is not white since he was born by a white mother. the key is according to the laws still on the books in the united states, if you are 1/16 of african descent then you are black in america.

therefore the logic goes that if a black woman has a child with a white man, then the child is undoubtedly black.

Anonymous said...

Jewishness is an ethnic identification not necessarily tied to the religion of Judaism. A Jew can be an atheist or an agnostic; a Jew can practice Judaism, or Zen Buddhism, or even Satanism (like Anton LaVey). Judaism is essentially the religion of being a Jew, but practicing the religion that celebrates being a Jew isn't essential to being a Jew in terms of ethnicity.