According to a new ruling by a British court, Judaism is a religion (rather than a culture or ethnic group), and who is a Jew should be determined by one’s degree of religious behavior rather than by some claim to group membership or identity.
Clearly the British judges who made this decision, one of whom was Jewish, didn’t and don’t understand the nature of Jewishness. We are a tribe. One is born into a tribe, or marries into a tribe, or is welcomed into the tribe as a blood brother/sister by one method or another. As with any tribe there are people who are more observant of tribal tradition and people who are less observant, but no one would deny either a place in the tribe itself.
It may not be surprising that in a country like England where the Queen is the head of the Church government intrusion into the life of a people to set the standards of who is and who is not a member is unacceptable, and in fact detrimental to the future of the tribe.
Tribes, whether Jewish, Native American, or any other type, are often obsessed with the question of who is in and who is out of the tribe. This is part of what tribalism is about. Especially when the tribe has casino capitalism to protect as in the United States. The British courts should stay out of tribal business.
While I do believe there are foundational principles that define Jewish behavior (kashrut, Shabbat, tzedakah, reciting brachot/blessings to name but four), I also believe it is up to the individual to determine how these principles should be lived in her or his personal life.
For me, a Jew is a person who makes the Jewish tribe her primary though not necessarily exclusive source of communal identity (American Jew rather than Jewish American). I doubt I will change my mind about this. At least not until American Jews are granted casino rights as are American Indian tribes, at which point I might tighten up my definition to protect my assets.