This post needs a BIG content advisory warning.
I absolutely do not intend to ruffle any feathers or insult anyone in any way. In fact, I would much rather have entirely avoided this subject if at all possible. As is customary, I mostly kept these minor details to myself only to be met with an onslaught of questions and maybe even a few demands for an answer. I don't mind sharing, but there are some things that are more prone to offend and unfortunately, I am a very matter-of-fact sharer. It's hard for me to navigate a way to offer my opinion or any relevant information without potentially angering at least a few people. I can't help it, it's the autism, so hopefully you will give me the benefit of the doubt and assume my intentions are pure even if something I say bothers you. That's really all I can say about the matter. So... moving on.
From a religious standpoint
Judaism is a very unique religion in that it is open and welcoming to everyone who truly has the desire in their heart. Jews do not desire to convert people - they accept people who desire to convert. However, our traditions, rituals, and culture are taken very seriously. It's not okay to call yourself a Jew if you are not one. Those in the process of converting toe a line quite precariously to avoid the appearance of claiming Jewishness before it is official. Currently, I am not a Jew. I will not be a Jew until my conversion is complete. That's the bottom line. Some sects actually go so far as to be offended when non-Jews who are not actively converting engage in Jewish practice. It is viewed as a form of cultural appropriation to a large part of the Jewish community.
While there are multiple sects of Judaism, they do not all agree on what constitutes the "proper" way to be a Jew. Orthodox is the denomination of ancient Jewish tradition. They adhere to halacha and can occasionally be known to question whether a non-Orthodox conversion is legitimate, although the reverse is almost never the case.
Conservative is the denomination that creates a bridge between the Orthodox tradition and the flexibility of the more liberal denominations.
Reform is the denomination that allows more freedom in the choices and representation of Jewishness.
Then, there are several much smaller movements within Judaism; Reconstructionist, Pluralistic, Humanistic, Renewal, etc etc. A large portion of these, I believe, still convert through the Reform or Conservative movement due to the ease and simplicity of associating with a larger movement.
While they hold slightly differing beliefs and opinions, with varying degrees of adherence to mitzvah or interpretation of halacha, all are recognized by the rabbinical assembly as being valid Jews. Israeli courts have ruled that any of these conversion qualify you to make aliyah (the return to Israel as a citizen).
As far as most religious groups go, Judaism is not a gatekeeping community. While there is a very tangible distinction made between Jew and not Jew, people are not really turned away from accessing Judaism. The only real exception I have seen is with those trying to access Judaism without actually wanting to be truly Jewish. These people are messianic (or "messy" as they are sometimes called) Jews.
This is the line where people get hurt feelings and things get complicated. No, not really complicated I suppose. It's pretty straightforward, but it still tends to rile up everyone involved.
There is no such thing as a "messianic jew" really. There is no "messianic judaism," and because I know that people are REALLY wanting to get to the bottom of my family's choice to convert, I am going to state this loud and clear: WE ARE NOT MESSIANIC JEWS. We are not christians. We are formally and officially converting as REFORM JEWS.
To be fair, I don't know if anyone I know personally is a "messy jew." Just throwing that out there.
The thing is, if you follow/worship Jesus, you are a christian. That's basically the only prerequisite of christianity at all. Interestingly, the different varieties of Judaism allow for many different belief systems. You can be a Jew who doesn't necessarily believe in God at all. You can believe God is male and female. You can believe that there is a Messiah on the way or that we are headed towards a Messianic Age. You can believe in the supernatural, that God is a system of all the components of nature rather than a deity, and you can even be a Jewish witch. One thing that is agreed on across the board, however, is that you cannot be a Jew who believes in Jesus. There is no true, recognized Jewish rabbi or shul or legal court that will allow you to "convert" while you believe in Jesus.
This might seem unfair and gatekeeping, but you really have to go backwards to the beginning of christianity and take some time to understand how it affected Judaism in general. There was a time when the christian faith targeted Jews because they were ultimately the biggest challenge for conversion. When the Jews refused to give up their covenant and their Torah for the new religious practice, christians at the time wouldn't take no for an answer.
Again, this is a part of the story that seems to offend a lot of people. I completely understand that, but it doesn't make it any less historically accurate. We all know that regardless of how christians operate today, christianity was not founded on peace and tolerance. It was founded on the principle that everyone must be converted. If you ask any christian today to reduce their entire religious belief to one brief point and purpose, they would most likely say it is "to bring people to Jesus." Or "to share the news of the gospel." It would be hard for any educated person to deny that christianity was not always a peaceful religion that simply asked people to convert. Forced conversion was rampant in early church history and holy wars were not an uncommon occurence.
The Jews were subject to antisemitism from christians from the very beginning. Unfortunately, this is part of the lot they have in life - Jews will be persecuted and hated. However, when the same people trying to upend an ancient belief system as being "wrong" or "incomplete" are making attempts to covertly assimilate, it leaves a bad taste in one's mouth. The messianic movement was founded for the purpose of evangelizing Jews, which is what christians do - they evangelize. But when regular tactics don't work, so you find a roundabout, almost sneaky way to go about it, it's not surprising that this is where Jews have drawn the line and chosen not to tolerate or accept your "religious movement." This is why, if you associate with the messianic league, you can't sit with us. And don't get me started on "Jews for Jesus." They have much more subtle and alarming tactics than the general messy jew community.
I don't harbor ill will toward every Torah-observant person I meet. I have many christian friends who practice stringent Jewish tenants and to be honest, it's none of my business. As long as they aren't trying to convert me, passive aggressively tell me they are "praying for" me, or convince me they are a Jew, I respect their choices. They are generally good people and I love them. We can walk our own paths and still have kindness in our hearts for one another. The worst part about the Jew/Not a Jew issue here is that I come across a lot of people who are simply ignorant to the problem at hand.
No, I am not saying every person who dabbles in Jewish belief as a christian is ignorant. There are certainly a lot who just don't understand what they are saying or doing and how there is a fine line with appropriating Judaism as a christian. I love metaphors so that's how I am going to explain it and I apologize in advance.
Imagine that Judaism is a country club (like I said, I'm sorry).
It's a very special country club though, and basically anyone can join. They don't really turn people away. The overwhelming majority of people who apply get their little members-only card. It's pretty awesome actually. They have very strict security though and you can't just walk in and sit down without a membership. It's members-only for a REASON, and to be honest, I don't understand why you'd want to dine their if you aren't a member. If you do want to be a member, just apply. It's pretty simple.
On the other hand, imagine walking into the country club and demanding that you be treated as a member. The weird thing is, you don't have a card. You didn't apply. You are not authorized to be there, yet you are outraged when asked to leave.
The messianic community tends to take it one step further though, and this is where a lot of the tension between the two actually comes from.
While arguing that you have every right to be there, the manager of the club wants to know why. Why can't you just apply and gain membership authentically?
The response is that you don't like this country club. You disagree with their rules. You think the dress code is offensive. What this country club stands for, you think should absolutely change. When it comes down to it, you have no reason to dine here, and you can surely see how this could potentially irk the members of the country club, right? Even if you aren't trying to be obtuse, the actions here make very little sense. You can eat this food elsewhere. You can join another country club. You can dine anywhere you want. What is the motivation for trying to dine at this particular club without a membership and expecting everyone to value your presence here?
~Side note: for anyone who can't follow along, this part is a reference to the fact that Judaism does not acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, which is the primary tenant of christianity. Therefore, christians do not adhere to one of the basic ideologies of Judaism and they do not support much of the acceptable belief system of Jews in general. ~
Stepping back out of the metaphor, there is no communal group where this would ever be appropriate behavior. You can't just inject yourself into any community you want and insist that you are a part of it and they have no authority to tell you otherwise. You couldn't join a club for Native Americans and tell them you are one of them and you don't care what they say. That's cultural appropriation and just plain offensive. That goes for Nascar drivers, disabled people, trans people, queers, military, etc. When it comes down to it, who is the authority on the black community? Black people. Who is the authority on the autistic community? Autistic people. Who is the authority on law enforcement officers? Law enforcement officers.
Who is the authority on Judaism?
Rabbinical assemblies, Israeli courts, and Jews.
What do these people say? Christians cannot be recognized as Jews. You cannot make aliyah as a messianic Jew. "Messianic jews" have been overwhelmingly declared, by all authoritative parties, as christians, not Jews.
I hope you are still with me and don't want to crucify me (no irony intended if you are a christian... maybe it was just poor word choice. But if you can't laugh at it anyways, then you probably don't belong reading my blog) I hope you can find some degree of understanding here. I hope that this brings some kind of clarity to the matter at hand and it can lead people to sort of empathy concerning the ongoing tension regarding Jews and their religious neighbors.
From an ethnic or cultural standpoint
This is even more complicated, but there are still many rules and checks and balances in place because again, this does not just come down to whatever a person "feels" like. There are many authorities on this subject.
Who is Jewish by lineage?
The orthodox community still only recognizes matrilineal descent as valid. Other sects recognize patrilineal and matrilineal descent as valid. You would think that would make things very simple, but it doesn't, because technically, Jewishness is not really an ethnicity. There isn't "jew" DNA. All that can really be determined is family practice. If your mom or dad raised you in an authentic jewish home and you grew up celebrating the Jewish holidays, or you received a Jewish education, that's about as confirming as it gets. While genetic testing is being investigated as a potential means of determining Jewishness for Israeli citizenship, it's still a big gray area because of the nuances of how DNA testing works. Some statistics say that anything less than a 50% result for Jewish heritage is moot for many reasons (you'd have to google for yourself about the bottleneck affect and how smaller sample populations affect results... this blog post is long enough). We are looking at you, Paul Ryan. Your 3% ashkenazi shouldn't be as "moving" as you think; you're still Catholic.
From 23andMe, I had no trace of Jewish heritage at all, yet from GEDmatch, with the same sample, I received a result of 5% ashkenazi. Genetic testing is awesome, but it's obviously not an exact science at this point in time. Percentages and genetic traits can tell a story, but they can't give you facts. From one testing site to another, my genetic lineage shifted significantly - although I remained primarily Germain and Irish (which I can trace back to the 1500s on both sides of my family, for confirmation).
In any case, a 100% result for Jewish DNA can also be moot. While you can't become not a Jew if you are in fact a Jew, you can be denied citizenship in spite of your eternal Jewishness.
"The rights of a Jew under this Law … as well as the rights of an oleh under any other enactment, are also vested in a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew, except for a person who has been a Jew and has voluntarily changed his religion."
It doesn't get any better from here on out. Technically, if you were a Jew deep down on the inside, but you converted to another religion, you are considered an "apostate" but do not have the "members-only" Jew card from the country club (again, sorry about the metaphors).
Why does anyone care about the distinction between Jewish "membership" and lack thereof? Well, mostly because a handful of messianics are determined to stake their claim of Judaism based on falsities. The concept of being "grafted" into the community because Jesus was a Jew is common. Some messianics will jump through any hoop they can to make their desire to convert the Jews more relevant. It has become necessary to draw a line in the sand for the sake of Jewish integrity.
I am sure I have droned on long enough to make everyone regret even reading this, but as I have been asked about our Jewish conversion, asked to address the "messianic discrepancy," and already seen numerous incidents in which the messianic ideology is being incorrectly compared to Judaism, I wanted to clarify all of it at once, in one place. As far as my credentials, I have been among the Jewish community for several months now and have already completed almost an entire year's worth of Jewish education classes (look at me, the little over-achieving Jew-in-training). I have a lot more to learn, obviously, as it is a never-ending process - but these are some of the first tribulations you encounter in your Jewish conversion.
I will leave you with this hilarious but accurate flow chart - because Jews care enough about it to make a flow chart.