Denominations of Crypto-Judaism

Torah scroll marking Passover on Mount Gerizim.

Samaritans with Torah scroll marking Passover on Mount Gerizim.

The diverse multicultural mosaic of very closely connected ethnic groups that is the Jewish people is a small remnant of the long history of Jewish civilization. Due to religious imperialism and the associated intolerance, persecution, genocide and forced conversions; the number of rabbinic Jews worldwide is now estimated at only above some 13 million people, with now close to half of those living in Israel. However, Rabbinic Jewry is not the sole Jewish people; Samaritans, Karaites, Dönmeh and overt Ethiopian Jews have survived history as distinctive Jewish peoples, indeed ethnically and historically separate from the main, core Jewish people that is rabbinic Jewry.

Yezidi boy touching and kissing Yezidi serpent mezuzah prior to entering Yezidi temple.

Yezidi boy touching and kissing Yezidi serpent mezuzah prior to entering Yezidi temple.

But these are not the only ones. The colonial era produced great confusion as numerous Para-Jewish peoples were rediscovered by European explorers. The missing link between Rabbinic Jewry and these “rediscovered” Para-Jewish peoples is Priestly Judaism in the Middle East, known as Alawites, Alevi-Bektashi, Druze, Samaritans, Yarsanis and Yezidis which all are led by kohanim, hereditary Jewish priests. Indeed Priestly Judaism is distinguished from other forms of Median Judaism by being still religiously led by kohanim.

These denominations are mutually and structurally quite similar and have a common historical, ethnic, cultural and religious origin in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, most of whose population was deported by Assyrian conquerors to and near what is now Kurdistan. Druze tradition correctly points out that there is related denomination in China, a people and denomination of Priestly Judaism known as the Qiang as also led by their own kohanim.

Denominations of Priestly Judaism in the Core Middle East 

Alawites   Alevi-Bektashi   Druze   Samaritans   Yarsanis (including Shabaks and Kakayis)   Yezidis

As the Medes accepted the Kohanim of the deported Israelites, these Kohanim were known as Maggidim (Hebrew for preachers) and while travelling the world they very syncretistically brought Median Judaism to peoples worldwide in Africa and Asia in hence giving rise to a great diversity of Para-Jewish peoples worldwide such as the Japanese and the Igbo people in Nigeria. The Maggids become known by historians in Latin as the Magi. Yet, Para-Jewish communities have sprung both from the Jews of the southern Kingdom of Judah and from the Jews of the northern Kingdom of Israel, both of which were globalized and dispersed.

Kurdish man with red Jewish hat in Armenia.

Kurdish man with red Jewish hat in Armenia.

Rabbinically Jewish denominations have a universal, yet unattractive habit of disagreeing among themselves on who as to who is officially religiously recognized as Jewish due to divergent social strategies with regard to how to ensure continuity in Diaspora Jewish life. Such sharp disagreements specifically with regard to acceptance and recognition of converts now even exist within and between subdenominations of Orthodox Judaism (the only Orthoprax denomination of Rabbinic Judaism) despite the fact that merely a few decades ago Orthodox Judaism used to be unified on this issue. Therefore, more and more Rabbinic Jews have a denominationally disputed personal status as Jews (Hebrew sofkim meaning doubtfuls) and are therefore in effect becoming Para-Jewish in becoming partially excommunicated from the (rabbinically) Jewish people.

Essentially, in neutral terms there are two ways of being Jewish/Para-Jewish, either being officially recognized as a constituent member by a Jewish or Para-Jewish religious denomination or being part of a Jewish or Para-Jewish people, ethnic group, subethnic group, community and/or lineage. Being Jewish is in philosophical terms therefore performative rather than ontological. This means that being Jewish is not a genetic essence but rather something that is lived and done. However, as Judaism is a tribal Fourth World religion, so is tribal membership inherited in typically endogamous ethnic, social and religious communities.

“If you come, don’t go. You’ll lose your property. If you’ll leave don’t come. You’ll lose your soul”. Jewish ritual discouragement performed as part of initiation of a couple into the Bektashi order.

Rather, the process of conversion is meant as a process of being initiated, welcomed and integrated into an indigenous tribal people with its own tribal religion. A convert to Judaism/Crypto-Judaism is Jewish if either s/he is also ethnically Jewish; i.e. either by family background or by virtue of having become absorbed into Jewish/Para-Jewish culture even if not having had any prior Jewish personal background or ancestry.

Rabbinic law (halakhah) considers Jews who are either Muslim or Christian as fully Jewish by descent but are technically approached under halakhah as if they were somehow non-Jewish despite being fully Jewish by matrilineal descent even under rabbinic law. Para-Jews who are neither Muslim nor Christian and whose communities practice some form of Crypto-Judaism are not only treated as fully Jewish by halakhah but can marry Rabbinic Jews in religious ceremonies in Israel and elsewhere and have the same automatic legal right under Israeli law (the Law of Return) as Diaspora Rabbinic Jews to immigrate to the State of Israel.

Aliyah (Jewish immigration) to the land of Israel on July 18, 1947.

The only if thing that can legally remove this Israeli legal immigration right is either a serious individual criminal record or else conversion to another theistic religion such as Islam or Christianity by an individually halakhically Jewish person or a matrilineal Jewish ancestor. A person of genealogically documented matrilineal ancestry can return or join Rabbinic Judaism through a simple public declaration ceremony in a local synagogue. If there is some doubt however as to the genealogical documentation, a giyur lechumra (literally meaning “strict conversion”) can in principle be almost instantly performed without the long delays typically associated with normal halakhic conversions to Rabbinic Judaism. (Some denominations of Rabbinic Judaism such Reform Judaism do not regard halakhah as binding anymore.) A regular Orthodox pulpit rabbi is typically completely unaware of the very existence of Priestly Judaism specifically and Median Judaism generally but may consult the rabbi’s personal Posek (halakhic decisor) for confirmation and further instructions on how to practically approach this halakhic subject.

Also, an Orthodox pulpit rabbi may typically offer a giyur lechumra to someone halakhically Jewish from a halakhically Jewish Crypto-Jewish community such as Alevis or Dönmeh seeking closer association with an Orthodox Jewish local congregation. (The Dönmeh Jews are non-Muslims and are fully part of Alevi-Bektashi Judaism which in turn is part of the Northern Jurisdication from the northern Kingdom of Israel.) This is specifically done in order to conceal the recognition by the Orthodox Poskim (plural of Posek) of the complete and utter Jewishness of those Crypto-Jewish denominations and allow such persons to marry Rabbinic Jews without too many questions being asked about their ancestry and those very Jewish denominations.

Druze Zionist youth movement on pilgrimage to the Shrine of Jethro in Israel.

Druze Zionist youth movement on pilgrimage to the Shrine of Jethro in Israel.

Yet it is important to understand that the rabbis and rabbinic law does not have religious jurisdiction with regard to those Jewish denominations whose religious origins are in (or in the case of Dönmeh Judaism became part of) the Northern Jurisdiction of the northern Kingdom of Israel, but rather they are under the religious jurisdiction of their own religious leaders. This includes defining the personal religious status of a person who is recognized as part of any particular Crypto-Jewish denomination derived from (or in the case of the Dönmeh Jews now belonging) to the Northern Jurisdiction. This religious judicial authority is historically derived from the ancient United Monarchy of Israel as this jurisdiction was therefore split into two main branches when the unified monarchy of Israel was divided into two separate independent states, the Southern Jurisdiction of the southern Kingdom of Kingdom of Judah and the Northern Jurisdiction of the northern Kingdom of Israel.

Mandaean religious leader

Mandaean religious leader

In the future Federal Israel, Para-Jews without a land of their own should be fully entitled to immigration to a particular member state of an increasingly integrated Federal Israel. But generally, the solution is obviously not for all Para-Jewish peoples to immigrate to the already existing Israel but rather to have their own states within the future Federal Israel. Para-Jewish communities that wish to revert to their own regional forms of Judaism should certainly be enabled to do so as a crucial historical step in the gradual formation of, accession to and integration of Federal Israel.

This indigenous reversion will eventually also pave the way towards the goal of free migration for citizens of member states within a religiously pluralistic Federal Israel. However, every stage of integration would have to be consensually agreed to by the every member state and their peoples and a future or existing member state would therefore be entitled to opt out of a particular aspects of federal Israeli integration.

All this means that the task is no longer as traditionally ethnic excommunication as a means of precarious survival for an oppressed tribal nation but rather territorial unification, indeed unity in diversity through the gradual democratic formation of a future United States of Israel.