In Avner Valer's excellent interview with historian David Belhassen there is a section where they discuss the topic, 'Who is a Jew?' Belhassen nails it when he points out that the question shouldn't be 'Who is a Jew?', after all, there were 11 tribes beside the tribe of Judah. Rather, the question should be, 'Who is an Israeli?' (not in the modern state of Israel sense, but as in Who is a son of Israel?). It's amazing that one doesn't hear this point made more often, but then it goes against the grain and rubs many the wrong way. (Another pet peeve of me is that people don't use terms like Anti-Jewish/Anti-Israeli or Anti-Judaic but instead use the broad term Anti-Semitic, when there are plenty of non-Jews/Israelis who are Semitic. But that is another topic...)
Back to my point, there is much truth to what Belhassen says and he's correct that a son of Israel is a son of Israel no matter what. After all, it's in the blood-literally. But I do diverge somewhat with what he says in that there is another view that posits that being an Israelite has more to do with living with and in obediance to YHWH's Torah. This is a view expressed eloquently by the late Jacob Neusner in his work on Rabbinic Judaism. (I should note that while I disagree with much of Rabbinic Judaism, Neusner's discussions of Mishnah and of some of the teachings are very worthwhile to anyone who wants to learn as much as possible about the many Judiasms.) And on another point, the LORD Himself, Blessed be He, spoke to Moses that those who broke the commands given should be cast out from their people. So I would only say to Belhassen, what good does it do to be technically an Israelite by blood but have your people and the LORD against you? In this sense, the LORD can-in effect-remove you from being an Israelite.
From here, things get complicated. According to Neusner, it is those who live with, follow, and study Torah who are Israelites-that is to say, are after God's own heart. But who is included in this? Are Gentiles?
It would seem that-at least as far as being grafted into the tree-the answer to this question would be a yes. But of course that doesn't mean there isn't a distinction between the two. I suppose an apt analogy would be one tree, many branches.
For my part I struggle with the question, "What am I?" Certainly, I have enough evidence from my ancestry and other clues (see the book Suddenly Jewish to know what I mean by this) to figure that I must have some Israelite ancestors. The Hebrew names that are littered throughout both my Father's and Mother's families gave me an initial shock when I first discovered them. But on the other hand, I don't have 'proof' do I? There are no temple records. Most who would know for certain are long since dead. Lingering anti-Jewish sentiment makes people bury their heads in the sand (again see the book Suddenly Jewish) and not want to discuss it. (I've literally seen ancestry message boards where people detail the denial they have found when trying to get to the bottom of Hebrew ancestry-not pretty.)
I no longer consider myself to be a Christian. No longer Anglican. No longer Protestant. But I don't see myself as being Jewish either. For one thing, best I can tell my ancestors came from the tribe of Levi, so not a member of Judah. But beyond that I really don't want to embrace tribalism and I certainly don't want to find myself in the grips of someone else's identity politics. No, that is just not for me. So I suppose the best I can do is consider myself an Israelite, given my beliefs.
But can I? Dare I? It seems so bold, so assertive. Am I really ready to say that? Yet I don't have a good label. Do I need a good and succinct label?
Here are some sentences that I can't quite reduce to quick labels:
I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
I believe YHWH is the only salvation.
I believe Yeshua is YHWH.
I believe YHWH is One.
How do I reduce these into a label? I can be assured many wouldn't agree with my using the label of Israelite. Yet, if I embrace the teaching of YHWH Elohim, what does this make me?
'Son of Torah'? (In the Hebrew sense of 'son' I can see this making sense though I think I'd feel pretentious saying this.)
I don't think there is an easy answer to this and I don't want an easy answer. I'm not looking for a new religion. I am areligious in that sense. God doesn't want us to be religious. He wants us to worship Him daily in acts of kindness to others, acts of repentance for our mistakes, and blessings of thanks to He that brings bread from the earth.
To me, these are the essence of Torah, and yes, the essence of the teachings of Yeshua (Jesus). And if living according to Torah doesn't make one an Israelite, then I don't know what does.
In the end, I may never find a proper label. But it is difficult when I think to myself-how do I describe myself? Not just to others but to myself. How do I do that? I've certainly gone through some major identity issues over the last couple of years. I know what matters deep down is what's been revealed to me by His spirit, His voice, His hand. I have been blessed beyond what I could imagine and beyond what I could possible deserve-but then I cannot question Him.
So I will keep looking and keep questioning. I will probably think inwardly-Israelite-while I look for another label. But I will endeavor to put the desire for an easy label somewhere off to the side and try and focus on more important things. I have a feeling He will reveal the answer to me when the time is right.