Thursday, December 14, 2006

Patrilineal Descent and Me

Since I’ve been talking of late about Reform Judaism I thought I would tell the story of the minute in my life when I had an infinitesimal chance of preventing the Reform rule concerning patrilineal descent.

I was invited to this cocktail party that was given by my friend and his wife. My friend calls up and says he would love for me to come. I will know many of the invited guests, and he also invited his rabbi. By the way, he can’t handle them all. Would I do him a favor and talk to the rabbi? I agree. I come to the party. It’s a ritzy affair. There’s the rabbi. We talk, nice enough guy; and before long he tells me the following: “You know, I am very busy these days. I am the principle author of the proposed legislation on patrilineal descent at the forthcoming Reform Rabbinical Convention.” I say, “Come again?” And he says, “Yes, I am writing the legislation. I have to consult with my colleagues, but it looks to me it’s finally going to happen.”

At the time, the issue had already been discussed at some length in the Jewish newspapers and I had formed a very strong and almost violent opinion against patrilineal descent. The issues are well known and I don’t have to go over them at this point. So, when he tells me this, in my mind I start shouting, “Yes! Yes!” and I am beside myself with excitement. OTOH-OTOH. Part of me wants to take this guy into the bedroom and strangle him, thus postponing the issue of patrilineal descent for at least a year. I hear the voice of my parents, “We didn’t raise you to go around murdering Reform rabbis. We are baalabatish people. Just think how this will look to the community.” I see the headlines in the newspaper---‘’RABBI MURDERED IN LAKESHORE CONDO…PATRILINEAL DESCENT SUSPECTED MOTIVE.” The more rational part of me realizes I have to speak nicely to this rabbi if I am to have any hope of influencing him even in the slightest way. I have less than 15 seconds to decide what I am going to do.

I begin to panic and out comes this totally stupid sentence. I say to the man, “It’s an honor to meet somebody like you. After all you’re going to go down in history as the man responsible for splitting the Jewish people into two. What can I say? I am so very excited to meet you. It’s almost as good as meeting Cher.” In those days, Sonny and Cher were very big. The moment I said that, I realized I had said something really dumb. It came out this way because I was rowing as fast as I could to reconcile two competing impulses. The rabbi pulls back, shocked that anyone would tell him something as dumb as my remark. I work hard to try to make up for it, I get the conversation back on track, but I had blown my chance of having any influence however small.

Nevertheless, he was eager to talk and he told me a story which I remember until today. He said, “When I was a rabbi in rural Michigan, 80% of my congregants had one parent that wasn’t Jewish, Almost no one in my temple lost any relatives in the Holocaust or had any family involvement in European Jewish history. They have no clue what the word yiddishkeit means. How was I supposed to be an effective rabbi? Should I have told a third of my congregation to leave because they didn’t have the right parent that was Jewish? And in any event, if I had converted all those whose father was Jewish but not their mother, what difference would it have made? Nobody recognizes my conversions anyway. The Orthodox and the Conservatives think of me as the enemy, and the State of Israel is in their pocket.” The rabbi had a point.

I believe today, so many years after this historical legislation, despite all the pessimistic forecasts, not too much has happened. It is true that by allowing for patrilineal descent the Reform eliminated a barrier to intermarriage. When a non-Jewish woman doesn’t want to convert and the man or his parents want his children to be Jews, patrilineal descent is a useful doctrine. The same doctrine can be used in a positive way to keep the family inside Reform Judaism. Otherwise there is no small danger of the entire family winding up in a church. In order to say something definitive there is a need for some serious statistical studies. I am ignorant of the social science literature on this topic. If any reader knows of any studies that attempt to measure the total consequences of patrilineal descent please write a comment.

A major practical change that has already occurred is that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate now assumes a Reform Jew is of patrilineal descent and will not perform as matter of course a marriage ceremony. I do not know whether such a presumption can be defeated, and if the testimony of the applicant’s Reform rabbi would make any difference.

Orthodox and Conservatives do not recognize the child of a Reform woman convert as a Jew. A child of a gentile mother and a Jewish father is also not considered a Jew. As the number of children of converts and of patrilineal descent grows we are quickly becoming a people with two distinct subgroups that can not easily intermarry. I would expect eventually a Reform Jewish person of matrilineal descent who wants to marry in an Orthodox ceremony without any proof of lineage even in the US will be required to undergo the same rituals as a convert. Because so many Reform Jews will be converts or of patrilineal descent, the Orthodox rabbis will fear the worst and feel forced to assume the person in question is Jewish via patrilineal descent.

The status of Jews of patrilineal descent with respect to the Law of Return was and remains a problem. There are new developments in the works and the Israeli Supreme Court is expected to issue some new rulings. Details can be found here. Symbolically the ‘’Who is a Jew’’ issue means a great deal to Reform community and their fight to keep intermarried families inside Jewish life. In practice the number of people involved is small.

What remains important for me in what the rabbi told me those many years ago is this: the rabbi’s congregation in rural Michigan is still out there, thinking of themselves as Jews and, in many instances, raising children who are looking to marry other Jews, including Jews of matrilineal descent. These children who will go on to marry Jews of matrilineal descent will create a new generation of Jews of matrilineal descent and a new generation of Jews of patrilineal descent roughly in equal numbers. They need and want rabbis and temples to provide pastoral care, moral inspiration, and assistance in celebrating life cycle events. Their numbers are huge and growing.

I remain undecided how to think about the many non-Jews who have married Jews and the offspring of such unions. There are a variety of cases each with a particular halachic configuration combined with different degrees of Jewish identification. Is there a principled way of deciding how efforts to maintain Jewish continuity be understood? Should it be a triage approach where resources are channeled to the most marginal of Jews or should our efforts be confined only to core Jews and traditional Jewish life, especially when resources are so limited? My gut feeling is that it is always a mistake to walk away from any person who self identifies as a Jew irrespective of halachic status. The difficulty is that intuitions are often poor guidelines for public policy.


At 8:52 AM, Blogger ashuber said...

"the rabbi’s congregation in rural Michigan is still out there... raising children who are looking to marry other Jews, including Jews of matrilineal descent."

I disagree with this statement. Having grown up in the Reform movement, I have seen most of these people marrying or dating goyim.

People from intermarried families, no matter how committed to Judaism, simply don't have the same attitude regarding marrying someone of the Jewish faith. In 2-3 generations the Conservative and Orthodox will not recognize the majority of those who identify as Reform as Halachic Jews. When this happens there will be many questions as to how all three movements relate to each other. Even as an Orthodox Jew I have many friends and associates who identify as Reform. I worry for the day when I have to question the authenticity of their Jewish identity.

At 1:24 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

I am not sure we have a big disagreement. I have no problem with your last paragraph. I would add it is time for a major serious discussion when a non-halachic Jew ceases to be Jewish. It is uncharted territory, with many branches. For one thing there need not be a yes-no button. I want a principle and I have none.

I am walking around with a figure of 20-30% retention rates. Your use of 'most' implies a lower rate. There have to be studies. Knowledgeable readers, please write in. Millions of people are/will be involved, here and all over the world.

I came across just yesterday the relevant interesting post at (11/14, with many comments.) I saw it too late to digest the points made.

At 2:09 PM, Anonymous Mike S said...

We may return to the days, as described in the Gemarra, when one would have to track back four generations (i.e. to the bride or groom's great-great-grandmother) on the matrilineal line before marrying. Of course between the destruction of communities in the Holocaust, and greater mobility making it hard to find people who knew everyone, that may become very difficult. By the way, I doubt it will be limited to Reform Jews. How would you know that an Orthodox potential spouse didn't have a grandmother who was raised in a Reform (patrilineal) family and later became Orthodox, and slipped through out of ignorance. Ditto for improper conversions.

At 4:50 PM, Blogger ashuber said...

I agree with you that "there have to be studies". Who will sponsor them? I don't think the UJC would be very interested. Down here in South Florida they are doing Jewish population surveys all the time so they can brag about how many Jews there are in a given area. It wouldn't promote their agenda to say that many of these Jews in their studies are really goyim. Furthermore, it would only highlight the fact that mainstream Jewish organizations are not really doing anything effective (the under funding of community day schools) to stop this wave of assimilation and inter-marriage.

At 2:09 PM, Anonymous Steve Brizel said...

IIRC, there was a recent study in the Boston area that asserted that there was a substantial percentage of "Jewish affiliation"-without ever defining that amorphous term. I suspect that such a study was based on accounting tricks that basically look for such easy evidence as JCC membership, participation in a course for intermarried spouses, etc as opposed to hard facts as to whether the family keeps Jewish, non Jewish non or elements of both sets of religious practices. I suspect that the next generation of both R and C will have a high percentate of intermarried laypersons.

At 7:41 AM, Blogger Marc Possoff said...


First I would like to say that matrilineal decent is not biblical by any means. There is nothing in scripture that says a child born of Jewish mother is Jewish.

But if you look and study scripture, scripture with no doubt says it's the seed. What is the seed? The seed comes from the man. Abraham's seed as an example. The Abrahamic Covenant cleary declares that Abraham's seed will be blessed. In fact Ishmael("Arabs") came from Abraham's seed and in the fact of the matter Abraham's seed and Ishmael Seed are brothers.

Also look at the Davidic Convenant that the Messiah will come from the House of David's lineage. The convenant clearly states that it will be the seed that the Messiah will come from. In this case King David's seed and lineage. It had nothing to do with the mothers by any means.

Again it's the seed. If the seed is Jewish then the decendants will be Jewish.

Let's take a man who has a child with 3 different woman. Even though the man had a child with 3 different woman they are all siblings.

Let's take a woman who has a child with 3 different men. Those children are not brothers because of the different seeds.

Again I would like to emphasize if you look at scripture it clearly states that it's the seed(the man) who determines what the child is.

Wasn't David's grandmother Ruth, a Moabite, a Gentile? Of course she was. BUT because of the seed (the man) David was and is still considered a "Jew".

If you go by the conclusion that a child is what the mother is then the above can't hold true.

God Bless!

Marc Possoff

At 1:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

EJ, your last paragraph is a case of very bad confusion. But in your case I'll not accept the excuse of involuntary confusion, your mind is too disciplined for that.

You write: "Should it be a triage approach where resources are channeled to the most marginal of Jews or should our efforts be confined only to core Jews and traditional Jewish life, especially when resources are so limited? My gut feeling is that it is always a mistake to walk away from any person who self identifies as a Jew irrespective of halachic status."

You used the word "triage" which betrays your true position, that is different from your gut's one (I dont know..., my guts dont seem to have feelings or opinions of their own, may be on food ... but I never enter into a debate with my guts). OK, we both agree that limited resources should be spent on those already strongly committed to Jewish life, and that Scott Kerry or Ivan Strogoff (I just invented them) should be left live off their lives unconcerned by 516 mitzvot and/or Hassidic "music".

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At 3:02 AM, Anonymous Yohanan bin-Dawidh said...

Per a private discussion with Sophiee, the following verses were presented to me as proof of matrilineal descent as that which attests to someones Jewishness:

1) Sefer D’varim 7:4
2) Sefer Wayyiqra 24:10, 11
3) Sefer Ez’ra 10:203

Here is my reply to each verse presented as to it claim of matrilineal descent:

1) To properly understand Sefer D’varim 7:4 they must take the whole into context, for note – it prohibits in verse 3 from either our daughters, or our sons, marrying unto the children of the Land who were existent there before us; the Hitti, the Girgashi; the Amori; the Kena’ani; the Perizi; the Hiwi; and the Yevusi. When it mentions “he” in verse 4 it is not merely speaking of the males of these tribes, but rather it is a metaphor to denote these tribes as a “he”, for as we notice later in the writings of the Prophets, our ancestors committed adultery with this “he”, namely these tribes. Thus, as far as this verse is concerned I see not where it denotes that a child born from a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother is not Jewish, but rather a prohibition from marrying members of these tribes; a prohibition that applies to both our male population, and our female population.

I would like to add to this that in Sefer Melekhim Alef 11:1, 2 that we see this prohibition again mentioned, for Sholomo violated it, and in this text it denotes that the prohibition was against marrying women from the above nations, to which it also refers to as “strange women”.

2) As to Sefer Wayyiqra chapter 24, we must also look at context, for while this does denote that the man was the son of an Yisraeli woman whose father was a Mitsri, it by no means ever refers to the son as an Yisraeli. It merely refers to him as the son of a Yisraeli woman which is far from referring to him as an Yisraeli himself. So, again, as far as this verse is concerned I find no proof in such that the children of Jewish mothers are B’nai Yisra’el while without the father likewise being of Yisra’el, nor do I find proof that the offspring of Jewish males with non-Jewish females makes one non-Jewish. It merely does not exist in the text.

3) Next, as to Sefer Ez’ra 10:2-3 we must likewise read the text in context, to which it denotes that they put away their strange wives of the people of the land. For this we must refer back to Sefer D’varim chapter 7 where our ancestors were prohibited from marrying the Hitti; the Girgashi; the Amori; the Kena’ani; the Perizi; the Hiwi; and the Yevusi. Our people had realized their error in doing such; and they put away their wives and children from such unions prohibited by Sefer HaTorah. Thus, again, here I find no mention that a person who have a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother are not Jewish, or mention that a person with a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father is Jewish.

Now then let us look at Sefer Bamidbar 31:17, 18:

“Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that has known a man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.”

For what purpose is that Mosheh here commands us that we are to keep all the virgin females for ourselves from among those that are of Midyan? For wives! And why is this permitted if our children are not B’nai Yisra’el without a “Jewish” or “Yisraeli” mother? Because as we see in topic (1) above, only certain tribes were we prohibited from marrying with, and have sexual relations with, and Midyan was not one of them.

Also in other genealogical record to be found within the Miq'ra, it is "Father" begat "Son" and I know that the standard argument here is that tribal affiliation is determined by the "Father", but if such is the case, then if one is Jewish through their mother, but has a non-Jewish father then from what tribe do they descend? However, if one has a Jewish father, but not a Jewish mother do they not descend still from the tribe of their father?

The Orthodox Jew then wrote concerning Sefer D’varim 7:4:

“Yohanan you are now ignoring the plain pshat for your interpretation.”

And so my reply was as follows:

"And do not make marriages unto them; your daughter do not give unto his son, and his daughter do not take for your son; for they will turn your children from following after Me; that they may serve other deities and the anger of Y___ will be ignited against you and He will destroy you quickly." (ibid. 3, 4)

In the p'shat this still does not show that "their daughters would lead your children away" as you so kindly stated above, but rather "for they will turn your children from following after Me" and who it is that will do such; the people of the tribes mentioned in verse 1 of this same chapter. This is the simplicit of the p'shat. It does not deny what Mosheh bin-Amram wrote, for it is what he wrote as the Hebrew clearly states.

But for sake of being fair, this is what the Mishnah states on the topic:

Mishnah Tractate Qiddushin 3:12

I A. In any situation in which there is a valid betrothal and no commission of a transgression, the offspring follows the status of the male.
B. And what is such a situation?
C. It is the situation in which a priest girl, and girl of Lewi, or an Yisraeli girl was married to a priest, a Lewi, or an Yisraeli.

II D. And any situation in which there is a valid betrothal, but there also is the commission of a transgression, the offspring follows the status of the impaired inferior party.
E. And what is such a situation? F. It is a widow married to a high priest, a divorcee or a woman who has undergone the rite of halisah married to an ordinary priest, a Mamzer, (Note: I disagree with the Mishnah's take on what a Mamzer is, but agree on what Rabbi Yehuda ben Bila'am [not a Qara'i] stated on the subject, that the Mamzerim were a people like unto the Mo'avim, to which Ibn Ezra argues against in his commentary on Sefer Zakaryah 9:6) or a Netin.

III G. And in any situation in which a woman has nor right to enter betrothal with this man but has the right to inter into betrothal with others, the offspring is a Mamzer.
H. And what is such a situation? I. This is a man who had sexual relatins with any of those women prohibted to him by Torah. (Refer back to the tribes mentioned in Sefer D'varim 7:1)

IV J. But any situation in which a woman has no right to enter into betrothal with this man or with any other man - the offspring is of her status.
K. And what is such a situation? It is the offspring of a slave girl or a gentile girl. (Torah never prohibits such a thing, so virtually they are creating that which is not)

For one, I disagree with what they feel the Mishnah is stating here; however, even it does make the claim that one is only Jewish through matrilineal descent, then it is wrong - for the Miq'ra clearly states otherwise, and the Miq'ra should be our standard always.

But to also challenge the claim of the Mishnah here, if it does so truly mean what they claim it means, I posted the following:

Mishnah Tractate Bekkurim 1:4, 5

1:4 A. These bring but do not recite:
B. The Ger brings but does not recite,
C. because he is not able to say "that which H' to our fathers to give us," (D'varim 26:3).
D. But if his mother was from Yisra'el, he brings and recites.
E. And when he prays in private he says, "God of the fathers of Yisra'el."
F. And when he prays in the Beyt Knesseth he says, "God of your fathers."
G. But if his mother was from Yisra'el he says, "God of our fathers."

1:5 A. Ravi Eli'azar bin-Ya'aqov says, "A woman who is the daughter of Ger'im may not marry a priest,
B. unless her mother was from Yisra'el."
C. The same applies to both Ger'im and to freed slaves,
D. even to the tenth generation:
E. unless her mother is from Yisra'el.
F. An executor, agent, slave, woman, person of doubtful sex, and an androgynous bring but do not recite,
G. because they are not able to say, "that which You, H' have given me." (Sefer D'varim 26:10)

This clearly denotes to me that the authors of the Mishnah did understand that the child of a Yisraeli father was Jewish, whereas the child of a Yisraeli mother, and non Yisraeli father was merely a half-Yisraeli.

But of course, then they told that without the Gemara (Rabbinical commentary) one cannot properly understand the Mishnah, so basically once cannot understand the Miq'ra without the Mishnah, and they cannot understand the Mishnah without the Gemara.

May the Urim and Thummim once again be among us in our day, so that certain questions can be truly answered.


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