Thursday, September 11, 2014

Gwyneth Paltrow Plans Conversion to Judaism and What That Means for Other Patrilineal Jews

News has just come out that actress Gwyneth Paltrow will be converting to Judaism. To many, this is a confusing bit of news because we have always thought of Gwyneth Paltrow as Jewish and listed her among today's most famous Jewish celebrities. However, it is her father who was Jewish and not her mother, the actress Blythe Danner. This means that Gwyneth Paltrow is what is known as a "patrilineal Jew" -- only Jewish through the lineage of her father. In Reform Judaism, she's considered a full member of the Jewish people, but this isn't the case in a more traditional Jewish interpretation of Jewish identity.

Jewish Celebrities - Gwyneth Paltrow's Conversion to Judaism

Paltrow's high profile conversion to Judaism will raise the profile of this controversy in modern Jewish life. A 2007 article discussed the various solutions to the problem of how to recognize patrilineal Jews in a traditional congregation. Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar LA (and other rabbis) have begun a custom of having all teens in the synagogue immerse in a mikvah with the appropriate blessings before the year of their bar or bat mitzvah thereby converting those Patrilineal Jewish children who were raised Jewish, but wouldn't be considered Jewish according to Halacha (Jewish law). I recently published a blog post about Gwyneth Paltrow's upcoming conversion and what it will mean for the thousands of Patrilineal Jews who might not have considered the need to formally convert.

We rabbis often lament about how many issues divide our people. We pray differently, we keep kosher differently, we talk about Israel differently, etc. The truth is that while these topics make us debate with each other and cause us to affiliate with our own congregations and communities and organizations, they don’t change the fact that we’re all part of the Jewish people. The only issue that truly does divide us in the sense that it keeps us from uniting as one people is the issue of Jewish identity — what’s commonly called “Who’s a Jew.”

The 1983 decision by the Reform Movement (in North America, not in Israel) to consider those with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother as fully Jewish changed the rules of the game. In my first decade as a rabbi serving communities of young Jewish people (both on a college campus and at a Jewish camping agency), I've been asked numerous times by patrilineal Jews whether I consider them Jewish. At the end of a Birthright Israel trip a young female participant asked if I would be willing to officiate at her wedding even though her mother isn't Jewish. As a Conservative rabbi I find these to be the most challenging questions I'm asked. My Reform and Orthodox rabbinic colleagues respond to these questions without much hesitation or difficulty. The Reform rabbi is able to cite the movement’s resolution establishing that "if the child is raised exclusively as a Jew and one parent is Jewish, then the child is recognized as a Jew in Reform communities regardless of the gender of the Jewish parent." The Orthodox rabbi frames the answer with cut-and-dry legal wording, explaining that the definition of Jewish lineage according to halacha (Jewish law) is a child born to a Jewish mother or one who undergoes proper conversion.

Gwyneth Paltrow - Conversion to JudaismNow a mega celebrity is catapulting the topic of patrilineal descent right onto our dinner tables just weeks before the High Holidays. Rabbis might feel inclined to include this issue in their Rosh Hashanah sermons this month. Gwyneth Paltrow has long been considered a Jewish actress by her fans and those in Hollywood who know that her father was Jewish. Paltrow's mother is Blythe Danner, the actress known most notably for her roles in television's Will and Grace and the movie Meet the Parents. Now, Paltrow has announced that she has been in the process of a conversion to Judaism since discovering her ancestors were famous rabbis. This has led to confusion among many who thought Gwyneth Paltrow was already Jewish.

Conversion is an option for patrilineal Jews who wish to remove any genetic doubt about their heritage, but it can also be an insulting suggestion. We are now facing the inter-denominational challenges that have arisen from the Reform movement’s 1983 resolution as the children of that era are now of marriage age and are having their own children. Gwyneth Paltrow will likely go through a mikveh conversion to formally (and halachically) become a member of the Jewish community (and remove any doubt that she's 100% a Jewish celebrity), but that resolution won't work for every man or woman who grew up thinking they were unequivocally Jewish. The mere mention of a conversion process can be taken as an insult to an individual who grew up as an active member of the Jewish people. So what are we to do for the thousands of Patrilineal Jews who don't want to convert? Maybe we just need a big name celeb like Gwyneth Paltrow to bring this issue to the fore.


Michael said...

R’ Jason,
What is the halachic basis for accepting patrilineal descent, whether or not DNA testing is available? What is different between today and post-2020? By putting forward a proposal sans any halachic reasoning and background, you give credence to the accusations of the Orthodox that the Conservative halachic process starts with a result and then searches for a halachic way.

Yes, the “who is a Jew” question is sensitive and potentially painful in this era of intermarriage and non-halachic conversions (regardless of how you define a halachic conversion). If you believe in Judaism as a feel-good lovey-dovey experience that you can join or leave at will, then the halacha doesn’t matter. But if you believe Judaism is religion where its adherents are bound by halacha, whether it is comfortable or not, you have to deal with this question in a halachic way. And if the fact that a situation is difficult is reason to go and change halacha, and/or if you start with a result and try to build the halachic reasoning around it, then you call into question whether you are commited to halacha in the first place.

Anonymous said...

"as an insult to an individual who grew up as an active member of the Jewish people "

On that note, the 'half Jew' also faces discrimination and harassment for being a Jew, so not being warmly welcomed into their local Jewish community is just rubbing salt in a wound.

Anonymous said...

So your proposal is, after 2020, we Conservative Jews become Reform Jews. Well, that is a proposal that might actually happen but not for the reason you suggest.

Anonymous said...

The one problem with having the teens go to the mikvah before bar/bat mitzvah is that mivkah alone does not cause a conversion. This is basically a nod and a wink that Conservative tacitly accepts patrilineal descent. Most Conservative lay people I know are only barely aware of their own movements position and even of those that are aware of it a majority are against it and think it should be changed.