Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Patrilineal "Dissent": Solving the Jewish Status Problem

My mother isn't/wasn't Jewish, my father is. I was raised Reform, had a Bat mitzvah, [was Jewishly educated, celebrated holidays, identify as Jewish, participated in the Jewish community, did not participate in or celebrate any other faith or religion,] etc. If I have children with a man recognized as fully Jewish, how would they be seen in the eyes of Israel and the American Jewish community (particularly the Conservative movement)? How stable are Israel's laws around this -- could they change in 10 years? What about Halachah (Jewish law)? I would really appreciate an answer, even if it's not what I want to hear. Thank you!

This is the question I was presented with from the website Jewish Values Online. Over the past few years I have answered dozens of values-based questions from this website. I haven't dodged a single question, and I've attempted to respond to each questioner in a timely fashion. Admittedly, I have procrastinated writing a response to this question for several months.

Why? Because I am a Conservative rabbi and this is perhaps the most challenging question that a Conservative rabbi can be asked in the beginning of the 21st century. My Reform and Orthodox colleagues were able to respond to this question in a much more timely fashion. The Reform rabbi is able to cite his movement's historic 1983 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 his answer with words like "difficult" and "painful" but ultimately cites Halacha (Jewish law) as unable to recognize the children (or grandchildren) of a Jewish man and non-Jewish woman as Jews without benefit of conversion.

Like many Conservative rabbis this issue hits home with me. I have a first cousin who, by definition, is not considered Jewish according to Halacha. That means that according to the Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly, of which I'm a member, I am not permitted to officiate at her wedding should she marry an individual deemed Jewish according to Halacha. That marriage would be considered an intermarriage without a formal conversion, and the children of that marriage would not be considered Jewish from a Halachic definition. This cousin has been raised Jewish, attended Hebrew School, became a bat mitzvah in a Reform congregation and considers herself Jewish. To complicate matters, her younger brother underwent a formal conversion in the mikveh after having a bris on the eighth day and is therefore regarded as Jewish according to Halacha. I'm not sure that there could be a more confusing example of the mess that has been created with Jewish identity in the modern American Jewish world.

Before making any recommendations as to how to resolve this issue or how I will respond to the question above, it is important to understand that the Reform Movement's 1983 resolution allowing patrilineal descent didn't create this mess, but it did complicate it further. In the almost 30 years since that decision, there has been much crossover between the Conservative and Reform movements in America. Thus, when the Reform movement issued its resolution (which was in the works for more than 35 years), it might have thought the implications would be wholly positive and would really only impact Reform Jews (the resolution specifies "in Reform communities"). However, that resolution has had negative impacts on both the Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements. The question of "Who's a Jew" has less implications for the Orthodox Jews in America as it is unusual for them to marry outside of their sect. It is when a Modern Orthodox or Conservative young person wants to marry an individual who has been considered Jewish through the Reform movement's notion of patrilineal descent that we are posed with the problem. Jewish young people in these more liberal denominations interact throughout adolescence and the college years in youth groups, summer camps, Israel trips and college Hillels. Additionally, following college Jewish communal organizations like Federation and B'nai Brith do not distinguish between patrilineal Jews and matrilineal Jews at young adult singles' events.

We are now facing head on the inter-denominational challenges that have arisen from the Reform movement's resolution as the children of that era are now of marriage age and having their own children. In response to the question above from the Jewish Values Online website, I would respond as follows:

There is no question that you have been raised in a family that has embraced Judaism, Jewish culture and Jewish values. You have grown up identifying as a Jewish person and because of your father's Jewish heritage, you have a claim to the birthright of the Jewish people. The Reform denomination of Judaism, in which you have affiliated, acknowledges you as a full-fledged member of the Jewish people for all purposes. Should you marry a man who is Jewish through matrilineal descent, it would be advisable that you undergo a formal conversion so there would be no Halachic issues concerning your children's Jewish identity.

Matters surrounding Israel's legal system as it pertains to Jewish identity should not be an issue for you unless you plan to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen. Should that be the case, I would advise you to inquire about those issues at that time and not worry about them now. Like all civil laws, they have the ability to change over time based on Israel's government at the time and the authority and opinion of the Chief Rabbinate.

As you acknowledged, this might not be the answer you want to hear, but at this time it is the reality. A conversion for someone in your situation (raised Jewishly, who identifies as Jewish) is intended to make your Judaism more legitimate from a Halachic perspective. It should not be understood as undermining your religious identity throughout your life. It is a conversion in a different category than an individual becoming Jewish from another religion altogether. Consider it a technicality.

My ultimate goal is to remove such problems in the future so these painful questions don't arise in the future. It is first important to acknowledge that this is a matter full of nuance and the American Jewish community is made up of very different communities who will never agree on most issues. That being said, this issue must be resolved for Jews from the more liberal movements of modern Judaism (Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Modern Orthodox) whose followers are marrying each other and raising families together.

Over the years, there have been several recommendations to fix this matter. Some have suggested mass conversions for all Jewish children before bar or bat mitzvah. Others have recommended that all brides and grooms go to the mikveh as a form of conversion before the wedding to assure Halachic Jewish status.

My proposal is to set a time limit on the status quo. Until the year 2020, matrilineal descent is the only accepted form of passing Jewish status genetically. Jewish individuals who are raised Jewish in a home with a Jewish father and identify as Jewish are to be considered Jewish from a cultural perspective, but must undergo a formal conversion for recognition as Jewish from a Halachic understanding.

After the year 2020, it will be understood that because of modern genetic testing (DNA tests) it is now possible to ascertain patrilineality with complete certainty. Therefore, a Jewish individual with at least one Jewish parent will be considered Jewish from a Halachic perspective for all matters. While the Orthodox will not agree to this, it will not have the same negative implications as the fissure between the Reform and Conservative movements that has existed for the past three decades.

The leaders of the American Jewish community should begin collaborating on such a partnership agreement. Only if we are on the same page on the matter of Jewish status will we be able to seek harmony among the disparate denominations of liberal Judaism. We cannot allow the ultra-Orthodox to dictate the definition of a Jewish individual, but we also cannot allow ourselves to be fractured by our own differing definitions of Jewish status. There has been far too much controversy and pain for this situation to continue unresolved.

Cross-Posted to the Huffington Post


Anonymous said...

Rabbi Jason - I always thought such people were basically Jewish just not technically or halachically Jewish.

What is the harm in having such a person go to the mikvah and convert to remove the doubt?

I had a friend once with a Jewish dad and a gentile mother that converted Orthodox and he felt that his conversion was a mere technicality because he already felt Jewish. Perhaps - this is the best way to couch the "problem" to your cousin.

Rabbi Alana Suskin said...

Your solution might make sense if genetics was the issue: it isn't - it's actually about whose birth canal one passes through. Thus genetic testing of the father is irrelevant.I would be opposed to the solution you propose: all groups have membership standards - the fact that the Reform movement muddied the waters doesn't necessarily mean that other movements ought to carry their standard for them, particularly since that movement necessarily makes many of its decisions not according to halacha (which they do not consider binding,even ideologically, but which the Conservative movement does, at least ideologically), but according to other standards. IMO, the ongoing proper response to to view conversion for such people as you describe as a-more or less- technicality (assuming that they don't, in fact, hold religious beliefs other than those compatible with Judaism - which is not an assumption that should go unexamined just because one parent is Jewish). By the way, this isn't even just a problem about patrilineality (which is one reason I'm opposed to your solution). For example, there are some numbers of Reform rabbis whose conversions are invalid (I'm not among those who say all of them are, but I had to reconvert a person marrying into my family because the rabbi who converted him originally didn't do mikvah or milah). Should we say that all conversions are valid just to make things easier and avoid upsetting people who think they're Jewish even though by no means could their conversions be considered halachicly valid? Of course not - instead, we need to think honestly about how to talk about halacha and what it means to be Jewish.

Rabbi Karen Reiss Medwed said...

We were just having this conversation yesterday with my Ed Leadership students. We were also working with whether the notion of "incidental" Jew was no longer applicable. Not sure I agree with your solution but I applaud renewing the conversation.

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky said...

It is time to

a) acknowledge that these kids are not "not Jewish.' They are just not halakhically Jewish. And

b) it is time to open a civil discourse on the matter since such discourse seems to elude the Jewish community on many issues, including this one.

aspergers2 mom said...

Isn't conversion the advent of learning and celebrating a Jewish life? If the indiviudal in question has studied and celebrated a bar or bat mitzvah why would that not be enough? The Mikveh element is irrelevant. Having been raised conserva-dox I have yet to enter a mikvah. It has always been about study.

Also genetic lineage? Not all "Jewish genes" show up on a matrix. My understanding is that only the Kohanim or levites are represented so those of us who fall l in the Israelite class would not be allowed to have our patrilineal descended children accepted?

The reality is that according to the Torah to be Jewish you had to have a Jewish mother and to inherit your farming land you had to have a Jewish father descended from a son of Jacob.It was the way to ensure the survival of the Jewish people and to keep the land within the People as well. That is not necessary today. It is time that we accept anyone with one Jewish parent raised in the Jewish religion be accepted as a Jew from any perspective. Ruth only had to tell Naomi that she wants to live among her and go with her to became a Jew and the grandmother of King David.

Personally I am tired of those who think only they have the ear of God and understand what God wants. Intolerance doesn't seem very Godly.

Rabbi Daniel Bogard said...

Well answered. I personally believe(and i say this as a reform rabbi) that patrilineal descent was a huge mistake...but one that is impossible to walk back. Infant mikveh would have been a much better solution.

Aaron Schwartz said...

Not impossible to walk back - just difficult. There was a time when Reform congregations didn't allow anyone - man or woman - to wear a kippa or talit. If a solution causes as many problems as it was intended to solve, it is worth a second look.

Sam Zerin said...

A welll-written article on a very important, complicated, and difficult issue.

Rabbi Daniel Bogard said...

Aaron, I would say that boat has sailed. There is no world in which the reform movement would suddenly tell twenty percent of our congregants that they aren't Jewish.not going to happen.

Anonymous said...

The mother of my two children is not Jewish. When my daughter wanted a bat mitzvoh at my Conservative synagogue, we simply had a little conversion ceremony at the rabbi's house, including a trip to a local hot springs where all the women gathered around and blessed her. She hasn't practiced Judaism since her bat mitzvoh but her mother still has the papers stashed away should she ever want or need them.

Dick Bahr said...

I have no idea as to why we are even having this discussion. We are an Halachic movement, recognizing the supremacy of Jewish law which does not change (but may be reinterpeted). In this case Jewish law is clear; one is Jewish by dint of the mother's religion or a legal conversion. The Reform Rabbi's have created a monster and now they expect us to tame it. Let's face it: if they hadn't stepped outside the boundary and performed inter-marriages we would not be having this discussion. We should not permit their indiscretions to become our problem. Matrilinear descent is fundamnetal to Halacha, and for a Conservative Rabbi to even suggest any other approach is outside the boundaries of Conservative theology.

Dick Bahr

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Anonymous: I'm glad the story of your daughter's "conversion on a technicality" was a success. The women's retreat to the Hot Springs sounds like it was a spiritual and meaningful experience before her bat mitzvah.

Remember that if it were your SON and not a daughter, the nice dip in the natural waters of the Hot Springs would have included a pin prick to the tip of your son's penis (assuming he's been circumcized). He might not find that part as spiritual and meaningful.

Additionally, for many young people to go through a ritual of conversion (even if on a technicality) before marriage after living for 25 or more years as a Jew might be considered insulting.

Rabbi Adam Miller said...

I just read your new article on Huffpost. I applaud your effort to try and synchronize the difficult matter of Jewish identity as defined by halakhah. Personally, I don't use the term patrilineal descent to describe the position of the Reform movement. I use "equilineal" a phrase I heard from a Conservative colleague. This term denotes that Reform accepts those who are of either matrilineal or patrilineal descent.

As an addendum, you could also note the emphasis placed on the person being raised and educated as a Jew. In a way, Reform created an even more strict measurement than the traditional halakhah. Happenstance of birth alone is not the only identifier. An individual needs to have a developed Jewish identity in order to truly be Jewish.

Rabbi Adam Miller
Temple Shalom (Reform)
Naples, Florida

Rick Dorfman said...

The Arab-Israeli conflict would be resolved if we could just get all of the Arabs to the mikveh.

Anonymous said...

My boyfriend is Conservative, I am a Reform patrilineal Jew. We've decided that I'll convert 2-3 times (once in a liberal Conservative synagogue so that it positively won't get annulled, once in a Modern Orthodox synagogue, and once performed by a rabbi who's accepted by Orthodox Yeshivas in Israel). These conversions will all be done for the extrinsic benefit of status for our children -- so that they never have to go through any identity issues like I have. I don't truly believe in any of the conversions, they are just hoops to jump through. This makes me wonder: at what point does a 'technicality' conversion no longer meet the criteria to be a valid conversion? Doesn't a conversion require that that individual undergoing the process believe they are going from a non-Jewish state to a Jewish state? Oy... I don't know the answer, I'd just like to fix the situation within my family.

My boyfriend and I have also decided that we won't be joining a Conservative congregation because their view of who is a Jew doesn't align with my most important religious view... my view of what religious I am and always have been. However, I am beginning to rethink this choice now that I know that certain Conservative rabbis are fighting for justice for patrilineals raised as Jews.

Rabbi Alana Suskin, your post is interesting. From what I know, there is not hard evidence pointing to DNA or the birth canal as the reason for the Mishnah's remarks on matrilineal descent. I'm no expert, but it seems that the Karaite and the Rabbinic Jews interpreted an arbitrary passage in Deuteronomy differently (http://www.beta-gershom.org/who_is_born_a_jew.shtml). Does anyone know for certain why the Mishnah did this?

Further, Rabbi Alana Suskin, if you're a Conservative rabbi, did you inform the person marrying into your family that they still wouldn't be considered a Jew by Modern Orthodox standards? The halachicness of the Conservative movement isn't Halachic enough for those right-of-Conservative. It's all relative. In the next generation they may still have to convert depending on who they want to marry.

I really appreciate this conversation. It will be increasingly important as the population of half-Jews identifying as Jews continues to rise. Some say that by 2040 50% of all people identifying as Jews in the US will be non-Halachic. Clearly this is a very timely and difficult issue and I truly hope that both sides can be empathetic and not stubborn enough to get somewhere with it.

Best regards to all you rabbis and posters =)

dddd412 said...

the Rabbis actually get their authority from the Torah itself. "you shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you, right or left" (Deut. 17:11). The written Torah is interpreted and understood alongside the Oral Law, transmitted from Moses through the Prophets and then the Rabbis (eventually written down primarily in the Talmud).

Anonymous said...

To Reform Patrilinal Jew - Halacha provides what you need to do to convert. It really depends on what community that you want to recognize your conversion.

I suggest that you look at this article from the Beis Din (Orthodox Jewish Court) for Metro-Detroit.


Kol Tov!

Rabbi Andrew M. Sacks said...

This is a discussion that we will have in the RA. It may be sooner or it may happen later. But it seems to me to be unavoidable.

Some time back I wrote that a very high percentage of affiliated "Jews" (or those that self define as Jews) in Eastern Europe are not halachically Jewish. I know of one shul that waits for 13 men for a Minyan figuring that the chances of all of the first ten being Jewish are slim.

We in Israel and in the Americas hold to a definition that rejects the definition of the Eastern Europeans because we have the money, power, and tradition on our side.

I do not care for Jason's solution but I admire his courage for being willing to raise the issue. Two colleagues, who favor reexamining the subject felt that it would take a new generation of rabbis just to talk about it.

But here in Israel Zera Yisrael is now talked about even in the Ortho world.

To quote Israel's first Sefardi Chief Rabbi: Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel was deeply concerned about the fate of children born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. "Such children, although of Jewish stock (zera yisrael), are in fact not halakhically Jewish. Children raised in such intermarriages will be lost to the Jewish people entirely. Thus, it is obligatory for rabbis to convert the non-Jewish mother in order to keep the children in the Jewish fo. Rabbi Uziel went so far as to say: "And I fear that if we push them [the children] away completely by not accepting their parents for conversion, we shall be brought to judgment and they shall say to us: ‘You did not bring back those who were driven away, and those who were lost you did not seek.' (Yehezkel 34:4)."

Elsewhere he advocates converting the children of Zera Yisrael even if the mother does not convert.

Rabbi Oren Hayon said...

REALLY interesting idea, Jason, and very well-written article. The one thing that no one can disagree with is your point that this issue is making questions of identity incredibly complicated for the Diaspora Jewish community. You're also right, of course, that we're going to have to figure out some answers soon, because the complicated problems aren't going away anytime soon...

Rick Chezever said...

The answer you wrote on the blog was well formulated and empathetic to the situation. I wholeheartedly agree with your approach. On the other hand, regarding your answer to the conversion problem, I cannot concur. First of all, why do Conservative and Modern Orthodox Jews have to cater to the Reform perspective, which is counter-halacha from the beginning. Shouldn't it be the other way around? The Reform movement created this problem, not the Conservatives/Orthodox. Further, your DNA proposal, though it logically makes sense, has shortfalls. What if a non-Jewish child were adopted by a Jewish family, raised Jewish, but never converted? Your DNA approach would not work. Your readers and I understand what you are attempting to do by reconciling modernity with Jewish identity, but maybe the time has come to finally say enough and stop catering to the lower standard. Judaism in America is undergoing a metamorphosis, the question is how far are we going to stray from the core principals? And that is an entirely diffrent blog topic.

Anonymous said...

Rabbi Jason,

I disagree with you at worst and want to clarify your statements at most - in calling a conversion of a 12 year old girl a "success" if she does not keep the mitzvot and lead a Jewish life. Such a conversion is a failure because she's bound to mitzvot that she's not keeping that she otherwise would not have to had she not converted.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Response to Anonymous directly above:

That girl's conversion was called "a success" because it turned into a beautiful, spiritual and meaningful ritual for her. I'm not sure that it (the mikveh experience in the Hot Springs) was the reason one way or the other for her journey away from Judaism after her bat mitzvah. Making that assumption is silly.

Anonymous said...

"First of all, why do Conservative and Modern Orthodox Jews have to cater to the Reform perspective, which is counter-halacha from the beginning. Shouldn't it be the other way around? The Reform movement created this problem, not the Conservatives/Orthodox."

Again, I'd like to point out that Conservative-Halachic and Orthodox-Halachic (and Modern Orthodox-Halachic) are not the same thing. Some accept gay marriage, some accept women at the bimah, some accept advanced education for women, some don't. Even the denomination who stays most closely with Halachic law likely wouldn't say that a widow must marry the brother of her departed husband, though the Mishnah does tell us that this is what's to be done.

I feel that most denominations don't like to talk about how much they've truly adapted to modernity and away from Halacha. This is as true in Reform as it is in Orthodox.

Additionally, the blame game won't help anyone. Yes, Reform catalyzed this issue with their 1983 resolution. So you can say it's all their fault if you want. But now, if we want a unified community, we have to get away from the blame game and work with what the situation currently is. That means we have to take into account the generation of Jewish individuals raised in a Jewish community with only Jewish fathers. Do we shun them? Do we accept them? Do we break our own Halachic laws and encourage them to convert (a convert should be turned away 3 times!)? Or do we not make them convert at all? It's a grey spectrum -- there isn't a Halachic way and a non-Halachic way, only a range of compromises between modernity and Halacha.

Rabbi Alana Suskin said...

1. Hi Dick!
2. aspergers2mom: It's not about anyone having the ear of God, it's about whether you consider halacha to be binding or not. If you don't you're not within the traditional movements (i.e. Conservative or Orthodox, who of course don't agree on everything either).

Since there's not really any difficulty to getting converted (and Jason, your comment about the pinprick - uh, really, it's not that big a deal, I'm told, and also, it's not about whether we find any given thing meaningful. Judaism isn't necessarily all about us. I don't find mikvah meaningful, but I'm bound to it, and so I go every month, like it or not, meaningful *to me* or not) saying that it's something we should just throw out is insulting to all those people who have bothered to make the effort. Yes, it does make a difference.

I'm not sure how undergoing a conversion is insulting even if one has practiced Judaism for 25 years. If one wants to practice as a lawyer in the US, one has to take the regional bar, no matter how successful you were in France; your brilliance; how much studying you've done. You've just gotta do it. Why should God be less important than a professional guild?

And frankly, while the Reform movement in theory says that there should be an emphasis placed on the person being raised and educated as a Jew. In practice it doesn't appear to be especially common. I say that as someone having been raised Reform and left the movement in my teens.

Anonymous: i always inform anyone who undergoes conversion with me that their conversion may not be counted by some communities. If they're okay with that, I also offer to make sure that their beit din is all male, because that might extend who counts them. Yep.

I'm also not sure why it's so important to people that we "solve" the problem. I'm not convinced that all problems actually require solving. IMO, things are actually okay the way they are - the important thing is to make everyone aware of the differences in communities.

Additive is better than subtractive - e.g. don't take out liturgy that we find unappealing, because who knows what we'll find attractive in a generation, and besides, it's better to struggle with what's difficult than be ignorant of our pasts.

IMO, don't solve the problem. Those who wish to be Jewish will be Jewish by conversion; those who don't think it's that important will be something else, and that's okay. There's nothing wrong with not being Jewish.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Shoshi said...

The genetic testing suggested isn't an attempt to determine someone's Jewishness. It is because we began to use matrilineal descent as the criterion in the first place in part because one cannot be 100% sure who the father of a child is, but it is obvious when a child is born who its mother is (setting aside questions of in vitro fertilization and surrogacy!). So, in other words, since we no longer need doubt who the father is, why not permit patrilineal descent as well as matrilneal?

Anonymous said...

"I'm not sure how undergoing a conversion is insulting even if one has practiced Judaism for 25 years. If one wants to practice as a lawyer in the US, one has to take the regional bar, no matter how successful you were in France; your brilliance; how much studying you've done. You've just gotta do it. Why should God be less important than a professional guild?"

As a patrilineal Reform Jew (involved in some sort of formal Jewish activity from 3-16), I've encountered these nationality-type comparisons often. I feel that they compare apples with oranges. Lawyers get a degree approved by certain authority - eg the ABA - that allows them to practice in a certain realm (eg the US). Most professionals know where and how their certifications can be utilized. Judaism is not a certification or a nationality. For someone raised a Jew, it's an ongoing part of your personal identity that will extend with you wherever you go. In the case of patrilineal Reform Jews, some people will deny this identity, but it still exists internally and in more liberal Jewish circles.

I can promise you that most patrilineal Reform Jews find it insulting when asked to convert. Most of us did not realize that anyone considered us non-Jews until the teenage or young adult years, in college Hillels or trips like Birthright when we're exposed to other denominations. It's not pleasant having someone else impose their meaning of 'Jewish' onto the definition you and your community use.

I'm not placing blame or saying that you MUST consider this an important issue simply because it affects me in a strong way. But if you take a look around the internet or your Jewish community, you'll find that plenty of people do find it important, and are strongly affected by it. The Israeli movie 'The Green Chariot' offers an especially moving story about the identity struggle that comes with being asked to convert into a community to which you already belong.

I think it would also behoove you and other Conservative rabbis who take your stance to acknowledge that this probably will become an even more prominent issue as the intermarriage rates grow, and as individuals from Reform and Conservative backgrounds continue to intermingle. If it isn't a big issue now, I predict it really will be within 20 years at the latest.

Anonymous said...

@Shoshi: I'm afraid that that's not the reason. It's a post hoc explanation for the reason.

Unknown said...

I have a more radical view, even though I consider myself mainstream CJ. Interfaith issues are intertwined in my own family, and in my experience in helping out at a two Schechter schools. Full disclosure - I am a Keruvite, molded by Rabbi Chuck Simon and FJMC. So, here's my take.

Halakha changed in the rabbinic aftermath of the expulsion and Diaspora. So must Halakha respond to the realities of the Shoah. We have a covenant with God, and if there are no Jews left, how can that brit be fulfilled? Surely this is not God's plan.

With modern DNA testing, paternity is no longer a mystery. Rabbi Benjamin Kreitman has eloquently exhorted us that "Change is embedded in tradition". It is time to allow change. Choosing who is and who is not a Jew was God's issue at the beginning. Who are we to get in God's way?

spodvoll said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
spodvoll said...

Thank you, Reb Weis! It seems to me that basing Judaism on one's matrilineal descent was a means unto an end, not an end unto itself. At one time, matrilineal descent was the *only* means to assure descent with certainty. Such is no longer the case, thanks to DNA analysis.

Dr. David Harold said...

Jason, I read the blog. Most attempts to outlaw newborn circumcision are rooted in anti-Semitism and to believe otherwise is naïve. There are numerous reasons why newborn circumcision is good preventive medicine. As a urologist I see dozens of cases annually of significant prepucial problems. I would also argue against the "infant feels pain". In our modern times we can certainly ameliorate some of the pain. But what the newborn learns at the time of his bris is that mommy and daddy are there to comfort him. Newborns don't feel pain like older infants. They don't like being messed with! David

Rabbi Daniel Schweber said...

Your blog post was well written and provocative. It is on point in terms of the meshing of the denominations. However the small 'c' conservative in me is not sure if accepting patrilinial descent is the right answer. As the UJA NY survey pointed out there are plenty of people identifying Jewish without any halachically Jewish parent. It is a bigger issue then. I think we need to accepting of these identifying Jews as they are Philo-semites, however if they want to join our shul communities then they are welcome to go to the mikvah. We need more Mayyim Hayyim mikvaot though. Just my 2 cents.

David Sternlight said...

I am sick and tired of hearing the rationalization "ultra-orthodox" to justify deviations from normative Judaism. Orthodox Jews of all varieties agree on this Halachic issue. What, exactly does one suppose the word " orthodox" means? It is not a pejorative, except in the mouths of propagandists. One may, without offense, use the phrase "traditional Judaism" if one is arguing honestly.

David Sternlight, PhD (who has, over 79 years, worshipped in and understood orthodox, conservative, and reform institutions, and is now affiliated with Chabad.)

Allan Pennyfarthing said...

A completely reasonable solution to an utterly nonsensical and unecessary problem. Judaism is not genetic. It is memetic- that is to say that it is a set of ideas and values. If it truely were genetic, anyone who was decended from abraham would be "jewish." Given the mathematics of the number of generations and the number of direct ancestors, we can be reasonably sure that most people on the planet are descended from abraham.

Sam Zerin said...

It's a combination of the two. There are many Jews who do not observe or believe in the Jewish religion -- who do not keep kosher, do not observe Shabbat, do not celebrate holidays, do not pray, do not believe in God. Some such Jews do not even partake in "Jewish" culture -- they don't speak a Jewish language, don't listen to Jewish music, don't read Jewish literature. What, then, makes them Jewish? They are Jewish by birth, because the Jewish People is a people, and a person of Jewish birth is Jewish regardless of their beliefs, knowledge, or practice. The opposite is also true -- just because someone believes in the Jewish religion, knows a lot about it, and practices it, does not mean that they are a Jew. As for your last point, about the mathematics, many, many Jews have left the Jewish People over the millennia by converting to other religions. Many were also killed, and others, because of anti-semitism, have had to hide the fact that they are Jewish. Yes, sure, if nobody ever left the Jewish People, and we weren't systematically murdered over the millenia, then there would be quite a lot more of us today.

phal4875 said...

There is no proof of an Abram or Abraham, so it is unlikely that most of us are his descendants. Our common ancestor probably goes much farther back than four or five thousand years.

Perry said...

Once again you tackled a very current problem head on and provided an excellent response.

As I have mentioned on several occasions I sincerely enjoy reading your blog and look forward to reading it.

Be well.


Rabbi Arnold Stiebel, Ph.D. said...

Jason, Kol Hakavod for taking a righteous stand. If you are not 100% correct, then at least you are on the right track.

We are told that we are hemorrhaging members/Jewish members so fast that we, Conservative Jews, will be a non-entity in two decades. We just had a mailing about how many congregations are closing and how our percentage of the American Jewish population is dwindling, abandoning or being force to abandon Conservative Judaism. When you are bleeding, sometimes a band-aide is not enough, you have to make drastic changes; at least put in a few sutures to close the wound. Guys (male and female, I'm not trying to be sexist), we got to wake up and smell the "shoshanot." For whom are we going to be rabbis?

A quote: "Sometimes being-dead right means being `dead!’ Right?"

Rabbi Randall Mark said...

Without question an important and painful discussion for all of us. Thank you for putting the topic on the table.

blessedmatch said...

Let me add my nonrabbinic voice to the chorus of thanking you, Rabbi, for raising this difficult issue. I find it interesting that so many want to "blame" the Reform movement for their 1983 resolution. I don't agree with the resolution. But nor do I blame the movement for trying to do something about an epidemic that threatens the survival of American Judaism entirely. It's not news that the fastest growing "denomination" in the United States is unaffiliated. As the inheritors of a religion that has always valued dissenting opinions, we as a community should not be surprised that different people (and different movements) of good will have come up with different solutions. Eilu v'eilu.

Anonymous said...

1. Conservative Judaism (CJ) says it is a halachic movement
2. Orthodox Judaism (OJ) does not agree with the CJ halachic process
3. One of the reasons OJ feels the CJ process is illegitimate is (according to OJ), CJ starts with a result and then searches for a halachic way

To paraphrase from “A Few Good Men” The above are facts and are (as far as I know) undisputed. (You may feel OJ’s views as expressed in #3 are wrong, but they are, in fact, their views.)

Commenter Rabbi Suskin (who I assume is a CJ rabbi), who stands with halacha like-it-or-not, has taken a step to counter OJ’s views as expressed in #3.

Rabbi Jason, with his putting forward of a proposed result sans any halachic reasoning and background, has taken a step to back up OJ’s views as expressed in #3.

Yes, the “who is a Jew” question is sensitive and potentiall 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 the value of being commited to halacha in the first place.

Rabbi Joshua Ginsberg said...

With all do respect to my friend and colleague R. Suskin, I find myself disagreeing with several of her points.

1. This is not an argument over the binding nature halakhah, but over reinterpretation of Jewish law & custom. Unless one is to argue, as the 19th century rabbi Moshe Sofer, did, that all reinterpretation of Jewish law and change in custom is forbidden, it is valid to re-examine the halakhah of determining Jewish identity in light of current socio-historical conditions.

2.It is legitimate, if not necessary, for all groups to have particular membership standards. However, membership should be deemed fair and reasonable by its members and perhaps by sympathetic non-members.

Is it fair in a society and a Jewish movement that has largely accepted the principle of equality between men & women to privilege one over the other in determining Jewish status without a compelling argument necessitating such discrimination? Other than the relative antiquity of the matrilineal descent principle and debatable claims concerning the mothers decisive influence on religious identity, there is little to justify this blatant discrimination against male Jews and their children. Additionally, the TaNaK, until at least Ezra, seems to accept patrilineal descent as the primary method for determining Israelite/Jewish status. Therefore, we know that membership status can change and that matrilineal descent is not d'oraita but rather d'rabanan.

Secondly, your analogy to the ABA better applies to the Reform decision to require both single-parent biological descent and education and actions that reflect affirmation of Jewish identity. The ABA set standards that raise the likelihood that members have been socialized into the law community and accept the basic principles of American law through immersing them in a period of intensive training. This also greatly increases the chances that the lawyer will be a competent lawyer. This is at least in part what the Reform movement has tried to accomplish. Like in many quarters of Jewish life, standards of competency are rarely upheld.


Rabbi Joshua Ginsberg said...

3. A significant number, if not the majority of non-Orthodox Jews in the United States accept "egalitarian" descent. This is reflected in the position of most non-sectarian communal organizations, social & educational institutions. Even many leaders within the Conservative movement accept patrilineal Jews, that are not actively practicing another religion, as quasi-Jews (or as Jews except for certain ritual and life-cycle ceremonies. This means thousands of non-Orthodox Jews are living and identifying as Jews, contributing to the Jewish people. What practical value is there to possibly insulting or alienating these "quasi" members? How does this accomplish the goal of maximizing the number of Jews meaningfully participating in Jewish life,especially when the standard appears arbitrary and unfair.
We should also keep in mind that this isn't a debate over the virtues of inmarriage vs intermarriage, but whether one parent should determine Jewish status. Unlike determining Kohen status (which has little practical value today) our decision affects the lives tens of thousands (if not millions) of Jews.

4. Conversion does not accomplishes the goal of ensuring a person's place within the Jewish people. The vast majority of the Orthodox institutions and leadership (and perhaps average members themselves) do not accept Conservative conversions as halakhically valid. At best, they treat these Jews-by-Choice as "quasi" Jews the way Conservative rabbis treat patrilineal Jews. If Liberal Judaisms (sans Conservative)accept egalitarian descent and the Orthodox largely do not accept our conversions (even if only men serve on the beit din) than we are only pleasing ourselves. This seems contrary to the spirit of the Conservative Movment which championed the notion of "Catholic Israel" or klal yisrael. It would be more reasonable to achieve unity concerning standards of identity with those open to accomplishing this goal.

5. There nothing wrong with not being Jewish, but this is irrelevant to the discussion. These are people who are recognized by major Jewish movements & leaders, along with tens-of-thousands of average Jews as Jewish and are living their lives as Jews. IMHO, the Conservative movement has an obligation to seriously examine whether matrilineal descent best serves the Jewish people and is our best understanding of what God wants from us.

spodvoll said...

And how many angels can fit on the head of a pin?


I'm all for accepting as a badge of honor the very definition *imposed* on us by those who did us harm, i.e., matrilineal, patrilineal, and even self-identifying Jews are Jews.

In any case, given the advent of DNA testing, I see no *rational* reason to reject patrilineal descent. Therefore, the only reason to reject patrilineal descent is inherently irrational. I'm not saying irrationality is necessarily a bad thing, but let's call a spade a spade.

PRJ said...

I have one response to the "mother's effect on child's religion" belief. We now have mostly dual-earner families in the US, meaning that fathers often share the parenting/socializing role of children, religiously and otherwise. Further, the rate of fathers getting custody of children after a divorce is much higher than it was one or two generations ago. This societal circumstance is one reason that Conservative should extend its wonderful egalitarian culture to the issue of descent -- give fathers credit where credit is due.

R. Suskin also stated that in her experience, Reform didn't enforce the rule that the children of one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent must be raised as Jews in order to activate their Jewish status. I'm sure that this rule isn't perfectly enforced, as no rule is, though I've heard of a case where a 14 year old girl with a Christian father and a (ethnically) Jewish mother, member of a church, wanted to go on a Reform youth trip. They said she wasn't allowed to do so without a conversion.

And whether or not the rule is enforced, the ethnically half-Jewish people who choose to identify as Jewish are a self-selected group. Why do they say they're Jewish? Probably because they were raised as such and participate in Jewish culture. For example, in the case of my family (Jewish father/non-Jewish mother), I was raised fully Reform Jewish. I have a much younger sibling who is not being raised as a Jew due to a decade's worth of changes in my parents' values and relationships with our extended family. I identify as Reform Jewish, whereas my younger sister doesn't.

DEHausfrau said...

As the daughter of a non-Jewish mother and a Halachally Jewish (but non-practicing) father, I accepted the fact that I would have to "convert" to be "officially Jewish" as my upbringing certainly did not lend itself to the Reform policy. What made it difficult was finding a way to do it. I was living as a Jew, considered myself a Jew, could read Hebrew - "so you wanna be a Jew" classes were really not applicable to me. I finally found a Conservative Rabbi who agreed to study with me over the course of nearly a year before he would put me in front of a Beit Din. I did it because the exercise wasn't for me, I knew in my soul I was a Jew but this process was for my children. I have two daughters who will be Jewish enough for most people we know (although I don't share this information because I feel it is irrelevant to our/my identity). If someday, they aspire to a more orthodox life, I will support them and hope the rabbis they encounter will give them some credit for their mother doing what she thought was the right thing.

mitzvahguy said...

I was product of a Jewish father and gentile mother(may her memory be a blessing). Although I went through formal conversion and Brit HaDam and immersion in the mikveh. Iam a Torah Jew but I also have questions. I understand that the Oral Law is particularly instructive when it comes to what qualifies as malachah on Shaabbat? What are the particulars that are not covered as concerns Shechita? Where I differ is There is nothing murky in the Written Law of Moses as pertains to Patrilineal Descent: Jewishness was passed down through the father only. In this case, I don't believe the Oral Law can fill in any blanks as regards the Torah. PS - The oft-quoted passage in Devarim 7:1-3, The clear emphasis was to keep the sons from marrying idolators, thus, "Turning them away from me..." To use this passage to de-legitimize Patrilineal Descent, so clearly established in the Written Torah, Is a long stretch at best. In finishing, I liken our cleaving to Matrilineal Descent as scientists who have clung dearly to long held beliefs, and when it is pointed out that it is no longer tenable, they dig in deeper. Let's not dig in deeper. Let's recognize their Jewish lineage. Remember, the Pentateuch's view is that the son of a Jewish father is Jewish, the son of a Jewish mother and gentile father a goy.

Larry Lennhoff said...

I'm curious whether all this reference to DNA testing means the Rabbi Miller would propose actually testing each child of a non-Jewish woman to ensure that they are in fact the genetic son of their mother's husband. If not, then why couldn't this solution have been put in force centuries ago? And if so, I think that there will be a great deal of resistance to the idea of actually performing the test, for a variety of good reasons.

J.R. Wilheim said...

Rabbi Miller, the problem with your analysis is that it assumes that the need for proof was the defining reason for the matrilineal principle in the first place. If that were the case, one would expect to find that in other areas where there were doubts about people's status, proof would be demanded. Yet this is not the case (see a recent CJLS teshuva on the point entitled "On Proving Jewish Identity"). In fact, in nearly every case where there are doubts about an individual's status, either no proof is demanded or the standards of proof are so lax as to be almost comical (for instance, in determining someone's fitness to serve as a kohen in the beit hamikdash, only the testimony of one other fellow kohen is needed).

What needs to be said, and isn't being said openly anywhere, is that the matrilineal rule came into being to punish women for having sexual relations across the "dividing line". As evidence of this, see Yevamot 7:5, which indicates that the child of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father is mamzer. This pretty much disproves the "rape" theory often given as a rationale for matrilineal descent (how would it be comforting to a rape victim to bear a mamzer?).

I propose a simpler solution to the "problem": children of intermarriage (whether of a Jewish father or of a Jewish mother) should simply ignore any set of rules you and your colleagues, in any denomination, come up with. I would recommend that any child of an intermarriage join any synagogue he/she wishes to join, in any denomination. For the purposes of marriage, there are two simple solutions:

‎1) Lying. Lying about issues of ishut for the purposes of marriage is a longstanding tradition in the Jewish community and was even at times what rabbis would RECOMMEND as a solution to the problem of the mamzer (just go off to another community where no one knows you and get married there). If you put children of intermarriages in a situation where we can only get justice by lying, they are justified in doing so.

2) Not having a rabbi officiate at your wedding. There is no objective requirement in halakha to have a rabbi officiate at your wedding. Unlike in Mormonism, where you need a temple recommend to have celestial marriage, and thus your local bishop can deny you marriage if he deems you a heretic or non-Mormon, Jewish tradition sees marriage as a contract between the parties. If your rabbi deems you non-Jewish and thus not marriageable, find a knowledgeable layperson to serve as mesader kiddushin. Any couple can go out and buy a ketubah, chuppah, etc., and have a Jewish ceremony with a rabbi's involvement. I think if the Jewish people simply got rabbis out of the marriage business, we could solve this problem ourselves easily. After all, "If the Children of Israel are not prophets, they are the children of prophets" (Pesachim 133a).

Stuart Kaplan said...

I was raised in, and am very involved in, Conservative Judaism but I disagree with those that write that Reform Judaism created a problem. What they did was to recognize a problem and attempted to deal with it. The reality is that many Jews, even those that went to Jewish day schools (such as Shechter) and summer camps (such as Ramah) do not identify with any denomination or if they do it may not be the one they were raised in. They go to sectarian colleges, work in non-Jewish environments,and live in mixed neighborhoods. They meet peple of different backgrounds, fall in love and have children. They and/or their children may be brought up in a jewish environment and beleive that they are Jewish. To impose a conversion on them is more than insulting. Put yourself in their shoes. Are we in such a strong position that we can turn them away. What is needed are creative ideas to resolve this situation. Rabbi Miller, Rabbi Orlitzky, J.R. Wilheim and my friend Eric Weis among others are attemting to do this.

Anonymous said...

As a "patrillineal" Jew (Jewish father, non-Jewish mother) I very whole-heartedly support the idea of conversion for all patrilineal children, and if mass conversion be the ends to that, so be it. Being converted as a child would have made my life/identity quest easier but it wouldn't change the fact that I wasn't raised fully Jewish. The fact that I wasn't converted also gives me an opportunity to learn more about Judaism as an adult.

My brother did have a Jewish wedding with his fully Jewish wife and a more liberal rabbi. It is easier for them to have a Jewish family because their children will have a Jewish mother no matter what, I understand your dilemmas because as patrilineal woman we have another hurdle to cross in that since our identity is always in question so will that of our children.

In that sense I support your conversion because I feel the same way, that I also want to have a conversion. I feel like it is one more symbol to bring us closer to the Jewish people, which is a decision that is constantly changing for me. I'm curious to know how many Jewish people raised in reform, or how many patrilineal Jews in general, convert with the conservative movement or with orthodoxy.

I hope that the conservative movement doesn't change their views, but does find a way to reach out to more patrilineal Jews. For example calling people to read to the torah by using their birth parents names if they are patrilineal. But still requiring conversion, for those disputed moments. And as some have stated, recognizing patrilineal Jews as having a cultural tie to Judaism.

I don't find it insulting at all to be asked to convert, but do find it insulting when people call me a "wannabe Jew" when I never even self-identified as Jewish, call me goy or my mom a shiksa, or other similarly degrading comments that are obviously meant to be insulting. This is why a higher percentage of those with a Jewish mother affiliate with Judaism. No one ever says anything like that to someone with a Jewish mother even if that person grows up Christian and celebrates all the Christian holidays. Even my own mother commented that I have the "wrong" Jewish parent and others have the "right" one, and it was sad to me that she felt that way of course because she is my mother, and she should not feel defective.

In short, if someone had ever personally asked me to convert to Judaism, I would be touched and honored. It's more of an in or out, it seems... either someone considers me fully Jewish, or they want to insult me by telling me how not Jewish I am (interestingly, I've often found it is children of converts who are most adament about this point.) Asking patrilineals to convert, and offering them some respect? Quite holy. I say that Judaism is mostly about family and community and if another community does not necessarily accept your Jewishness, so be it but you are doing your best to honor what you feel is right. Even the way this question is answered so tactfully is quite touching to me. I wish this new couple the best of luck. I'm glad I'm not alone in my dilemmas. If anything, I'm anticipating another major shift in the discussion as those children of intermarriages grow up to be rabbis, and I believe the first major wave of us is getting to that point.

Unknown said...

Who really gives a rats butt about whether a person is jewish, african or latin, etc. All these discussions do is perpetuate separation and reinforce what makes us different instead of what makes us all the same. It's time to get past racial, ethnic, and religious identities and start recognizing each other as humans with a common cause and common goals. Until that happens wars, famine, hatred and death will continue to perpetuate itself.

Anonymous said...

I feel the same man. My dad was a cohen my mom a conservative convert in the 70s. I tried to be a karaite but since a cohen cant marry a convert, no one wants to take a chance recognizing me as a jew via mom or dad or i could be considered a mamzer or chalilim. It is depressing that i cannot have any connection to my jewish heritage.