In traditional Judaism the status of being a Jew was conferred in two ways: through being born to a Jewish mother (matrilineal descent) and through conversion. Thirty years ago, the Reform Movement, motivated by egalitarianism and a review of sources on the issue, began accepting patrilineal descent, that is people born to non-Jewish mothers and Jewish fathers, as Jews from birth without needing conversion. (The Reconstructionist movement had been doing this since 1979). This led to much inter-denominational strife as there were now people who were considered Jewish by some movements but not others.
The general reaction to recent publicity around a rabbi (who happens to be of Asian descent) in the Reform movement who was born to a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father has been predictable from more traditional quarters. (It’s official you can be a non-Jewish rabbi, The Jewish Press). But I expected the Conservative movement to more supportive. Rabbi Elana Suskind wrote a heartfelt warning piece triggered by this news on her difficulties with dealing with Jews of patrilineal descent in the context of Conservative rites and how she wishes she could save people the hassle and emotional pain caused by the clash of movements. But essentially her article boils down to “Patrilineal descent causes problems because others don’t accept it, so don’t do it.” I think this is missing the point and here is why.
First, Rabbi Suskin talks about the difficulties people could go through when needing to have their status as Jews accepted by other movements (marriage, burial, adoption, aliyah) as a reason for making sure they consider conversion even if they are Jewish in the eyes of themselves and the Reform movement, as outside of America patrilineal descent is not accepted by anyone. I would point that the number of non-Reform rabbis especially those outside of America who will accept a conversion or marriage by a Conservative rabbi, especially a female one, is not that large compared to the number who won’t. If you want to be totally safe, you really need an Orthodox conversion. (Otherwise those of patrilineal descent are going through a lot of trouble and indignity to please American Conservative rabbis. Reform rabbis already recognize their Jewish status and a Conservative conversion won’t help them with Orthodox rabbis).
Second, the motivation for patrilineal descent is egalitarianism, which in my view is a moral imperative. Does it cause inconvenience and create inter-denominational difficulties? Absolutely. But if something is the right thing to do, then we do it anyway, even if it is hard or inconvenient. (to echo Solzhenitsyn– and Dumbledore).
If you really wanted to have both acceptance by the Conservative movement (the Orthodox will not accept Reform or Conservative conversions for the most part anyway) and egalitarianism, why not steal a page from partnership minyanim and insist on bi-parental descent, a conversion for all children of one non-Jewish and one Jewish parent. (Of course that raises issues like outreach problems and also it is a bit disingenuous as it is still basically accepting the status quo but it is more equal than going back to matrilineal only).
Finally, a question (for which I have yet to find a satisfactory answer ): Why is patrilineal descent good enough for passing on Kohanut or tribal status (are you a Levi)?