Patralineal Descent- What is right isn’t easy

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)?

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3 Responses to Patralineal Descent- What is right isn’t easy

  1. Marcia Beck says:

    Very interesting. I believe that much of our desperate grasp on ‘traditional’ definitions of Jewish identity is founded on fear. Fear of some sort of dilution of ‘pure’ Jewish identity.

    What is amazing to me is our reticence to recognize that there is no such thing as pure Judaism, pure lineage, pure parentage. We cling to illusions of insular Jewish communities. We put our energies into ‘who’s in’ and ‘who’s out’ rather than focusing on what we are doing as Jews – religiously, within our larger Jewish community, and as members of a the human community.

    And in response to your final question, my understanding of patrilineal vs. matrilineal descent when it comes to Kohanut relies on an essentialist argument: Men and women are innately very different and have different roles. Thus men are obligated to learn the priestly rites; women are not. On the other hand, women create the Jewish – or Christian, etc. – home through our ‘innate connection with G-d’ (one that does not require these time-bound rituals). The home is what defines whether or not children FEEL Jewish.

    I’m not saying that I agree, I’m just saying.

  2. Trish says:

    “Why is patrilineal descent good enough for passing on Kohanut or tribal status” — because tribal affiliation was always defined by the father and nationhood (Jewishness) by the mother. Secondly, “the motivation for patrilineal descent is egalitarianism, which in my view is a moral imperative” is nice rhetoric but it was really the Reform movement’s effort to keep intermarried families in the Jewish fold without the hassle of conversion. No one is buying this fake “egalitarianism” stuff—next, we’ll be serving shellfish and pork because we don’t want to be seen as being unwelcoming to the gentiles. Oops — forgot — Reform already did that. Nevermind. And you wonder why the rest of the Jewish world doesn’t really think Reform is any less extreme than ultra-Orthodoxy, just in the opposite direction?

  3. Danial Strickland says:

    Wholly by coincidence, Joe and I got married on the 15th anniversary of the Reform movement’s groundbreaking “patrilineal descent” vote, which accepted as Jewish the children born to a Jewish father and gentile mother.The March 1983 resolution by the Central Conference of American Rabbis had only an indirect impact on my lapsed Catholic husband and me; by virtue of having a Jewish mother (yours truly) our children would have been considered Tribe members even without the policy change.But by broadening the traditional “who is a Jew” definition, the controversial decision — something Conservative and Orthodox Jews argued at the time would irreparably divide the Jewish community — has had a sweeping impact on Reform Judaism and the lives of interfaith families.

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