Sunday, March 19, 2006

On "patrilineal descent"

This post is an expanded version of an email conversation with the Fleischer Rebbe, which he has posted as a comment.

The topic is the old "Who is a Jew?" question. The question doesn't affect me personally, because all of my known ancestors (later than Lavan ha-Arami, anyway) have been Jewish, so I'm Jewish according to all opinions, and because I hold no position of religious authority, so it's not my place to adjudicate anyone else's Jewish status. However, I can still comment, as an interested observer, on the discourse surrounding the question.

In 1983, the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis passed a resolution stating "that the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption of the Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people." This resolution is often confusingly referred to (including by the CCAR itself) as "patrilineal descent", creating the misleading impression that the Reform movement traces Jewish lineage only through the father, rather than only through the mother. In fact, as the resolution states clearly, the child of one Jewish parent is to be treated the same regardless of whether the Jewish parent is male or female. One of the justifications for this position is the Reform movement's commitment to egalitarianism.

I'm not going to argue the merits of this position. The CCAR already argues it convincingly if you accept their premises, or unconvincingly if you don't. So it goes.

I am instead going to respond to the frequent allegation that the CCAR's resolution has singlehandedly split the Jewish people, an allegation made by Orthodox leaders claiming a monopoly on authentic Judaism, or by Conservative leaders looking for a Sister Souljah moment (and thus declaring the recognition of equilineal descent to be one of their Unforgivable Curses). The allegation goes like this: the Reform movement recognizes as Jewish a set of people whom the Orthodox movements and the Conservative movement considers not to be Jewish, and therefore, down the line, all Reform Jews will be of questionable status and we won't be able to marry each other.

Let's examine the practical consequences of the policy.

(But first, two postulates. 1) Intermarriage is a fact of American Jewish life that will be unaffected by any rabbinic pronouncements. 2) To the extent that Jewish communities are anything worth being a part of, intermarried families will want to be a part of them.)

Suppose a Reform Jewish man (call him Moshe) marries a non-Jewish woman (call her Tzipporah). They have a child (call him Gershom). Gershom is raised with a fully Jewish identity. According to the Reform movement, Gershom is Jewish. According to the Orthodox world, Gershom is not Jewish.

Now suppose the CCAR had never passed its equilineal descent policy, but this family still wants to make sure that Gershom is recognized as Jewish within their community. They have two options: 1) Tzipporah can convert before Gershom is born, so that Gershom is born to a Jewish mother. 2) Gershom can convert. But the problem with both of these solutions is that the Orthodox world doesn't recognize non-Orthodox conversions. Therefore, if Tzipporah or Gershom converts.... According to the Reform movement, Gershom is Jewish. According to the Orthodox world, Gershom is not Jewish. Presto, nothing has changed!

Okay, you ask, then why doesn't Tzipporah or Gershom get a conversion that will be recognized by the Orthodox? Well, if it were only a matter of going to the mikvah (as many, though not all, Reform converts do anyway), and in Gershom's case, having berit milah lesheim geirut, then this would seem like a reasonable price to pay for kelal Yisrael. But a central part of the conversion process is kabbalat 'ol mitzvot, accepting the yoke of the commandments. This is understood in different ways by different movements, and in an Orthodox conversion, this requires accepting the Orthodox understanding of the mitzvot. Orthodox batei din require conversion candidates to take on an Orthodox lifestyle completely, including davening only at Orthodox synagogues and sending their children to Orthodox day schools. It is completely unreasonable to expect that the Reform movement will require its converts to take on an Orthodox lifestyle!

Therefore, let's look at the practical effects of the CCAR's policy: The Reform movement gets to put its money where its mouth is about egalitarianism, and many people are welcomed into Jewish communities who otherwise wouldn't be, and there is zero adverse effect on kelal Yisrael.

Suppose Gershom grows up and wants to marry an Orthodox or Conservative woman (or, perhaps after this December, a Conservative man). Then the answer is the same, regardless of whether Gershom's Reform community recognizes him as Jewish from birth or whether he converts under Reform auspices: Gershom can convert (or reconvert) through a beit din that his would-be spouse recognizes. If Gershom is unwilling to do this, and they can't arrive at an agreement on the matter, then they shouldn't be getting married. One can cross this bridge when one comes to it.


  1. I think the main complaint is now with Gershom himself. What if Gershom marries other Reform Jews, and the family does so for several generations, and *then* someone from that family wants to marry Orthodox. By that point, the information will be lost as to whether matrilineal descent has been preserved. We might end up in a situation where any Reform Jew would have to convert to marry non-Reform.

  2. Nu, what's the problem with that? Insofar as there is a problem, it is created by those who don't recognize Gershom as Jewish.

    And again, the situation is identical regardless of whether Gershom is recognized as Jewish by patrilineal descent or whether he converts under Reform auspices.

    1. It'll eventually create a situation where any couple of which and one partner is a Reform Jew and an observant-Conservative or Orthodox Jew will have problems if they wish to marry, rather than just some couples. Also, people don't tend to stick strictly with their denominations, so eventually Conservative Jews won't be considered Jewish by the Orthodox, then Modern Orthodox won't be, and then...

      Oh wow, eventually everyone will use equilinial descent. And... there won't be a problem anymore. Hmm.

    2. Again, how is that any different from the situation in which the Reform movement didn't recognize patrilineal descent and required conversion, and eventually all Reform Jews are presumed to be descended from Reform converts (and therefore not recognized by other denominations as Jewish)?

    3. It isn't. There's a problem either way.

      (Also, I realized my solution above, whereby no one is certain of their status as a matrilinial Jew doesn't actually work because whenever anyone decided to become observant, they'd also need to convert.)

    4. It isn't. There's a problem either way.

      Right. That was my main point - as long as the movements don't all recognize one another's converstions, recognition or non-recognition of patrilineal descent fundamentally changes nothing.

  3. Now, most people probably know if they're Jewish by Orthodox standards or not, because the odds of an unknown intermarriage or an unknown non-Orthodox conversion several generations back are not that strong.

    50 or 100 years from now, the information might start to get lost, because there will be so many more intermarriages and so many more non-Orthodox conversions (and probably also so many more mamzers or potential mamzers that weren't properly vetted) than there are now. Many of these people may have been born as Jews and living as Jews and even living as recognized-by-Orthodoxy-as-good-and-Halachic Jews for years. But they might be discriminated against in some matrilineal communities because of Reform ancestry (where "Reform", to the discriminators, means "uncertainty of matrilineal descent or uncertainty of conversion integrity").

    Though I might be the only one actually concerned with such distant, widespread, hypothetical discrimination.

  4. Ok, so suppose in 50 years, all non-Orthodox (not just Reform; the Orthodox rabbinate doesn't recognize C conversions either) Jews have to convert before they marry Orthodox Jews. I still don't see how that's so different from now, when many people go to the mikvah before getting married anyway, and people make sure their Jewish practices are compatible (if not necessarily identical) before getting married, and many Orthodox-from-birth Jews are still unwilling to marry people from non-Orthodox backgrounds.

    Maybe the difference would be that Chabad would stop proselytizing to Reform Jews (since they'd no longer see them as Jewish).

    I agree that the mamzer issue is a bigger problem, but an unrelated one.

  5. The problem is now there is a nonstandard definition of Jewry.

    It's similar to money, if we both agree that this is worth a dollar we have an economy, if we don't... then I can't buy anything from you, nor you from me.

    Likewise with those who are strict about dietary laws. If I can't trust you to follow the laws to the same degree that I do, then I can't eat at your house. or vice versa.

    because we disagree about the definition of kosher.

    Since Jewish community and the Jewish nation as a whole is based on the fundemental assumption of certain universally held standards, including G-d, Torah and who is a Jew, turning any one of these points into an arguement undermines the nation as a whole.

    In this particular case, there is no longer a universal standard for the definition of Jew and therefore the Jewish people. I hope that most would find this a troubling thought.

  6. A more apt money analogy is that I'm using dollars and you're using euros, but money can still be converted from one currency to another.

    Revisionist history aside, the particulars of the understanding of God and Torah are not now and have never been "universally held standards". You can characterize everyone throughout history who has disagreed with you as being outside normative Judaism, but that begs the question.

    Right now, a "universal definition of Jew" is impossible because the Orthodox rabbinate does not recognize non-Orthodox conversions. I'm not saying that they should or shouldn't do so based on their own internal principles, but I'm saying that they are thus opting out of the possibility of participating in such a "universal definition".

    If the CCAR were to repeal its policy on equilineal descent, what remedy would you propose from the Reform end that would result in a "universal definition"? It seems that the options are 1) the Reform movement puts a moratorium on conversion, and 2) the Reform movement requires that converts go to an Orthodox beit din, which will require that they accept an Orthodox lifestyle. I can see how many Orthodox Jews would consider these options to be acceptable, but I hope that you, in turn, can see why the Reform movement cannot accept either of them while maintaining any integrity.

  7. BZ: Well said and articulated as usual. Thank you for voicing this issue in this way. It is an interesting discussion. I think you are correct in that Reform Jews who choose to marry Orthodox or UO Jews often choose to go through a psedo-converstion process whatever their parentage. Hatafat dam brit is quite common in the process of becoming O or UO, even if there was a bris, for example, "just to be sure". That is obviously up to the community that the individual joins, as well as the acquiescense of the individual. So whatever decision the Reform movement makes is almost moot. I do not see things, however as anonymous does - I believe Judaism has room for a spectrum of beliefs on these issues. I do think there are lines that cannot be crossed; my lines are a bit different than anonymous's. But again, thank you for articulating clearly a complex issue!

  8. another anonymousMarch 21, 2006 10:18 AM

    As a patrilineal Reform Jew, I've been very interested in this thread and I applaud the open-mindedness of the comments. I'm a Jew. It's in my heart. I feel like I am just as much a Jew as anyone else. Would I go through a conversion? Not at this time. It would be like I was admitting I was not a Jew. It would be denying my roots, my identity, my entire life. People bring up what to do if a Reform and Orthodox fall in love and want to get married. I will cross that bridge if I ever come to it. In my community, there really isn’t any mingling between the Reform and Orthodox, so chances of that happening are slim.

    I respect the differences in beliefs and practices between the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform communities, but why should I worry about what the Orthodox think? There is no movement that is “in charge.” Not the Reform, not the Conservative and not the Orthodox. I believe that if Gershom believes he is a Jew than that is good enough. I know, however, that other Jewish movements may not agree. That’s ok.

    1. Actually, even within traditional Judaism, there are different definitions of "Jewishness." There is an idea that every Jew has a Jewish soul, and that converts (even the regular kind, who don't have any Jewish parents and aren't raised Jewish) are born with Jewish souls, but non-Jewish bodies. The Jewishness of the soul is a spiritual status; the Jewishness of the body is a legal one. God ensures the former, but humans (according to traditional Judaism) have to ensure the latter by way of a conversion ceremony.

      In the case of someone in your position, not only do you have a Jewish soul, you also have, as you said, a Jewish identity, roots, and life. I, personally, would never deny that, and I hope no one else would, either. However, you don't have official legal status as a Jew in the system of Jewish law. However, I don't think that Reform Judaism claimed that patrilinial Jews have offical legal status in that system, since they don't believe the system is binding in the first place.

      I've heard of conversions of patrilinial Jews referred to as affirmations rather than conversions, to make it clear that the person was always Jewish in heart and soul.

      I hope I didn't offend you! If I did, I'm really sorry.

  9. it seems that it is common for people who view themselves as jewish but who perhaps aren't jewish from a halachic standpoint to need to undergo a halachic process we call a conversion.
    this can be because people have joined the jewish community de facto but not du jure or because of questions as to their halachic status as in the case of disagreements over patreliniality.

    for the reasons people already discussed it is not likely that the reform movement or orthodox movements will change their positions, so perhaps the most useful thing would be for us to think creatively about how to change the language governing the halachic maneuver that makes people who view themselves as jewish but aren't halachically, actually halachically jewish. for one, we don't have to call it a conversion.

  10. i don't know the CCAR position well enough to make this claim, but in the reconstructionist determination of who is a jew, if you have a jewish parent you also need to have been raised jewish which tends to be marked by communal rituals (namings, bar/t mitzvahs, etc).
    If Josh has a jewish mother, a non-jewish father, and was raised catholic with no jewish identity then by recon standards Josh is not jewish, but by orthodox standards he is. It is easy to fall into the pattern of viewing the liberal standards as less stringent. The recon standards, at least, are differently stringent. its like a venn diagram, there is overlap about most jews but recon and orthodox standards both accept as jewish people that the other suggests are not jewish.

    also, great choice of "hypothetical" names bz.

  11. Yeah, the Reform position is the same as the Reconstructionist one. (Clarification for those tuned in at home: naming, bar/bat mitzvah, etc., are suggestions for possible pieces of evidence of Jewish identity, the way that a cable bill is one piece of evidence of residence. No one holds that a bar/bat mitzvah ceremony is m'akeiv, just as no one holds that a cable bill is m'akeiv.) In fact, the Recon movement got there first, so those who claim that the Reform movement acted unilaterally are incorrect. I've heard rumors that the Reform movement passed this policy predicting that the Conservative movement would follow next, just as they've done for other egalitarian policies in the Reform movement (perhaps with a 20-year delay and/or some kicking and screaming to prove how nuanced they are). It looks like that backfired.

    So yes, the set of people who are Jewish by Reform/Recon standards is neither a subset nor a superset of the set of people who are Jewish by Orthodox standards. And it's amusing to watch people who advocate for the Orthodox position lose their shit when they realize this. For example, this post says "What this means in practice is that individuals born to Jewish mothers, i.e. people who have been regarded as Jews by thousands of years of Jewish tradition and by the entirety of observant Jewry today, are treated as non-Jews by Reform if they lack that movement’s self-dictated indicia of Jewishness." Now they understand how the other side feels; they just don't realize it.

  12. Just to propose another nafka mina that isn't marriage-related:

    Say Gershom or one of his descendents would like to fulfill a mitzvah, for example, kiddush, for Orthodox friends who believe that they are only yotzei if the kiddush-maker is halachically Jewish and therfore obligated like themselves.

    What would be the polite way to deal with this while respecting everyone's identities?
    "Gershom, you make a nice kiddush, but I don't think you are Jewish, so I'm going to make my own."
    "By the way, I have Reform ancestors, so you might not consider me halachically Jewish. Do you want to make your own kiddush?"
    Could that work?

    As bz said, this is not a new issue caused by patrilineal descent- rather by different definitions of "who is a Jew."

  13. One solution is "Don't ask don't tell", but I can see how that might not be satisfactory for everyone. :)

    But yes, these situations (stemming from the unavoidable fact that there are different definitions of "who is a Jew") can lead to very awkward interactions. Another solution is that, if Desh's scenario comes to pass, some communities could make it standard (in formal and informal settings) for everyone to make kiddush for him/herself, or for everyone to make kiddush together. (Tikvat Yisrael did this, to avoid grappling with the gender issues.) If it seems stilted to make everyone change, consider the origins of our current practice of having one person called up for the Torah blessings and another one read, or having the sha"tz prompt the kohanim one word at a time in birkat kohanim.

    A question: to what extent is anyone concerned about being made yotzei by someone they consider a kofer or an apikoros? To the extent that it's a real issue, it would create these situations with all liberal Jews, regardless of lineage.

  14. In my experience, the category of kofer or apikoros has been limited so severely that it is safe to assume that no one you know is an apikoros. First of all, you rule out anyone who can be considered tinok shenishba - since they didn't have a "proper" Jewish education (defined as an education that leads to mitzvah observance), they aren't responsible for their lack of observance. (Circular, I know, that's what's so great about it.) Additionally, there is this idea (source?) that a person must be a real talmid chacham to be an apikoros - that you have to have a deep and thorough understanding of what you are rejecting. This leads to the expression (sorry, don't know the origin of this either) "If only I knew so much Torah that I could be an apikoros!" Therefore even in the case of a very knowledgeable Jew, you can still assume that he hasn't reached the threshold of *really* knowing inside and out what he is rejecting. So I am not concerned that the person making kiddush for me is an apikoros.

  15. fyi, the link to the orginal conversation was moved by google to here.

  16. I once knew someone whose mother was Jewish but converted to Christianity and raised her Christian. My friend ended up believing in Judaism, finding out about her mother's background and then decided to convert and join a Reform community. Then she found out that according to traditional halakhic definitions, she was already Jewish. But i don't remember if she actually had a conversion before finding that out or not :-P

  17. okay back to these hypothetical characters :-) say gershom's mother tzipporah converts to judaism before he is born, but the conversion is not orthodox-it is reform and his bris is conservative (where was the beit din when the biblical tzipporah made the blood covenant with gershom, was that kosher?). the modern gershom identifies strongly with the jewish people and the jewish religion as both his parents do. anyway- his love of Torah brings him to learn with the orthodox, they ask a few questions about his family history and boom- they refuse to teach him talmud in havrusa, he can't wrap tefilin, nor be counted in a minyan, they make him break the shabbos- turn the stove off, open this can, do that (avoiding asking directly of course)- the rabbi has turned our commited jewish brother gershom, who strives to uphold the mitzvot to the best of his ability, into the shabbos goy- but at least he is not a mamzer! he becomes obsessed with the question of who is a jew and he is reading this blog right now. he does not have the luxury of baal teshuva at his own pace. instead he encounters a judaism that is all or nothing. the orthodox rabbis tell him that he is only obligated to uphold the laws of noah (and actually is not permitted to do other mitzvos)- the only problem is that he knows deep within he was at sinai and he knows what G-d did for him when he came out of mitzraim. his nefesh yehudi tells him to respect his parents and their judaism, but he wrestles with the details of halacha- would another conversion in the family solve the problem- what does that say to his parents and siblings who all identify with the Jewish people? tzedek tzedek tirdof? klal yisrael? a hasid and a litvak walk into a bar... no no wait.