Revisiting Patrilineal Descent and Conversion

As new ideas about who is a Jew take hold on both the left and right, it creates real challenges for maintaining community bonds.

by Rabbi Edward Feld

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When my daughter was three, we visited my in-laws in Florida over winter break. Jumping into the pool to play with other children, she innocently asked, “Are you a Chanukkah or a Christmas?” It was clear that she didn’t care which would be the response only that the answer would give her some understanding of who they were – did they celebrate like her friends Elissa and Peter, or like herself and her friends Danny and Maggie? Identities are important not only for those immediately affected but equally for those who seek to relate to them.

My father, who in his later years was a gabbai of his shul on the Lower East Side, frequently would stop passers-by to help make a minyan. “Are you Jewish?” If the response was, “I’m not observant,” “I’m not a shul-goer” or “I’m not a believer,” he inevitably would say, “Doesn’t matter. Come, help make a minyan.” There was a presumption of Jewishness – one’s belief and practices did not matter, what made one Jewish was that one was born Jewish or had been converted. This presumption pervaded much more than religious life – Jews were proud of other Jews who were successful in the world or ashamed of what other Jews had done. Who was Jewish and who was not was clear, and this enabled presumptions of kinship. One did not have to ask if someone considered himself Jewish or how the person was attached to his or her Judaism. The simple answer of “yes” made one eligible for the minyan.

There was much to be gained by this clarity. Once a Jew, always a Jew. Jewishness was not a choice but a destiny. We were not a religion, but a people who were born into an inherited faith. Christians believed one had to be baptized to be Christian, while Jews believed that individuals had no choice, that being born into a Jewish family sufficed. Judaism was not a matter of individual acceptance but of communal covenant.

But now, both the introduction of patrilineal descent as a measure of Jewishness recognized by the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, and the questioning of the legitimacy of conversions by the Orthodox, have introduced uncertainty as to who is Jewish. The Reform recognition of patrilineal descent is conditional: if the child of a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father is raised as a Jew then the child is considered Jewish; if not, the child is not Jewish. Presumably, a teenager who descends from these parents, raised in an entirely secular home where religion and ethnicity were disregarded but who now wants to be considered Jewish, would be obligated to convert to Judaism. Some Reform rabbis would insist on this. As a Hillel director, I met many young people who described themselves as half-Jewish. Even they could not readily define their identity. There is no longer a presumption of Jewishness when a parent is Jewish. Judaism is now viewed as subjective: Do the parents consider their child Jewish? Does the person consider himself or herself Jewish?

Thus the question of patrilineal descent is not only one of recognizing a sociological change in our time – Jews and non-Jews are marrying each other at an increasing rate — but is a profound theological transformation of our understanding of what it means to be a Jew. For many people, it is no longer the community that defines who is Jewish. Rather, individual families decide whether their children are Jewish. In many liberal circles, there are no objective criteria for the designation other than what individuals wish to call themselves or their children. Jewishness becomes a matter of individual choice rather than a status acquired at birth or taken on through study and conversion.

While individualism may be a gift of modernity, it is also a problem. What is lost is the bond of community, the sense of obligation that the individual feels for that which is beyond him or herself and the sense of responsibility the community has for its members. That sense of obligation ranges from the feeling that I have to go to shul this morning to help make a minyan to the care of the sick and the needy that members feel they owe to their fellows; from the understanding that the fate of Jews everywhere is our responsibility to the dedication people exhibit in a chevrah kaddisha, sacredly preparing a body for burial. It is true that the decline in community responsibility is part of the larger picture of our times. But the choice of patrilineal descent has introduced a community imprimatur to the idea that “we are all Jews by choice.”

In the traditional recognition of matrilineal descent, a person is considered Jewish whatever their personal belief or bent; the community has definite boundaries, and identity is clear. Retaining the simple standard that anyone born of a Jewish mother is Jewish affords the clarity that Jews living in a free society need to maintain a common sense of community.

In a different way, clarity regarding Jewish identity has been lost in regard to converts. Some rabbis question converts as to how their conversion was conducted, who officiated, what was asked before the conversion took place. As a result a convert walking into a synagogue or Jewish institution does not know if he or she will be accepted. I know of individuals who considered themselves fully participating Jews who were not allowed to take an aliyah or lead the congregation in prayer till the rabbi determined the details of their conversion.

I believe that once a beit din, a Jewish court, has ruled that someone is Jewish, no one in the community should question the conversion. Similarly, in regard to divorce, medieval authorities insisted that the get, the divorce document, be put aside and that no one be allowed to see it – lest someone declare that it was invalid and the status of the divorced woman be brought into question. The status of the woman had to be clear to all: she was free to remarry. In the same vein, no one should question what procedure was followed in the conversion of a Jew. What one court has established another should not undo. Jewish law often prescribes a specific procedure but recognizes that matters are considered kosher even though the right procedure was not followed. A period of study, immersion in the mikveh – circumcision in the case of a male — and acceptance of Judaism before a beit din are necessary. But once a person is converted, we should make the assumption that this person is fully Jewish and not question what procedures were followed.

Converts sometimes have a difficult time being accepted by all Jews, and we should not make this process fraught with uncertainty as to whether another community will accept their conversion. Were we automatically to accept the conversions of each other’s communities, everyone would understand that this person is fully Jewish. Were we to behave that way in regard to conversion, the lines of Jewishness would be clearly drawn. Though requiring different solutions, the two issues of conversion and patrilineal descent are similar in that they need to be resolved by insuring that both the affected individuals and their communities have a clear sense of who is a Jew and who is not.