When a Dad is Jewish and the Mother is not, are the children Jewish? It depends on who you ask.
On March 15, 1983, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the Reform movement’s body of rabbis, declared a declaration prepared by a committee on patrilineal descent called “The Status of Children of Mixed Marriages.”
The CCAR decision declared that “we face, today, a unique position due to the changed circumstances in which resolutions concerning the status of the offspring of a mixed marriage are to be made.”
Contrary to almost 2,000 years of tradition, the decision accepted the Jewish status of children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers under specific conditions.
There was a great deal of debate about this decision, both before and after its approval. Some saw it as a progressive and unfair departure from tradition, wherein one must have a Jewish mother or undergo a conversion to be recognised as Jewish.
Others praised it as a fruitful and comprehensive approach to the rising predominance of interfaith families, and even though the Hebrew Bible determines Jewish status in patrilineal terms, defined by the status of the father, the Mishnah says that the children of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father are identified as a Jew, while the children of a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father is deemed a non-Jew.
This Talmudic attitude became normative in Jewish doctrine.
But the 1983 decision was not the first effort to review patrilineality. Previously in the 19th century, various Reform rabbis unobtrusively integrated the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers into their religious establishments and validated them into the Jewish religion along with their peer group in lieu of conversion.
In 1947, the CCAR approved a resolution that said that if a Jewish father and a gentile mother wanted to raise their children as Jewish, the declaration of the parents to raise them as Jews shall be deemed sufficient for conversion.
This proposal had a somewhat different connotation than the 1983 decision in that the parents were converting their children, but the social influence was essentially indistinguishable.
The emphasis on conversion was abandoned completely in the 1961 CCAR Rabbi’s Manual. “Reform Judaism accepts a child… as Jewish without a formal conversion if he attends a Jewish school and follows a course of study leading to confirmation.” However, the manual simply offered guidance to rabbis and did not carry the weight of full-fledged resolution.
By 1983, the CCAR was willing to spell out the patrilineal lineage decision in more comprehensive detail. By this time there was a broad-based responsibility to egalitarianism.
To many, it seemed unnecessarily biased to accept the child of a Jewish mother and a gentile father as Jewish while rejecting the child of a Jewish father and a gentile mother. It seemed unfair that children who had no Jewish education were being given automatic recognition if they had a Jewish mother while children who received intense Jewish upbringings but had only a Jewish father were not. Even more importantly, the rising intermarriage rate made it imperative that the net of Jewish identity be cast as widely as possible.
Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), determined that the Reform movement needed to act, and he urged his fellow Reform rabbis to reach a decision accepting patrilineal children as Jewish, and he thought this would preserve Jewish continuity in the light of escalating intermarriage relationships.
Schindler claimed that most Jews wanted their children and grandchildren to be Jewish, but that if they were told that of this requisite conversion, large numbers would give up and raise their children as non-Jewish.
Schindler began a method that ultimately led to the CCAR voting in favour of what became known as the Patrilineal Descent Resolution. The resolution stated 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.”
What this meant was that if a child was born of either a Jewish father or a Jewish mother, and was raised as Jewish, that child would be considered by the Reform movement as Jewish. They were, nevertheless, required to engage in the many Jewish life-cycle customs which normally mark the life stages of a Jewish person.
Interestingly, this produced the probability that someone who had a Jewish mother, but had not been raised Jewish and had not had any public religious acts of identification such as a Jewish baby-naming ceremony, a bar or bat mitzvah, or a Jewish confirmation service could theoretically be considered as a non-Jew despite his or her genealogy. Still, numerous rabbis identify lineage alone.
Although the overall view of the decision was broadly received within the Reform movement, there was significant discontent with the expression of the decision and uncertainty over its implications, and in 1996, the CCAR devised an 11-member task force to translate and promote guidelines for the successful implementation of the patrilineal descent policy.
The task force recommended that the decision be applied to as “equilateral descent” or simply “Jewish descent” rather than patrilineal descent since the decision allowed lineage from either the mother or the father.
The patrilineal descent decision gave a viable resolution for couples who felt content with their individual religious diversity but wanted to raise their children with a single religious belief.
Moreover, Jewish status was now something one chooses rather than something that simply “was”, and children with one Jewish parent were being invited to freely undergo notable religious acts of identification as a way of determining their dedication to Judaism and to the Jewish people.
While Jewish children had always been asked to prepare for their bar and bat mitzvahs, their Jewishness was never contingent upon successful achievement of that ceremony or any other, and the Patrilineal Descent Resolution shifted the emphasis from birth to conscious choice.
Tens of thousands of people have been raised as Jews because of the legitimacy awarded them as a result of this decision. Nevertheless, patrilineal Jews are likely to face difficulties later in life if they choose to become more traditional in their observance.
A problem further arises if Reform Jews who are Jewish by patrilineal descent choose to engage in ritual or celebrations at more observant synagogues. Can they be called up for an aliyah? Can they help to form a minyan (the quorum of 10 Jews required for many prayers)? In most instances, the answer would be no.
Conservative and Orthodox Jews do not accept patrilineal descent as a legitimate means of passing on Judaism. “Who is a Jew?” has been a debatable issue for many decades, and the Patrilineal Descent Resolution deepened the division between the conflicting perspectives.
There previously existed a division between American and Israeli Jews as only particular Orthodox conversions were acknowledged in Israel by the (Orthodox) Chief Rabbinate, and the eventual sociological implications of patrilineal descent are still unknown.
And as the first generation of Jews recognized under this resolution starts to have children, Jewish identification and status will only become more complex, with the continued acceptance of intermarriage and the many new approaches being experimented with to make Judaism more welcoming added to the matter.
Nevertheless, as with any extreme variation in Jewish law, it’s obvious that the discussion of patrilineal descent is far from over.
So, according to traditional Jewish law, if someone is born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism, then that child is Jewish, but a child born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother is not Jewish even if raised with a Jewish identity.
Today, however, more than one-third of Jews inter-marry, and more often than not, it’s Jewish men who marry non-Jewish women and as a result, there are an estimated 220,000 children in the United States born to non-Jewish women who are married to Jewish men.
But in March 1983, the Reform movement broke with the Orthodox and Conservative Jewish sects, and with Jewish law, and stated that a child born of one Jewish parent, whether it’s the mother or the father, is under the presumption of being Jewish.
This patrilineal lineage resolution went onto state that a person’s Jewishness was not automatic and that it must be activated by proper and appropriate Jewish performances, and that it wasn’t enough to just be born to a Jewish parent.
The Reform movement further noted that in the Bible the descent always followed the father, including the cases of Joseph and Moses, who married into non-Israelite priestly families.
There are countless Jews out there that are born Jewish by birthright because both parents are Jewish or their mother is Jewish, but sometimes that doesn’t make them anymore Jewish than a person that was born of a Jewish father, and a non-Jewish mother, and there are many Jews out there that were born of Jewish descent, yet haven’t been to a Synagogue a day in their life, and will willingly sit down to eat a Bacon sandwich!
Not only that, life today makes it very difficult for Jewish people to be Jewish, and our Jewishness has declined simply because in this day and age many people marry out of their faith. Not that it’s a bad thing, it just means that because a child is born of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother that said child is not allowed to be Jewish, which means that we as Jews are becoming a dying race, and it would make more sense to change the Jewish laws, after all, the bible does say that descent was to be followed by the father, so why not either mother or father?
The problem is many Jews want to conceal their faith now because of oppression, and some Jews exist in areas where there are extremely few Jewish people and no Synagogue, and too far away to attend. I live in a town where there was once 900 Jewish families, now there are only 9 Jewish families and no Synagogue, and certainly, no Jewish food places to keep Kosher.
So, it’s certainly not easy to be Jewish even if you wanted to be!