Patrilineal descent accepted only in Reform–and only in American Reform

There’s an article at JTA by Sue Fiskoff from a few days ago about the debate over patrilineal descent that took place at the World Union for Progressive Judaism conference in San Francisco last week.

I’ll summarize the reasons international Reform Jews cite for rejecting patrilineal descent, then I’ll assess each of these arguments for signs of silliness.

1. It would put them at odds with the wider Jewish community and would endanger Reform shuls financially.

This is actually the most persuasive reason given. In many Western countries (I include in this category South Africa, European countries, Latin America and Australia and New Zealand), there is a central Jewish body that dispenses money to smaller Jewish bodies. These groups are sometimes dominated by the Orthodox. That this reason exists is unfortunate, but if it’s believed that patrilineal descent would be the last straw, it makes sense.

2. It might be a problem if a patrilineal Reform Jew wants to marry a Jew from another stream.

This is a troubling assault by Reform authority on the autonomy of Reform individuals.

In the US, if a Reform Jew of patrilineal descent wishes to marry a Jew of another stream, and to please that person–or their parents–the Reform Jew of patrilneal descent agrees to a conversion, the CCAR and the URJ have no interests in the issue. It is the problem and decision of the Reform Jew of patrilineal descent who may undergo conversion, not the problem or the decision of the organized Reform community.

Given that none of the international Reform Jews in the article give internal reasons for not recognizing patrilineal Jews, let’s assume that they have none. Rather, all of their reasons, like this marriage reason, are based on external reasons–essentially, “If we allow this, what will the other Jews think?”

So–based, admittedly, on a whole lot of assumptions–let’s assume that they actually desire patrilineal descent and that they would allow it if the external impediments were removed. In that case, the marriage thing is a red herring! It is only a problem for individuals, as we determined when discussing how this occurs in the US. If the marriage reason isn’t a communal one, but a potential individual problem, then Reform communities have no business making decisions based on this reason.

And if all of this is true, this reason would not stand on its own. And if it can’t stand on its own, then it’s not reason at all.

3. It might be a problem if a patrilineal Reform Jew wants to make Aliyah.

This one fails for the same reasons as the marriage reason.

But it actually goes farther than that. In Israeli laws that are determined by the Chareidi-dominated state rabbinate, what makes these people think that a patrilineal Jew who undergoes a Reform conversion in, say South Africa, will be any more acceptable than a patrilineal Jews who has not undergone a Reform conversion?

4. If a community allows patrilineal Jews, it might jeopardize the ability of other members of the community to make Aliyah.

If someone has a Jewish mother, they are kosher in the eyes of Israeli rabbinate. So the Jewish identity of members of the Reform community with Jewish mothers is not in question, despite their involvement in the Reform community. However, in the eyes of the Israeli rabbinate, if a child of a patrilineal Jew–or anyone else for that matter–converts under the auspices of a Reform rabbi, they will not be considered a Jew.

So, this reason, too, is poppycock. Refusing to recognize patrilneal Jews as Jews has no effect on anyone’s ability to make Aliyah, including the patrilineal Jews themselves as well as other Reform Jews. The proof of this is in the successful Aliyah of many American Reform Jews.

5. In El Salvador, the Reform community was accepting patrilineal Jews, but has stopped doing so. According to the article, they were accepting patrilineal Jews “during the country’s civil war, when the congregation was lay-led and desperate for members. When the conflict ended, so did the practice.”

I am 100 percent bewildered by this one. Why would a civil war have any effect on any of this? Given the mention of the fact that community was lay-led, I imagine that it may have something to do with the arrival of a rabbi who was not amenable to the recognition of patrilineal Jews–like the next reason given. But it’s quite unclear what’s going on here.

6. According to the article: “The Reform congregations in Costa Rica and Panama stopping embracing patrilineal Jews when they hired Conservative pulpit rabbis.” Apparently, it was more important to them to have Conservative rabbis who spoke Spanish than to hire Reform rabbis from the U.S.

This is an interesting one, and totally understandable. I can see that having a rabbi who comes from a similar cultural idiom might be an important thing. However, it is odd to hear about Reform communities that are OK with absolute rabbinic authority of this kind.

The article also mentions that Canadian Reform rabbis, who are members of CCAR, the same rabbinic body as their US counterparts, rejected the CCAR’s adoption of patrilineal descent in 1983, though it does not say why they rejected it. It also notes that the resolution is not binding on any Reform rabbis, anywhere. All of them have autonomy, despite the resolution.

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24 Responses to Patrilineal descent accepted only in Reform–and only in American Reform

  1. BZ February 14, 2011 at 11:20 pm #

    In Israeli laws that are determined by the Chareidi-dominated state rabbinate, what makes these people think that a patrilineal Jew who undergoes a Reform conversion in, say South Africa, will be any more acceptable than a patrilineal Jews who has not undergone a Reform conversion?

    This is the key. If Reform conversions aren’t accepted anyway, what difference does it make?

  2. Yakov Wolf February 15, 2011 at 12:08 am #

    I’m curious about this central Jewish body that distributes funds to smaller bodies. Any information on this?

    I’m curious if the reason US Reform Jews don’t have to deal with this organization is because the amount of funding for Jewish causes (JNF, for example) that come from us. We saw with the row that the Conversion Bill caused that there’s only so much imposition on us that American Jewry is willing to tolerate, whereas with other issues (Haredi monopoly on Marriage recognition which only affects US Jews planning on aliyah, for instance) don’t seem to cause as much commotion.

    • David A.M. Wilensky February 15, 2011 at 10:53 am #

      Germany, for instance, collects a religious tax from its citizens and then distributes the tax to the religious group the citizens indicate. A Lutheran’s tax goes to the Lutheran church, which a Jew’s tax goes to….

      And there’s the problem–they have a central body of Jews that distributes those funds and the Reformim recently started getting some of that money. They worry that allowing patrilineal Jews would jeopardize that arrangement.

  3. Randi February 15, 2011 at 12:23 am #

    If someone has a Jewish mother, they are kosher in the eyes of Israeli rabbinate. So the Jewish identity of members of the Reform community with Jewish mothers is not in question, despite their involvement in the Reform community.

    Not according to this article:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/02/magazine/02jewishness-t.html?scp=18&sq=israel%20american%20jewish%20identity%202009&st=cse

    And I completely concur with you and BZ–all of it is moot because conversions are questioned or just not recognized. The story of Jessica Fishman, published in Yediot Achranot last April, haunts me nearly a year later.

    It’s a bit pathetic that no one made anything resembling a halachic argument against patrilineality.

  4. Kerry February 15, 2011 at 5:53 am #

    I understand the concern that the Jewish status of Reform Jews will be seen as halachically questionable, or in doubt, by other branches of Judaism. Whether we should care about this is another question, but I don’t think it’s only “a potential individual problem” and that it has “no effect on anyone’s ability to make Aliyah”.

    Even if we know in this generation who is patrilineal and who is matrilineal or has converted halachically, after a few generations, no one will remember (or, within the Reform community, care) who is patrilineal and who is not. Anyone who says “I am a Reform Jew” could be matrilineal – heck, they could be a Kohen whose family decided to go Reform – but because no one would know who was matrilineal and who was patrilineal, the halachic status of every Reform Jew would be uncertain to outsiders.

    Again, whether that’s something the movement should care about is debatable, but I see where it’s coming from and why it would have a negative effect on the Reform community in that way.

    • BZ February 15, 2011 at 9:46 am #

      Kerry-
      But to the extent that this is an issue, it makes absolutely no difference whether the Reform movement says to “patrilineal” Jews, “Ok, you’re Jewish, you don’t have to convert”, or says “Ok, you’re not Jewish, you have to convert” (and then they convert with a Reform beit din). Anyone who says “I am a Reform Jew” could be a matrilineal descendant of someone who converted with a Reform beit din.

      • Kerry February 16, 2011 at 6:57 am #

        I may be confused, but I thought what is being discussed is patrilineal Jews being considered Jewish without going through conversion?

        There are still some groups (eg Conservative/Masorti, at least in the UK) that accept Reform conversions but not patrilineal Jews.

        • David A.M. Wilensky February 16, 2011 at 12:01 pm #

          That is indeed what is under discussion here. Why do you think you’re confused?

          And yeah, there are groups that’ll accept a Reform conversion, but none of those groups hold the purse strings in any country’s Jewish community, nor do they have political power in Israel.

  5. Joel Katz February 15, 2011 at 6:19 am #

    In order to clarify the above discussion, one should disinguish between “making aliyah under the Law of Return” vs. “the ability to marry under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate”.

    A “patrilineal Jew” has the right to make aliyah, but would be not be considered Jewish by the Rabbinate.
    A “patrilineal Jew” who chooses to undergo a Reform conversion would be treated the same as above.

    Joel Katz
    Religion and State in Israel
    @religion_state

  6. Shaun February 15, 2011 at 11:48 am #

    Completely agree, the only statement that seems valid at all is the one regarding finances. Other movements of Judaism and Israel’s Chief Rabbinate don’t fully accept Reform converts, either way. In many cases of those who were Reform but Jewish by matrilineal descent, they require additional paperwork and records to “be sure” said person is actually Jewish. As far as organizations like URJ who accept patrilineal descent, it was always my understanding that this only counts if the person was actually raised as an observant (by Reform standards) Jew.

    • David A.M. Wilensky February 15, 2011 at 10:26 pm #

      You’re right that it only counts if they patrilineal Jews was raised a Jew. The same is true is for matrilineal Jews, by the way.

      • Larry Kaufman February 16, 2011 at 12:23 am #

        I know what you mean, but let me clarify for those who may not be up on the U.S. Reform position. If either parent is non-Jewish — it matters not whether it’s the father or the mother — the child is under presumption of Jewishness if raised only as a Jew, marked by the observance of appropriate Jewish life cycle events along the way.

        • David A.M. Wilensky February 16, 2011 at 12:04 pm #

          if raised only as a Jew

          Interesting. My step-siblings have grown up going to Reform summer camp because their mother–now married to my father–is Jewish. Their father, however, is very much not Jewish and has raised them with Christianity in their lives as well. It’s not clear to me whether they would identify as one or the other.

          So, according to the official position, Larry, if they decide to identify solely as Jews, would a Reform rabbi have to ask them to convert?

          • Larry Kaufman February 16, 2011 at 9:30 pm #

            If I were a Reform rabbi, knowing their background, I would try to make sure that they were clearly identifying themselves as Jews, and clearly not practicing Christianity (which does not mean refusing to go to Christmas dinner at the home of the their Christian relatives). Clearly identifying means active demonstration of their Judaism — chuppah, synagogue affiliation, etc. — whatever is age appropriate. And I would know that my colleagues to the right would accept them on the basis of their Jewish mother’s bloodline. So, no, I would not ask them to convert. And I think most Reform rabbis would take the same path I have outlined.

        • Shaun February 16, 2011 at 12:09 pm #

          I think the main point with American Reform is that, if you were not raised Jewish, it doesn’t matter if both of your parents were Jewish, you need to convert. It’s almost the opposite of the Orthodox/Conservative belief. Case-in-point, both of my parents are Christian, but by matrilineal descent I’m Jewish by blood in the eyes of most Orthodox rabbis. Reform rabbis would require me to convert (which I would do if I lived near a rabbi haha).

          • BZ February 16, 2011 at 1:39 pm #

            Shaun writes:
            I think the main point with American Reform is that, if you were not raised Jewish, it doesn’t matter if both of your parents were Jewish, you need to convert.

            That’s not correct. The Reform position is that someone with two Jewish parents is presumed Jewish with no conditions, and someone with one Jewish parent (of either sex) is presumed Jewish only if s/he is raised with an exclusively Jewish identity.

            • Shaun February 16, 2011 at 2:20 pm #

              Ahhh I guess I missed that. Thanks for the correction!

            • David A.M. Wilensky February 16, 2011 at 3:02 pm #

              Indeed. I read Shaun’s comment but didn’t catch that implication. Thanks, BZ.

  7. Larry Kaufman February 15, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

    This may be a quibble, but my reaction after reading the JTA article was that Sue Fishkoff was reporting on was only the discussion about patriliniality at the WUPJ convention, and not about anything broader. This discussion appears to have taken place without direct reference to any responsa published by any non-U.S. Reform rabbinic authorities (if any were). I should note, too, that I have found Sue to be an exemplary reporter, who typically gets it, and gets it right.

    I agree with David’s assessment that the most persuasive reason for rejecting patrilineality is the naive hope that this will preserve the unity of local Jewish communities. Where funding is an issue, the overwhelmingly Orthodox-controlled funding bodies find plenty of reasons to discriminate against Reform congregations — I doubt that patrilineality would be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

    It should be noted, by the way, that the U.S. is the only country in which Reform is a dominant stream, and does not have to fight for its place at the table.

    Joel Katz has clarified the “aliyah” red herring, differentiating between the provisions of the Law of Return and the ability to marry. Let’s note, though, that Reform rabbis in Israel can’t officiate over recognized marriages even of matrilineal Jews. A side note on aliyah: my wife and I are both the children of parents whose Jewish bona fides are not in question. However, each of us is a survivor of a previous marriage, and neither of those marriages ended with the granting of a get. Thus, even in the U.S., we could not have been married by a Conservative rabbi — and the Reform rabbi who officiated for us urged us to get/give a get lest we decide to make aliyah and find that any children we might have together (we didn’t) were classified as mamzerim.

    Regarding the repercussions of a patrilineal Jew seeking to marry a matrilineal Jew, this would obviously not be a problem for a U.S. Reform rabbi — and it’s my guess that at least some Conservative rabbis would practice DADT. Given what we hear about the Orthodox community wanting its children not even to marry baalei t’shuva, only those who are frum from birth, even a halachically permissible marriage would seem to be impermissible.

    I can certainly understand the Latin American Reform communities putting comfort with their vernacular ahead of smicha source in recruiting rabbis, and agreeing to accept their rabbis’ religous standards. Aside from officiation at weddings, I wonder how those Conservative rabbis deal with patrilineals and giyurim under Reform auspices when it comes to bimah honors and the like.

    Davar acher. I have been actively involved in the World Union for Progressive Judaism for ten years, and have learned that patrilineality is not the only issue that is handled differently in the U.S. I was at the WUPJ conference in Jerusalem in 2007 that featured an adult bat mitzvah of a woman whose rabbi (in Brazil, if I remember correctly) had prepared her for reading the Torah, but was unwilling to have her do so from his bimah. I was not at the San Francisco meeting, nor on the program committee — and am surprised that this rabbinic issue of patriliniality was on the agenda of what is essentially a lay body. Of course, it appears to have been presented informationally, not as an issue for resolution. I have not been aware of its having been any kind of issue of active contention.

    • David A.M. Wilensky February 15, 2011 at 10:24 pm #

      Thanks for your additions to the conversation, Larry.

  8. Yam Erez April 16, 2012 at 5:23 am #

    Read “A Patrilineal Jew’s Lament” in the Forward print edition, and can’t find a link to it, as I’d like to blog on it. I’d be grateful if you can supply one. In any case, one sentence says it all for me: “She [Rabbi Francine Roston] never would have known, she said.”

    I have blogged on this issue so I won’t reiterate here, but what else do we need to know? There is simply no way to check someone’s Jewish “pedigree”, including my own.

    Mom’s ketuba? I have no idea where my mom’s is, if it’s even in her possession at all. And supposing Mom is unmarried? Thus the entire debate is moot, is it not?

    • David A.M. Wilensky April 16, 2012 at 12:44 pm #

      It will be online tomorrow. The Forward prints a lot of their material that isn’t super-timely ahead of putting it online so they can spend all week rolling it out on their website.

      As for your thoughtful comments on the subject, save them for tomorrow when I post a link to it!