On March 15, 1983, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the Reform movement’s body of rabbis, passed a resolution prepared by a committee on patrilineal descent entitled “The Status of Children of Mixed Marriages.” The CCAR resolution stated that “we face, today, an unprecedented situation due to the changed conditions in which decisions concerning the status of the child of a mixed marriage are to be made.” Contrary to nearly 2000 years of tradition, the resolution accepted the Jewish identity of children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers under certain circumstances.
There was a great deal of controversy about this resolution, both before and after its adoption. Some saw it as a radical and unwarranted departure from tradition, while others hailed it as a productive and inclusive approach to increasingly-common interfaith families.
Who is a Jew?
Although the Hebrew Bible defines Jewish identity in patrilineal terms, the Mishnah states that the offspring of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father is recognized as a Jew, while the offspring of a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father is considered a non-Jew. This Talmudic position became normative in Jewish law.
But the 1983 resolution was not the first attempt to reconsider patrilineality. Already in the 19th century, many Reform rabbis quietly integrated the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers into their religious schools and confirmed them into the Jewish faith along with their peer group in lieu of conversion. In 1947, the CCAR adopted a resolution that stated 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 recommendation had a somewhat different implication then the 1983 resolution in that the parents were “converting” their children, but the social impact was virtually identical. The insistence on a “conversion” was dropped 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.