Is Patrilineal Descent Next?

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A very interesting letter to the editor in this week’s Jewish Week raises a fascinating question: With gay and lesbian students now accepted into Conservative rabbinical schools, what will be the movement’s next “big issue”?

David Londy — a Reform rabbi — thinks he knows:

Instead of being innovative, the movement and the Seminary seem only reactive, following the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Hebrew Union College in admitting openly lesbian and gay rabbis now (RRC in 1984 and HUC in 1989) and women rabbis in 1985 (Reform in 1972 and Reconstructionist in 1974).

Obviously, the next issue will be patrilineal descent. Reform and Conservative authorities have affirmed its legitimacy. In 10 years, Conservative Jewish scholars will be writing papers, utilizing historical studies already in existence, to affirm patrilineal descent as a legitimate halachic option.

I’m not sure which “Conservative authorities” that “have affirmed its legitimacy” he is referring to, but that’s neither here nor there. Londy is not being cynical in suggesting that the Conservative movement’s legal innovations can be seen as a sort-of time-released Reform. He’s simply describing the facts on the ground.

And, of course, the question of patrilineal descent is so interesting because, from a Jewish legal perspective, it likely has more traditional precedents than the case for gay ordination.

In making its appeal for patrilineality in 1983, the Reform movement cited several very real biblical and rabbinic antecedents.

Both the Biblical and the Rabbinical traditions take for granted that ordinarily the paternal line is decisive in the tracing of descent within the Jewish people. The Biblical genealogies in Genesis and elsewhere in the Bible attest to this point. In intertribal marriage in ancient Israel, paternal descent was decisive. Numbers 1:2, etc., says: “By their families, by their fathers’ houses” (lemishpechotam leveit avotam), which for the Rabbis means, “The line [literally: 'family'] of the father is recognized; the line of the mother is not” (Mishpachat av keruya mishpacha; mishpachat em einah keruya mishpacha; Bava Batra 109b, Yevamot 54b; cf. Yad, Nachalot 1.6).

In the Rabbinic tradition, this tradition remains in force. The offspring of a male Kohen who marries a Levite or Israelite is considered a Kohen, and the child of an Israelite who marries a Kohenet is an Israelite. Thus: yichus, lineage, regards the male line as absolutely dominant. This ruling is stated succinctly in Mishna Kiddushin 3.12 that when kiddushin (marriage) is licit and no transgression (ein avera) is involved, the line follows the father. (MORE)

So is Londy’s prediction correct? What do you think?

Post some comments, folks.

It’ll be interesting to have this conversation on record — to revisit in a decade.

Posted on March 30, 2007

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16 thoughts on “Is Patrilineal Descent Next?

  1. clara1

    I think that with DNA, the problem could be solved as to the child being from the Jewish parent. Will the Conservative and Orthodox change. G-d gave humans the ability to find DNA and it should be used to keep Jews in the Jewish community. Whatever was before DNA to me was a matter of knowing the a Jewish mother had a Jewish baby whether the child was from her husband or not. Not DNA can determine who the father is–which may cause some surprises.

    Clara

  2. jethro1

    I hope that we don’t need to wait a decade.

    There is, as has been pointed out, considerable evidence in the Torah and from historical records that patrilineal descent is a valid halakhic position. And while I certainly support the recent JTS decision to ordain homosexual rabbis, it seems to me that is more of a creative reading of Torah law that accepting patrilineals into the tribe.

    If the Conservative movement finally embraces patrilineal descent, they almost assuredly would stem the exodus from their ranks that has led to Reform becoming ascendant as the biggest stream of Judaism in the US. And if Recon, Reform and Conservatives all accept patrilineals as Jews, the bogus argument that the Reform movement forever split klal Yisrael with their decision would be moot.

    It is time that all liberal movements ( and I include the Conservatives in that group) issued a takkanot and again accepted patrilineals among their ranks. We have too many Jews sitting in Unitarian and Methodist Churches or Buddhists Temples, often because they were told implicitly or explicitly that they weren’t Jewish. Let’s hope that the facts on the ground–that the overwhelming majority of Conservative lay people support patrilineal descent–influence the movement’s leaders soon.

  3. Aviel

    I have a problem with those who still think of being Jew is biological and not any thing else. My mother was Jewish and that makes me Jewish. But I have Genes from Irish and German, and I am pretty sure there are a few others in the shed as well. So to be caught up on DNA and Race is slandering to say the least. So my fellow Jews be careful not to put racist views on this subject. If you think this way than in my humble opinion your a racist. And you need to study torah a little more and get over your prejudice!

  4. Ezekah

    [Aviel] I have a problem with those who still think of being Jew is biological and not any thing else. My mother was Jewish and that makes me Jewish. But I have Genes from Irish and German, and I am pretty sure there are a few others in the shed as well. So to be caught up on DNA and Race is slandering to say the least. So my fellow Jews be careful not to put racist views on this subject. If you think this way than in my humble opinion your a racist. And you need to study torah a little more and get over your prejudice!

    You are basically accusing G-d of being a racist. Do you think we just flipped a coin and decided this? The identity of a Jew comes directly from the Bible. Current political correctness changes at every moment, biblical Laws are eternal. Also, since converts can be of any race, it is illogical to assume that identifying as a Jew is somehow racist.

    To be identified as a Jew is to be a member of our tribe. To follow your argument, it is racist of you to claim that you are Irish or German. Why can’t anyone be Irish or German? Why are you limiting it to those born from Irish or German parents?

  5. Matzah2

    Also, don’t expect DNA evidence to allow Jewish determination by paternity when it comes to orthodox rule.

    The halacha goes by the mother. The apparent ambiguity in ’whose baby is it’ when it comes to the father, is only a possible explanation for the law. It is not necessarily the reason for the law.

    For example, the various reasons for why kosher animals are deemed kosher are there only for discussion and for finding possible explanations. We obey the law regardless of our understanding of it. Same goes for determining Jewishness.

  6. The Doctor

    It’s not racism. It’s not biology or science. It’s law and tradition, which carries some weight.

    Do I think that there would be a benefit if Jewish law conferred Jewish identity by either parent? There may be.

    Do I think that it’s worth it for those who review and interpret the Law [and who will actually do so, and not just say "that’s the way it is, it’s not worth discussing] to look at this from time to time? Absolutely.

    Do I think that the Law should be revised just because people agitate for it to be changed? No!

    Just as the Committee on Laws and Standards in the Conservative Movement looked at issues such as women’s roles in prayer and leadership, and found legitimate ways to interpret the Law so as to allow this, and just as the Committee looked at issues such as whether non-Jews could participate in rituals such as Torah reading and could find NO legitimate way to interpret the Law so as to allow this, and just as the Committee looked at issues such as women’s ability to serve as witnesses and concluded that this was justifiable but if allowed would cause great disruption and chaos by creating situations where contracts would exist that not all would accept, those whom we look to for guidance should look at this issue, consider what specific laws pertain, the historic and cultural context in which it arose, and the implications both within their own sphere of Judaism and to Am Yisroel as a whole whether a change to patrilineal descent is both justifiable and desirable [and it needs to be both before considering such a change].

    It’s not a matter of racism, it’s not a matter of popularity. Think of it as an issue before the Supreme Court. Is it a legitimate interpretation and is it a desirable interpration?

  7. Ezekah

    Good points like usual, Doc.

    I agree that law and tradition are powerful weights, yet should be reviewed from time to time. Many times, new interpretations are found on points when they are re-examined in light of modernity.

    As far as matrilieneal descent being key, I have an answer that satisfies me from my life experiences. I have many relatives that have entered into mixed marriages. In every single instance, the child’s religion is the same as the mother’s religion. While this wouldn’t automatically preclude patrilineal descent, it provides a strong argument for matrilineal descent being dominant.

  8. lornewel

    Ezekah said //The identity of a Jew comes directly from the Bible.//

    Since what we are talking about is patrilineal descent, this raises a question for me. The Bible almost invariably describes Jewish lineage as “A the son of B the son of C,” so how can anyone use the Bible as a basis to argue against patrilineal descent? You might use tradition and rabbinic interpretations and so on, but the Bible?

  9. The Doctor

    I think this is a very reasonable question, and I am ashamed to say I don’t know the answer. Where in Torah does the tradition of matrilineal descent come from? And if it is not rooted directly in Torah, what is the Talmudic source for this?

  10. clara1

    I think that matrilineal descent comes from the fact that if a woman is Jewish, we know the baby is because she had it. But the husband could or could not be the father. I think that DNA will change this and also cause a few surprises for the family.

    Clara

  11. Matzah2

    The Tanach does not talk about matrilineal descent as far as I know.

    But the Tanach does not talk about ordinary citizens either. It talks about very special, significant, and unusual people and situations. It also speaks of all the times where Torah laws were apparently broken, but since the situations were unusual, Hashem permitted it. For example, when He commanded us to kill although there was a commandment not to kill.

    Most of the laws we follow are oral laws. That is Judaism. The written law is proof that there is an oral law. Part of the oral law is matrilineal descent just like the construction of tefillin and the method of kosher slaughter. We do not have reasons for why the laws are the way they are. We just follow them. We may try to justify the laws, but that is only for the intellectual exercise.

    And so, as I mentioned before, do not expect DNA technology to change any laws.

    For those who say: “David sinned, so why can’t I sin?” or “Jacob had two sisters for wives, so why can’t I”, such a person must first ask himself, “Am I anywhere near as great a man as David? Am I a king of Israel?” or “Am I a patriarch who is about to father one of the most significant dynasties on earth?”

    No. I am nothing. I must follow ordinary law.

  12. The Doctor

    So there’s nothing in Tanakh that mandates matrilineal descent. Is there something in Talmud, or is this some minhag that came up along the way that is treated as sacred halacha?

  13. mbczion

    בס’’ד

    TheDoctor wrote:
    “I think this is a very reasonable question, and I am ashamed to say I don’t know the answer. Where in Torah does the tradition of matrilineal descent come from? And if it is not rooted directly in Torah, what is the Talmudic source for this?

    Anyone?”

    From ?h=174&o=137547[color=#006699]http://www.askmoses.com/article.html?h=174&o=137547[/color]

    “Rabbi Latowicz: The Torah does not always state every law explicitly. In the case of Matrilineal Descent, the practice is derived from Deuteronomy 7: 4, “Because he will lead astray your son from be

  14. The Doctor

    Thanks, bmc.

    That confirms [even though it’s a very tortuous argument] that the child of a Jewish girl and a non-Jewish boy will be Jewish. But from whence comes the opposite, that the child of a Jewish boy and a non-Jewish girl will NOT be Jewish?

  15. Ezekah

    Funny, I just posted this article yesterday at another site. From Jewfaq.org:

    [quote]The Torah does not specifically state anywhere that matrilineal descent should be used; however, there are several passages in the Torah where it is understood that the child of a Jewish woman and a non-Jewish man is a Jew, and several other passages where it is understood that the child of a non-Jewish woman and a Jewish man is not a Jew.

    In Deuteronomy 7:1-5, in expressing the prohibition against intermarriage, G-d says “he [ie, the non-Jewish male spouse] will cause your child to turn away from Me and they will worship the gods of others.” No such concern is expressed about the child of a non-Jewish female spouse. From this, we infer that the child of a non-Jewish male spouse is Jewish (and can therefore be turned away from Judaism), but the child of a non-Jewish female spouse is not Jewish (and therefore turning away is not an issue).

    Leviticus 24:10 speaks of the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man as being “among the community of Israel” (ie, a Jew).

    On the other hand, in Ezra 10:2-3, the Jews returning to Israel vowed to put aside their non-Jewish wives and the children born to those wives. They could not have put aside those children if those children were Jews.

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