Patrilineal Jewish Descent: An Open Orthodox Approach

This week there has been much conversation online and offline on the Jewish status of people of patrilineal Jewish descent. My fellow Rabbis Without Borders alumna, Rabbi Alana Suskin, brought up the issue in an honest and compassionate article Wednesday that has garnered quite a lot of attention. I, too, have found this issue of status to be a vexing and complicated one.

Jewish denominations do not live in a vacuum. The actions of one movement can have profound impact on the collective Jewish community. Actions must be carefully weighed and considered. This is something that the broader Orthodox community refused to acknowledge for much of the early 20th-century American Jewish experience and is a mistake that I pray all movements from now on would seek to not repeat. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the immediate past PJewish-Star-and-questionmarkresident of the Rabbinical Council of America, in an eloquent, impassioned and moving speech to his Conservative colleagues at The Jewish Theological Seminary, stated it succinctly:

“The question before us is not simply whether we can learn to talk to each other—There is much more at stake. The real question is. “What role will we play, or not play, in shaping the story of the Jewish people at this critical juncture?” If we can’t get along, then we cannot make the kind of difference that we should.

I suppose that we could all react to this challenge in usual fashion, by blaming each other and saying, “Well, it’s really the fault of the Orthodox or the Conservative or the Reform.” After all, it’s always the ‘other’s’ fault. But the Torah teaches us otherwise, that, like the brothers, we are all at fault. If we allow this to go on, if we continue to move apart and do not find ways to act together, we will all be held culpable for the unfolding, potentially tragic fate of the American Jewish community.”

Rabbi Goldin urges us to see each other within the framework of brothers, as part of a global Jewish family that needs to work together. We can either all rise to the heights of incompetence together and bring severe havoc to our broad Jewish family or we can rise to the greatest of our potential, together, and usher in a new renaissance and flowering of Jewish life and vitality. That is our charge and our responsibility. The folks in the pews, and even more potently the folks who have long ago left the pews, are waiting for us to act maturely and cooperatively. If not now, when? If we wait too long, it may be very well too late.

It is within that backdrop that I approach the question of patrilineal descent. There are two strata of response to the question: 1. The responsibility of leadership and 2. The pastoral dimension. Both are important but it is important not to conflate them in a discussion of the issue.

Let me preface by saying that I have the utmost respect for my Reform colleagues. I grew up in the Reform movement and it is because of those formative years and the rabbis and educators that so profoundly impacted me that I became traditionally observant in my early teenage years and eventually an Orthodox rabbi. This is less to do with the individuals in the movement than the decisions movements as a whole make, in this case Reform, but in other cases other denominations.

The decision by the American Reform movement to adopt patrilineal status some thirty years ago was, in my opinion, a mistake. It was not primarily a mistake because of the outcome, that is actually the secondary issue, it was a mistake in process. Organizational experts and the best thinkers in community development have long taught that making decisions from a silo is not how to act strategically, it is how one acts tactically. It is a refusal to acknowledge the interconnectedness of movements, peoples and families; the weaving together that is the American Jewish story, and to act alone and unilaterally. It is to declare an austritt when the time has come for collaboration.

Marty Linsky, professor at the Kennedy School of Government and author of Leadership on the Line argues that leaders need to possess a “balcony perspective.” What is the big picture? Where do we want to head? How do we get there most successfully?

A balcony perspective would have shown that Reform Judaism does not exist on its own island and indeed no denomination is its own island. Reform Jews are married to Conservative Jews who are siblings with Orthodox Jews who are cousins with unaffiliated Jews. Reform Jews do not only mingle, socialize, date or marry other Reform Jews. The decision some thirty years ago was either predicated on the idea that all other movements will be coerced into going along or on the notion that Reform congregants will never need to run up against differing standards practiced by almost every other Jewish denomination and by Reform equivalent types of Judaism throughout the world. Both ideas were misguided and represented a failure of strategy.

In regards to the pastoral dimension, the situation must be handled with the greatest sensitivity and compassion. The standards of halakha as outlined by the Gemara, Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch must not be compromised in the pursuit of an expeditious conversion. Yet, nonetheless, a child of Jewish patrilineal lineage, must be respected greatly for their identification with the Jewish people, their love of Judaism and of Israel. I was inspired by a lecture by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership several years ago where he insisted that people of patrilineal descent be referred to as Jews who need to rectify their status vies-a-vie Jewish law. In other words, to understand the modern dichotomy between Jewish affiliation and halakhic Jewish status, while upholding with full integrity the halakha and the legal process.

It is my hope that Jewish professional and lay leaders learn from the experience of patrilineal descent and come to do things better: to be more cooperative, more collaborative, to work strategically, to think from a balcony perspective. Unfortunately, examples like this exist in every movement and represent moments to grow from not just for the movement highlighted but for all of us. The time has come to envision ourselves, in the words of Rabbi Goldin, as brothers and to act as a family that seeks to live together in harmony and co-existence. Rabbis Without Borders represents a powerful model in that direction and, G-d willing, we will soon see it become the dominant paradigm of doing business in the Jewish community. We will all be better for it.

Posted on August 16, 2013

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