Patrilineal Pandemonium: What’s Behind All The Emotion?

shutterstock_130477025Wow. It has been quite a busy week here at the Rabbis Without Borders blog discussing patrilineal descent and its implications. Rabbi Alana Suskin got the conversation rolling with a personal reflection on some of the struggles she faces as a Conservative rabbi when addressing status issues (marriage, divorce, and especially conversion) because of Reform Judaism’s decision to accept as Jews those whose father is Jewish but mother is not.

Rabbi Ben Greenberg responded that the Reform Movement’s decision to adopt patrilineal descent as a legitimate means of establishing Jewish identity was a strategic mistake because Reform Judaism failed to take into account the toll this decision would take on relations with non-Reform Jewry since Reform Jews do not exist in a vacuum.

Most recently, Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz posted a response in which she affirmed patrilineal descent as the right thing to do based on an egalitarian ethos, as well as the practical argument that individuals who consider themselves to be Jews, regardless of their conversion status, generally don’t care what rabbis think about their status.

All 3 rabbis have written eloquently and passionately in defense of their positions. And all three have generated a plethora of strident responses, many of which were constructive, in the comments to their posts. It is precisely this passion that I wish to address here. While I am not normally a “meta” person, it does seem worth exploring why the question of who is a Jew generates such vociferous reactions? At a time when all Jewish denominations are striving to increase Jewish engagement and affiliation, why are we so fixated on, and argumentative about, whom we ought to exclude from Judaism?

This debate sometimes has reminded me of the nastiness of the Birther Movement. For those of you fortunate enough to have missed it, the “Movement” sought to disprove President Obama’s citizenship during the 2008 national election by spreading rumors and innuendo about whether he was actually born in Hawaii, and was later revived by Donald Trump during his fleeting candidacy in 2012. And I have a feeling that should Senator Ted Cruz, the Tea Party darling of the moment, decide to run for President in 2016, liberals might mount their own birther challenge to the Canadian-born Cruz. What’s the link? Both patrilineality and birther-ism implicate questions of eligibility of inclusion within what is deemed to be a privileged group identity. And both generate not just passionate but vitriolic responses by those who seek to defend their positions on either side of the inclusion divide. But why?

My humble suggestion is that the reason for such sensitivity to the issue of patrilineality, as it was for the birthers, is that we see ourselves as gate-keepers to a tradition where, for the first time since Sinai, anyone can get a key. As Rabbi Gurevitz points out at the end of her piece, all rabbis who work at synagogues are gate-keepers. From Reform to Orthodox, we all have our particular limits for who is in and who is out. Indeed, no denomination is so egalitarian that a person without a Jewish mother or father, who has not converted, is welcomed as a Jew (though, God-willing, such individuals will be welcomed and treated with the dignity we should accord all people). But our role as gate-keepers has been eviscerated in an era where Judaism, along with the world, is now flat.

The floodgates have opened and we are adrift, searching for a lifeboat of control that just isn’t there. We are powerless to prevent non-Jews from adopting Jewish rituals, as the “bar mitzvah” of Madonna’s son recently proved. What’s more, Rabbis and learned laity no longer hold a monopoly on Torah (however we define Torah) because anyone with wifi and an electronic device can gain access to virtually the entire corpus of biblical and Rabbinic literature. Perhaps the scariest realization, for those of us who are rabbis, is that It is becoming less and less clear why the world needs rabbis for the propagation of Judaism.

I won’t presume to speak for my colleagues, but for me, this paradigm shift is dizzying and disorienting  As someone who enjoys the idea of broadening my borders, I often feel as though each time I “boldly” confront (and maybe even transcend) an halakhic, theological, or other border, some of the borders that remain quickly feel ossified and obsolete. It is like buying a Smartphone–the newest model, within a few months, simply becomes outdated.

So how do we handle this shift? Is there a way to address the meta issues without becoming embroiled in the contentious legal debate over who is a Jew? I certainly don’t have the answers (and I welcome your thoughts). But before we respond viscerally in our comments to the next post on patrilineality, I suggest that we start pointing the finger at ourselves, asking why it is that our feelings are so intense when it comes to questions of Jewish status.

Posted on August 20, 2013

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