Is Patrilineal Descent Next?

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).

Posted on March 30, 2007

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