Patrilineal Descent: Accept It or Reject It, Are We Still One Community?

The topic of patrilineal descent has been discussed recently by three fellow Rabbis Without Borders. I find myself agreeing with Rabbis Suskin, Greenberg and Gurevitz in part and disagreeing with each in part.

Rabbi Gurevitz is surely correct in that the Reform movement affirmed patrilineal descent “because it was the right thing to do” — for itself, in the context in which it operates and according to the principles that it holds dear. Yet Rabbis Greenberg and Suskin are also correct that this decision has at times caused difficulties for Orthodox and Conservative rabbis.

To be clear, no one in this discussion is challenging the right of a particular community to define its own practices and membership. Difficult conversations arise and difficult decisions have to be made because none of the movements in American Judaism exists in a vacuum. Rabbi Suskin and Rabbi Greenberg, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis, both note in their blog posts that they were raised in the Reform movement and are grateful for the experiences they had in that community when they were younger.

Rabbi Gurevitz is correct that the Reform movement’s acceptance of patrilineal descent was not the first and is not the only instance of complications and questions about Jewish status. Many Orthodox rabbis don’t accept conversions performed by more liberal Orthodox rabbis, let alone by non-Orthodox rabbis. And although we Conservative rabbis don’t go around advertising the fact, we don’t always or automatically accept every conversion done by colleagues to our left either. This in and of itself is not a problem. It becomes problematic only when “borders” are crossed — a Reform-raised patrilineal Jew seeks to have a Conservative rabbi officiate at her wedding, a young man whose mother had a Conservative conversation becomes involved in the Orthodox community at his college’s Hillel.

I started rabbinical school in 1982 so I still remember the hubbub in 1985 when Rabbi Irving Greenberg famously asked “Will There Be One Jewish People By The Year 2000”? The Year 2000 has come and gone, and the fact that we are even having this discussion proves in a way that we are still one people. Very few Jews are disturbed that they can’t take communion at a Catholic church. Precisely because the borders between Jewish communities are still porous, because Jews are raised in one community but wish to join another as adults, because neither Reform Jews nor Orthodox Jews consider a Reform/Orthodox wedding an “intermarriage,” we on occasion have unfortunate situations where problems or questions arise about Jewish identity. Whatever one may think about the original wisdom of the Reform movement’s decision to accept patrilinearity, that horse has long since left the barn and is not going back inside it. Any rabbi should be delighted when a young man or woman identifies as a Jew, seeks to participate in their community, wants to marry another Jew.

I would love to see all rabbis of whatever community make the following two commitments:

1.) We will explain, accurately and without contempt, the practices and standards of communities not our own. No one who is raised in any of our communities should be surprised to get to a college campus and find that there might be a question about their Jewish status in another community.

2.) When encountering a person who identifies as a Jew but doesn’t meet the standards for identity of our community, we will not tell them “you are not Jewish.” We will respect and acknowledge their self-identification as a Jew, embrace them as someone who shares our faith and fate, and seek to resolve these issues with compassion and empathy.

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