Patrilineal Descent--A Discussion

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Patrilineal Descent--A Discussion

Post #1

Post by Jrosemary »

I thought I'd kick this forum off with one of the controversial issues in Judaism today: patrilineal descent. I apologize that it's likely to be of interest only to Jews--but everyone is still welcome to post.

Traditionally, the way to become a Jew is either to be born to a Jewish mother or to convert. However, two branches of Judaism--Reform and Reconstructionist--in some cases recognize that an individual with a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother can also be considered a Jew without formally converting to Judaism.

So this issue cuts to the heart of an eternal question in Judaism: who is a Jew? How does one become a member of the people Israel?

Well, we all agree that if you have a Jewish mother, you're a Jew. Even if you don't know the first thing about Judaism, if you're a guy with a Jewish mother, you could go to any synagogue tomorrow and count as part of a minyan--a quorum. (You may not ever choose to, of course, but you could.)

But what about the guy who's mother is not Jewish, but who's father is? Let's say the parents chose to raise this guy Jewish. Should he have to formally convert to Judaism?

The traditional answer is yes. It has to come through your mother--if your mother's not Jewish, and you want to be Jewish, that's fine but you have to convert.

I suppose you can argue that if the guy does formally convert, he'll make everyone happy and there won't be an issue. Except that he won't really make everyone happy--because not everyone agrees on what constitutes a valid conversion.

The Orthodox will say that you must have an Orthodox conversion in order to be 'really' Jewish. Conservative Jews say that the conversion must be Orthodox or Conservative. Reform and Reconstructionist Jews generally accept conversions to any branch as valid. The state of Israel, as I understand the current situation, says only certain Orthodox conversions are valid.

Oy! :?

This whole question, I suppose, gets into issues about what constitutes a valid conversion. Orthodox and Conservative synagogues insist on intense study, appearance before a beit din (a sort of small, rabbinic court), a mikvah (ritual bath) and circumcision for a male (or a symbolic pricking of blood for those already circumcised).

Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues don't have all those requirements. (Or don't always have all those requirements.) They may require intense study and appearance before a beit din, for example, but not a mikvah and, in some Reform cases, at least, not circumcision.

Long story short: if the guy who identifies as a Jew based on patrilineal descent agrees to convert to 'make everybody happy'--well, he's not likely to make everybody happy anyway. Not unless he converts with just the right Orthodox rabbi.

Does he need to make everybody happy? No. (And this is why most converts to Reform, Reconstructionist or Conservative Judaism don't bother getting an Orthodox conversion.) I mean, if this theoretical fellow is satisfied in his Reform community, the issue will never come up. It's only going to come up if, say, he marries a girl who's Orthodox or Conservative. Or, I suppose, if he has Orthodox or Conservative relations who are on his case.

Patralineal descent is an issue within my family. I've always solved it for myself by considering a Jew to be anyone who would be accepted as such by one of the four major branches of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist. So that means that I do accept patrilineal descent.

Judaism's hard enough--do we really have to make it harder on the people who want to identify as a Jew based on their father's Judaism?

:-k
Last edited by Jrosemary on Mon Jul 20, 2009 7:03 pm, edited 2 times in total.

cnorman18

Patralineal Descent--A Discussion

Post #2

Post by cnorman18 »

Some time ago, I advocated a compromise on this issue that might be acceptable to both Conservative and Reform Jews. I'll get to that in a minute.

As far as I can see, the Orthodox already constitute a separate religion in many ways; we recognize them as Jews, but they often don't recognize us. On my own conversion, I have gotten reads both ways from the Orthodox; since I converted with both milah and mikvah, some say I am a Jew; since I converted in a non-Orthodox shul, some say I am not. Since I don't hang out with the Orthodox, I don't much care. I think that they are more or less out of this debate, since their position is not generally amenable to compromise.

It's my understanding that within Israel and for purposes of marriage, only Orthodox conversions are accepted (and not even all of those); but for purposes of aliyah (immigration to Israel, for you goyim), according to Israeli law and court decisions, conversion in any branch makes you Jewish and able to invoke the Law of Return.

About that compromise; it seems to me reasonable to retain the requirement of formal conversion for a person whose father (but not mother) is Jewish and who has been "raised Jewish"; but to eliminate the requirement of formal study and require only a pro forma nod to the ritual requirements.

It would be a technical, i.e. ritual, conversion that recognizes and affirms one's prior personal commitment to Judaism and that one already shares in its cultural heritage, as opposed to one's having to be educated in and initiated into them.

I would consider it analogous to the hatafat dam brit or "drop of blood circumcision" required in my case. Since I was already circumcised, the whole procedure was not required, but only a nod to ritual; this situation seems to me to be exactly similar. In this situation, one is de facto already Jewish; this ought to be recognized and affirmed, and it seems appropriate to do so in a public, formal ceremony where one is rendered Jewish de jure, just as my circumcision was rendered ritually acceptable. That even seems like a solid precedent for what amounts to a minor change in halakhah.

Seems like a good place to begin seeking a compromise, anyway. The current situation, where a person is recognized as Jewish by one liberal branch and not by another, seems guaranteed to cause problems.

For instance: A Conservative Jewish man marries a Reform Jewish woman, and it is discovered after the fact that her mother was of patrilineal descent and never converted. What is the status of this couple's children? If one of their sons marries a Gentile woman and raises his children Jewish, are they?

If we are to retain the principle that belief is not what makes one Jewish, it seems to me clear that they aren't. Abandoning the requirement of formal conversion if one is not born to a Jewish mother would appear to be simply changing the standard to the Christian model; anyone who professes to be a Jew is one. If we do that, the community loses control of its own identity and there is nothing to prevent Gentile Christians from claiming to be "Messianic Jews." They do that now, but at least we have grounds to reject that claim.

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Re: Patralineal Descent--A Discussion

Post #3

Post by Jrosemary »

Thanks for your thoughtful reply!
cnorman18 wrote:As far as I can see, the Orthodox already constitute a separate religion in many ways; we recognize them as Jews, but they often don't recognize us. On my own conversion, I have gotten reads both ways from the Orthodox; since I converted with both milah and mikvah, some say I am a Jew; since I converted in a non-Orthodox shul, some say I am not. Since I don't hang out with the Orthodox, I don't much care. I think that they are more or less out of this debate, since their position is not generally amenable to compromise.
I see your point--but I won't call them a separate religion. We all stood at Sinai together. And I think the concerns the various Orthodox groups bring to the table should be part of the discussion when it comes to determining how one becomes Jewish.
cnorman wrote:It's my understanding that within Israel and for purposes of marriage, only Orthodox conversions are accepted (and not even all of those); but for purposes of aliyah (immigration to Israel, for you goyim), according to Israeli law and court decisions, conversion in any branch makes you Jewish and able to invoke the Law of Return.
My understanding is that you'd have a problem making aliyah to Israel without being born to a Jewish mother or converting to a particular type of Orthodox Judaism. However, let's shelf that until one of us goes through the trouble of checking with the Israeli embassy.
cnorman wrote:. . . it seems to me reasonable to retain the requirement of formal conversion for a person whose father (but not mother) is Jewish and who has been "raised Jewish"; but to eliminate the requirement of formal study and require only a pro forma nod to the ritual requirements.

It would be a technical, i.e. ritual, conversion that recognizes and affirms one's prior personal commitment to Judaism and that one already shares in its cultural heritage, as opposed to one's having to be educated in and initiated into them.

I would consider it analogous to the hatafat dam brit or "drop of blood circumcision" required in my case. Since I was already circumcised, the whole procedure was not required, but only a nod to ritual; this situation seems to me to be exactly similar. In this situation, one is de facto already Jewish; this ought to be recognized and affirmed, and it seems appropriate to do so in a public, formal ceremony where one is rendered Jewish de jure, just as my circumcision was rendered ritually acceptable. That even seems like a solid precedent for what amounts to a minor change in halakhah.
Hmmm. Do you mean a new ritual, or the traditional rituals minus the study period?

If you're a patralineal Reform Jew who's been going to synagogue your whole life, and then you want to marry a Conservative Jew, you do have to get a mikvah (and, if you're male, a circumcision or symbolic drop of blood if you're already circumcised.) But you don't have to go through the usual study period that someone with little previous experience with Judaism would have to undergo. That's up to the discretion of your rabbi and beit din.
cnorman wrote:The current situation, where a person is recognized as Jewish by one liberal branch and not by another, seems guaranteed to cause problems.

For instance: A Conservative Jewish man marries a Reform Jewish woman, and it is discovered after the fact that her mother was of patrilineal descent and never converted. What is the status of this couple's children? If one of their sons marries a Gentile woman and raises his children Jewish, are they?

If we are to retain the principle that belief is not what makes one Jewish, it seems to me clear that they aren't. Abandoning the requirement of formal conversion if one is not born to a Jewish mother would appear to be simply changing the standard to the Christian model; anyone who professes to be a Jew is one. If we do that, the community loses control of its own identity and there is nothing to prevent Gentile Christians from claiming to be "Messianic Jews." They do that now, but at least we have grounds to reject that claim.
I disagree that this is an issue of belief. You can belong to a Reform or Reconstructionist synagogue as a patralineal Jew and be an atheist. The question is: how do you become a member of the people Israel? I think all branches of Judaism agree that belief doesn't make you a member. There's no creed to which you need to assent . . . we all have this crazy idea that there's something else that holds us together as a people. Regardless of our bloodlines, regardless of whether we agree with the 13 principles of Maimonides, we're all somehow the children of Abraham and Sarah.

This is going to get messy no matter what way we look at it. I'll give you the Orthodox nightmare, which is similar to the example you gave: a woman belongs to a Reform congregation as a patralineal Jew. After she's dead and after people have forgotten that she was patralineal, her great-great-granddaughter (straight through the maternal line) marries an Orthodox guy, lives an Orthodox life and raises lovely Orthodox children. Nobody realizes that these kids aren't halachally Jewish, so nobody dunks them in the mikvah.

Heck, for the Orthodox nightmare, the original woman doesn't even have to be a patralineal Jew. She could be a non-Orthodox convert. In fact, that works for the Conservative nightmare. A convert to Reform Judaism who never had a mikvah has a great-great granddaughter through the maternal line who marries a Conservative guy. . . if anyone finds out, would we Conservative Jews consider their children halachically Jewish? I don't think we do, technically (edit: unless we have a way of looking at 'intent' as opposed to the technicality.)

But doesn't that seem like a disconnect somehow? Regardless of halacha, can we really say that these kids aren't Jewish? If a pogrom comes, believe me, they'll be targets.

Here's another question: say you go to a friend's house to help them make a minyan. Maybe it's a shiva visit; maybe it's just someone who likes to have a regular weekday minyan. Whatever.

You're the tenth Jew. Everybody's thrilled to see you. Looking around the room, however, you see three people there that you know from a Reform synagogue. All three of them are patralineal Jews. Would you refuse to say Kaddish with them?

We can roll our eyes and say that none of this would come up if the darned Reform and Reconstructionist folks would just have some kind of conversion/affirmation ceremony for patralineal Jews. But, meanwhile, how do we handle this?

cnorman18

Re: Patralineal Descent--A Discussion

Post #4

Post by cnorman18 »

Jrosemary wrote:
Thanks for your thoughtful reply!
My pleasure. It's an interesting question - and I'm glad I'm not in charge of finding a solution.
cnorman18 wrote:
As far as I can see, the Orthodox already constitute a separate religion in many ways; we recognize them as Jews, but they often don't recognize us. On my own conversion, I have gotten reads both ways from the Orthodox; since I converted with both milah and mikvah, some say I am a Jew; since I converted in a non-Orthodox shul, some say I am not. Since I don't hang out with the Orthodox, I don't much care. I think that they are more or less out of this debate, since their position is not generally amenable to compromise.
I see your point--but I won't call them a separate religion. We all stood at Sinai together. And I think the concerns the various Orthodox groups bring to the table should be part of the discussion when it comes to determining how one becomes Jewish.
Of course I agree. My point was that they have essentially declared themselves a separate religion by denying that the rest of us are sufficiently Jewish. I would certainly affirm them as Jews and my brothers and sisters. The problem is that they don't so affirm ME.

I would love to take Orthodox views into account here, but I can't see how that could happen. There's no dialogue possible there. The only option I have ever seen them offer on any issue is total capitulation to their standards, or else leave the table.

Not to mention the fact that patrilineal descent is not the only area where the Orthodox presume to set the standards for everyone else. The specific issue upon which I am said not to be Jewish is kashrut; I had milah and mikvah, but never committed to obey ALL of the mitzvot, most notably that one.

How does one negotiate a compromise with someone whose standards are absolutely rigid and immovable, and accepts NO compromise whatever?

Any compromise or solution the rest of us come up with will be rejected by the Orthodox, or at least many Orthodox, a priori. That's a given. How do we include them in the conversation?
cnorman wrote:
It's my understanding that within Israel and for purposes of marriage, only Orthodox conversions are accepted (and not even all of those); but for purposes of aliyah (immigration to Israel, for you goyim), according to Israeli law and court decisions, conversion in any branch makes you Jewish and able to invoke the Law of Return.
My understanding is that you'd have a problem making aliyah to Israel without being born to a Jewish mother or converting to a particular type of Orthodox Judaism. However, let's shelf that until one of us goes through the trouble of checking with the Israeli embassy.
I actually did a few years ago, and that's what I was told. That was about ten years ago, though, and perhaps the standard has changed.
cnorman wrote:
. . . it seems to me reasonable to retain the requirement of formal conversion for a person whose father (but not mother) is Jewish and who has been "raised Jewish"; but to eliminate the requirement of formal study and require only a pro forma nod to the ritual requirements.

It would be a technical, i.e. ritual, conversion that recognizes and affirms one's prior personal commitment to Judaism and that one already shares in its cultural heritage, as opposed to one's having to be educated in and initiated into them.

I would consider it analogous to the hatafat dam brit or "drop of blood circumcision" required in my case. Since I was already circumcised, the whole procedure was not required, but only a nod to ritual; this situation seems to me to be exactly similar. In this situation, one is de facto already Jewish; this ought to be recognized and affirmed, and it seems appropriate to do so in a public, formal ceremony where one is rendered Jewish de jure, just as my circumcision was rendered ritually acceptable. That even seems like a solid precedent for what amounts to a minor change in halakhah.
Hmmm. Do you mean a new ritual, or the traditional rituals minus the study period?
The latter.

If you're a patralineal Reform Jew who's been going to synagogue your whole life, and then you want to marry a Conservative Jew, you do have to get a mikvah (and, if you're male, a circumcision or symbolic drop of blood if you're already circumcised.) But you don't have to go through the usual study period that someone with little previous experience with Judaism would have to undergo. That's up to the discretion of your rabbi and beit din.
That's exactly the sort of thing I'm proposing. There's no reason to teach someone things they already know; we can simply acknowledge the knowledge and commitment that's already in place and fulfill the ritual requirements. Seems simple and reasonable to me.
cnorman wrote:
The current situation, where a person is recognized as Jewish by one liberal branch and not by another, seems guaranteed to cause problems.

For instance: A Conservative Jewish man marries a Reform Jewish woman, and it is discovered after the fact that her mother was of patrilineal descent and never converted. What is the status of this couple's children? If one of their sons marries a Gentile woman and raises his children Jewish, are they?

If we are to retain the principle that belief is not what makes one Jewish, it seems to me clear that they aren't. Abandoning the requirement of formal conversion if one is not born to a Jewish mother would appear to be simply changing the standard to the Christian model; anyone who professes to be a Jew is one. If we do that, the community loses control of its own identity and there is nothing to prevent Gentile Christians from claiming to be "Messianic Jews." They do that now, but at least we have grounds to reject that claim.
I disagree that this is an issue of belief. You can belong to a Reform or Reconstructionist synagogue as a patralineal Jew and be an atheist. The question is: how do you become a member of the people Israel? I think all branches of Judaism agree that belief doesn't make you a member. There's no creed to which you need to assent . . . we all have this crazy idea that there's something else that holds us together as a people. Regardless of our bloodlines, regardless of whether we agree with the 13 principles of Maimonides, we're all somehow the children of Abraham and Sarah.
Agreed. But Reform temples have already abandoned halakhah by declaring patrilineal descent sufficient to make one a member of the tribe. How different is that from saying "I'm Jewish because I think I am and say I am"? In the example I gave, in one generation you will be recognizing people as Jewish who are halakhically Jews on neither side.

There is also the issue which no one talks about, which is the most probable origin of the requirement of matrilineal descent in the first place; how do we guarantee that the alleged Jewish father is, in fact, the child's father at all? The identity of the mother is not in doubt; but barring a DNA analysis, the identity of the father absolutely is.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the most faithful wife in the best marriage I had ever seen cheated on her husband. I know that for a fact, because she cheated with me. If it had happened when we were younger, one of her children could have been mine - and if it could happen in that marriage, it could happen in any.

(For the record, I don't defend that affair; I acknowledge it as wrong and immoral. But I don't regret it, either. The reasons for that are my own.)

This is going to get messy no matter what way we look at it. I'll give you the Orthodox nightmare, which is similar to the example you gave: a woman belongs to a Reform congregation as a patralineal Jew. After she's dead and after people have forgotten that she was patralineal, her great-great-granddaughter (straight through the maternal line) marries an Orthodox guy, lives an Orthodox life and raises lovely Orthodox children. Nobody realizes that these kids aren't halachally Jewish, so nobody dunks them in the mikvah.

Heck, for the Orthodox nightmare, the original woman doesn't even have to be a patralineal Jew. She could be a non-Orthodox convert. In fact, that works for the Conservative nightmare. A convert to Reform Judaism who never had a mikvah has a great-great granddaughter through the maternal line who marries a Conservative guy. . . if anyone finds out, would we Conservative Jews consider their children halachically Jewish? Technically, no.

But doesn't that seem like a disconnect somehow?
The problem with all these scenarios is that Jewish law does not recognize intent in these situations, nor is there a statute of limitations. If you are given pork and told that it's kosher beef, and you eat it, have you violated the commandment? Of course you have. Which principle makes your question here a bit of a paradox -

Regardless of halacha, can we really say that these kids aren't Jewish?
Since halakhah determines whether one is Jewish or not, how does that question make sense except by assuming that halakhah is not really the standard? And if it is not halakhah, what remains except - well, belief? Regardless of halakhah, they believe they are Jewish, therefore they are. Isn't that the de facto standard here?

If a pogrom comes, believe me, they'll be targets.
True; and that's why it's hard for those who aren't especially concerned with halakhah otherwise to get bent about this.

On the other hand, when have we acknowledged the standards of our enemies as valid? People of Jewish descent who had been Christians for generations died in the camps alongside us, and we acknowledge their suffering on our account and affirm them as dying for the glory of the Name; but that does not mean they were Jews.

Here's another question: say you go to a friend's house to help them make a minyan. Maybe it's a shiva visit; maybe it's just someone who likes to have a regular weekday minyan. Whatever.

You're the tenth Jew. Everybody's thrilled to see you. Looking around the room, however, you see three people there that you know from a Reform synagogue. All three of them are patralineal Jews. Would you refuse to say Kaddish with them?
I think I would defer to their own judgment. Since I am a Jew by conversion only, with no Jews at all among my blood ancestors - and since some Jews don't acknowledge me as such - I don't feel much like imposing my own beliefs or standards on others. I personally thought that God heard my prayers before I was Jewish, and I am not willing to declare that he won't hear that one.

We can roll our eyes and say that none of this would come up if the darned Reform and Reconstructionist folks would just have some kind of conversion/affirmation ceremony for patralineal Jews. But, meanwhile, how do we handle this?
Beats me. The abbreviated conversion process and brief ceremony seems like a simple and sensible solution to me, and frankly I can't think of a reason to resist that solution other than a kind of pridefully defiant attitude; "We don't HAVE to care what you think!"

As to how we handle it till a compromise is reached - in the traditional manner, of course. We argue.

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Post #5

Post by Jrosemary »

cnorman wrote:I would love to take Orthodox views into account here, but I can't see how that could happen. There's no dialogue possible there. The only option I have ever seen them offer on any issue is total capitulation to their standards, or else leave the table.
Ok. I take your point here. And we're neither capitulating or leaving the table, so that pretty much ends that. (It'll be interesting to see, though, if Modern Orthodoxy ever comes to the table.)
cnorman wrote:Agreed. But Reform temples have already abandoned halakhah by declaring patrilineal descent sufficient to make one a member of the tribe. How different is that from saying "I'm Jewish because I think I am and say I am"? In the example I gave, in one generation you will be recognizing people as Jewish who are halakhically Jews on neither side.
I hear you--and yet, the scenario of giving someone who is not halachically Jewish on either side the the status of a Jew leaves me unmoved and unconcerned. If they've been raised in a Jewish community--and intend to remain in a Jewish community--I just don't see the problem.

Nor do I see it as an example of defining a Jew as anyone who says he is one. Again, I just don't see a belief issue here. I see, instead, a committment to raising a child in a Jewish community with Jewish values. That's the only time, after all, when patrilineal descent comes into play. It's not a matter of saying: I believe thus and thus, therefore I'm a Jew. It's a matter of saying, "I'm part of this people, come what may."

It may be, ultimately, that however Conservative (or even Conservadox-ish) I am in theory, I'm a Reconstructionist Jew at heart, lol. I'll admit that when it comes down to this issue of patrilineal descent, I'm willing to cast halacha aside. I don't do that with kashrut (yes, I keep kosher--not a hardship for a vegetarian) or with Shabbat (my aim is to become shomer-shabbat: a guardian of the Sabbath) or with a number of other observances. But there are certain issues to which I'm willing to say: You know what? Halacha isn't binding here.
cnorman wrote:There is also the issue which no one talks about, which is the most probable origin of the requirement of matrilineal descent in the first place; how do we guarantee that the alleged Jewish father is, in fact, the child's father at all? The identity of the mother is not in doubt; but barring a DNA analysis, the identity of the father absolutely is.
To me, the father is the person raising the child. Granted, in Conservative synagogues adoptive parents bring their children to a mikvah, so there is a formal conversion. But I'm not scared by the notion that someone we recognize as Jewish by patrilineal descent might turn out to have a non-Jewish biological father. It doesn't bother me any more than the thought that a Kohen may not, in fact, be a Kohen if his mother cheated on his father.
cnorman wrote:On the other hand, when have we acknowledged the standards of our enemies as valid? People of Jewish descent who had been Christians for generations died in the camps alongside us, and we acknowledge their suffering on our account and affirm them as dying for the glory of the Name; but that does not mean they were Jews.
That was the reason, though, that anyone with one Jewish grandfather could move to Israel. (This rule has transitioned somewhat since Israel's founding, I know, but that was the original idea.) I know taking refuge in Israel doesn't make you Jewish, of course. Just saying . . .
The problem with all these scenarios is that Jewish law does not recognize intent in these situations, nor is there a statute of limitations. If you are given pork and told that it's kosher beef, and you eat it, have you violated the commandment? Of course you have.
You know, I couldn't find anything on line about accidentally violating kashrut--except for the 'one-in-sixty' rule--bitul b'shishim. If you're cooking meat stew, and you accidentally spill milk into it, if there is at least sixty times more stew than meat, the stew is still kosher. (This doesn't apply during Pesach, when even the slightest bit of chametz makes everything not-kosher-for-Passover.)

At any event, it seems to me that intent should apply--and I seem to remember that it does to some extent. (This came up in my synagogue over one of the kosher scandals of late.) At any event, would anyone say that a person who buys non-kosher meat marked as kosher bears the same responsibility as the person fraudulently selling it? But I see your point and I won't bring us further off topic.
cnorman wrote:The abbreviated conversion process and brief ceremony seems like a simple and sensible solution to me, and frankly I can't think of a reason to resist that solution other than a kind of pridefully defiant attitude; "We don't HAVE to care what you think!"
Jewish identity and status issues cut deep--I don't think those who hold with patrilineal descent are doing so out of pride and defiance. Not that I disagree with your arguments, per se. You do have to disregard halacha to accept patrilineal descent.

So, again, I guess I'm really a Reconstructionist Jew with a Conservative bent. :roll:

Edit to Address this:

Sorry, forgot to address this above:
cnorman wrote: I personally thought that God heard my prayers before I was Jewish, and I am not willing to declare that he won't hear that one.
I don't think the point of having a minyan to say Kaddish (a minyan is 10 adult Jews--adult Jewish males, if you're Orthodox) is because God won't hear your pray otherwise. It's just that the Kaddish is so deeply rooted in our communal experience that it doesn't--well, it doesn't make sense to say it without a minyan. The power of the Kaddish is rooted in the fact that Jews only say this prayer when we have a full community (a minyan).

That's it--I just wanted to make it clear that I didn't mean to imply God doesn't listen to a Jew or a gentile's individual prayers!

cnorman18

Patrilineal Descent--A Discussion

Post #6

Post by cnorman18 »

Jrosemary wrote:
cnorman wrote:
I would love to take Orthodox views into account here, but I can't see how that could happen. There's no dialogue possible there. The only option I have ever seen them offer on any issue is total capitulation to their standards, or else leave the table.
Ok. I take your point here. And we're neither capitulating or leaving the table, so that pretty much ends that. (It'll be interesting to see, though, if Modern Orthodoxy ever comes to the table.)
In some ways, they already have. We have a number of shuls here in Dallas that identify themselves as "traditional," where practices depart from the Orthodox in various ways, e.g. in seating during services.

My problem with the Orthodox is not that I think their beliefs and practices are necessarily wrong. It's that many iterations of Orthodoxy have abolished the freedom of thought and belief that is one of the great strengths of the Jewish faith.
cnorman wrote:
Agreed. But Reform temples have already abandoned halakhah by declaring patrilineal descent sufficient to make one a member of the tribe. How different is that from saying "I'm Jewish because I think I am and say I am"? In the example I gave, in one generation you will be recognizing people as Jewish who are halakhically Jews on neither side.
I hear you--and yet, the scenario of giving someone who is not halachically Jewish on either side the the status of a Jew leaves me unmoved and unconcerned. If they've been raised in a Jewish community--and intend to remain in a Jewish community--I just don't see the problem.

Nor do I see it as an example of defining a Jew as anyone who says he is one. Again, I just don't see a belief issue here. I see, instead, a committment to raising a child in a Jewish community with Jewish values. That's the only time, after all, when patrilineal descent comes into play. It's not a matter of saying: I believe thus and thus, therefore I'm a Jew. It's a matter of saying, "I'm part of this people, come what may."

It may be, ultimately, that however Conservative (or even Conservadox-ish) I am in theory, I'm a Reconstructionist Jew at heart, lol. I'll admit that when it comes down to this issue of patrilineal descent, I'm willing to cast halacha aside. I don't do that with kashrut (yes, I keep kosher--not a hardship for a vegetarian) or with Shabbat (my aim is to become shomer-shabbat: a guardian of the Sabbath) or with a number of other observances. But there are certain issues to which I'm willing to say: You know what? Halacha isn't binding here.
Seems to me it's analogous to getting married vs. living together. If you really feel that commitment, why not go through the ceremony? And if you won't go through the ceremony, are you really committed?

One of the reasons I decided to formally convert instead of just hanging out at my shul, which some non-Jewish people did and still do, is that I truly was and am committed to the Jewish people.

If a person knows he is not halakhically Jewish and refuses to go through even a truncated conversion to make that commitment formal, I think it's reasonable to question his commitment, just as any woman would question the commitment of a guy who says "Who needs a piece of paper?"

The paper IS the commitment. Pretending it's not significant is bogus, and I think that applies here too.
cnorman wrote:
There is also the issue which no one talks about, which is the most probable origin of the requirement of matrilineal descent in the first place; how do we guarantee that the alleged Jewish father is, in fact, the child's father at all? The identity of the mother is not in doubt; but barring a DNA analysis, the identity of the father absolutely is.
To me, the father is the person raising the child. Granted, in Conservative synagogues adoptive parents bring their children to a mikvah, so there is a formal conversion. But I'm not scared by the notion that someone we recognize as Jewish by patrilineal descent might turn out to have a non-Jewish biological father. It doesn't bother me any more than the thought that a Kohen may not, in fact, be a Kohen if his mother cheated on his father.
If we're going to throw out halakhah on this issue entirely, which is about as basic as issues get, what happens to the heritage we have of keeping the mitzvot as the essential grammar of our relationship with God?
cnorman wrote:
On the other hand, when have we acknowledged the standards of our enemies as valid? People of Jewish descent who had been Christians for generations died in the camps alongside us, and we acknowledge their suffering on our account and affirm them as dying for the glory of the Name; but that does not mean they were Jews.
That was the reason, though, that anyone with one Jewish grandfather could move to Israel. (This rule has transitioned somewhat since Israel's founding, I know, but that was the original idea.) I know taking refuge in Israel doesn't make you Jewish, of course. Just saying . . .
Again; who is a Jew is something the Jewish community gets to decide, not goyim; and if halakhah is not the determinant for our community, what is left besides one's personal, individual feeling of commitment - aka one's BELIEF that one ought to be considered a Jew because one FEELS like a Jew? If halakhah is irrelevant here, and the community as a whole no longer has a say - well, it's a short step from there to saying that anyone who says he is a Jew ought to be considered Jewish. And Jews have never, ever, done that.
cnorman wrote:
The abbreviated conversion process and brief ceremony seems like a simple and sensible solution to me, and frankly I can't think of a reason to resist that solution other than a kind of pridefully defiant attitude; "We don't HAVE to care what you think!"
Jewish identity and status issues cut deep--I don't think those who hold with patrilineal descent are doing so out of pride and defiance.
That's not the point. Refusing to submit to a simple ceremony that would allay the concerns of the rest of the community and totally resolve the problem for everyone - is.

If you want to be a part of this tribe, there's a procedure. If you won't go through it, you're not part of it. You can't claim to be married if you haven't had a wedding.

I feel about this like legal immigrants who have become citizens feel about those who want to declare anyone who sneaks over the border and ignores the law an American with the full rights and privileges of a citizen. No, you're not.

Not that I disagree with your arguments, per se. You do have to disregard halacha to accept patrilineal descent.
I believe that halakhah can and ought to be revised and modified through the traditional procedure of reaching a consensus among the Wise of every generation. I do NOT believe that one group or branch has the right to unilaterally change it and demand that others recognize that change.

Maybe halakhah doesn't always apply; but if it doesn't apply on the issue of who is a Jew in the first place, it's hard to see how it could apply to anything at all. If we're going to base Jewish identity on how a person feels inside and what they say they are committed to, without a formal and concrete sign of that commitment, how are we different from Christians who base Christian identity on "what's in your heart"?

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Post #7

Post by Jrosemary »

Well, we agree that patrilineal descent involves discarding halacha regarding who is and isn't a Jew. And we agree that there are times when we should disregard halacha--but we divide when it comes to determining if this is one of those occasions.

(We also disagree on how to transliterate 'halacha' :roll:)
cnorman wrote:If a person knows he is not halakhically Jewish and refuses to go through even a truncated conversion to make that commitment formal, I think it's reasonable to question his commitment, just as any woman would question the commitment of a guy who says "Who needs a piece of paper?"

The paper IS the commitment. Pretending it's not significant is bogus, and I think that applies here too.

If you want to be a part of this tribe, there's a procedure. If you won't go through it, you're not part of it. You can't claim to be married if you haven't had a wedding.


You can, actually. There are many countries that recognize common-law marriage (including Israel, where, since you can only have a 'religious' wedding, marrying your partner is sometimes a complicated affair) and eleven states within the United States that recognize common-law marriage (including Texas--which even has special procedures for a common-law divorce or annulment.) One of the most famous common law marriages, in fact, was between Benjamin Franklin and his wife. They never had a wedding.
cnorman wrote:That's not the point. Refusing to submit to a simple ceremony that would allay the concerns of the rest of the community and totally resolve the problem for everyone - is.
I understand what you're getting at--but if you feel that way, why haven't you converted to Orthodox Judaism? Saying they're not at the table, to me, doesn't cut it if your concern is making every Jew acceptable to "everyone." As you've pointed out yourself, to most Orthodox rabbis your conversion was not halachic.

My shul has many 'Conservadox' Jews; so a few of the converts there have gone the Orthodox route. They belong to the Conservative shul, but they had Orthodox conversions. I've even had people come up to me saying, "Look, of course I consider you Jewish. But I'd like you to meet this Orthodox rabbi I know--you'll love him. If you convert with him too, you'll be Jewish with everyone except the most ultra-Orthodox . . ."

Part of my point is that we can't resolve the problem for everyone. No matter how far to the right you stand, there's always going to be someone even further right claiming to be more-Jewish-than-thou.
cnorman wrote:Maybe halakhah doesn't always apply; but if it doesn't apply on the issue of who is a Jew in the first place, it's hard to see how it could apply to anything at all.
Hmmm....I may concede your point here. And yet I'm still ok with patrilineal descent. So, as I said in my post above, however observant I am--and, at heart, I lean toward Conservadoxy as far as observance goes--perhaps in some ways I really am Reconstructionist.

I had this conversation with a JTS rabbinical student tonight--he too identifies as a weird mix of Conservative and Reconstructionist. At least I'm not alone! :P

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Post #8

Post by Jrosemary »

Found a couple more things to respond to.

First of all, the ADL has a good section explaining the current 'conversion crisis' regarding non-Orthodox converts and the Law of Return (and non-Orthodox converts in Israel as well.)

Here's the link: http://www.adl.org/israel/conversion/crisis.asp

And here's our current situation--non-Orthodox converts are still covered under the law of return, but that right is under attack. The issue is not yet settled:
ADL SITE wrote:Following the May 1996 election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a coalition agreement with the National Religious Party and Shas in which the new Likud government agreed "the law of conversion shall be changed so that conversions to Judaism in Israel will be recognized only if authorized by the Chief Rabbinate." News of the agreement was greeted with great concern in the Diaspora, with the Reform and Conservative movements vowing to fight any legislative move that would take away the recognition for conversions performed under their auspices which they had earned in the courts. In response, Prime Minister Netanyahu pledged that any legislation would only deny state recognition of non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel. Non-Orthodox conversions performed outside of Israel would continue to be recognized by the State of Israel according to the Law of Return and the "Miller precedent."

The initial bill proposed by Shas in October 1996 went far beyond the one detailed in the coalition agreement. Instead the bill banned state recognition of non-Orthodox conversions performed both in Israel and the Diaspora, stating, "there shall be no legal validity whatsoever to a conversion unless it receives the approval of the highest religious court in Israel of the religion to which the aforementioned wishes to join." In March 1997, the Cabinet formally approved a more limited legislation, mirroring that of the coalition agreement, denying state recognition to non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel only. This legislation passed its first reading in April.
It goes on from here, with various compromises proposed--but some of those compromises threaten a non-Orthodox convert's right to be married, divorced or buried as a Jew in Israel. (Essentially the problems you pointed out above.) At any event, the issue is far from settled. It's one messy situation. :-k
cnorman wrote:If we're going to base Jewish identity on how a person feels inside and what they say they are committed to, without a formal and concrete sign of that commitment, how are we different from Christians who base Christian identity on "what's in your heart"?
I still don't understand your fear here. This is how I see things:

I'm positing that there are four main branches of Judaism:
* Orthodox (including Chasidim, Modern Orthodox, etc.)
* Conservative / Masorti
* Reform / Progressive
* Reconstructionist

Do you agree that these are all legitimate branches? And do you accept converts to the Reform/Progressive branch or Reconstructionist branch even if the conversion process does not have all the elements of a Conservative or Orthodox conversion? (The Conservative branch, after all, does make people re-convert to Conservative Judaism if a Reform convert wants to get married in a Conservative shul and didn't have all the elements.)

I do not include Hebrew Christians and/or those calling themselves 'Messianic Jews' as a legitimate branch of Judaism--although of course a halachic Jew may identify as such. (Just as someone who is halachically Jewish may identify as a Methodist, Catholic, or whatever.) To me, that just means that if that halachic Jew decided to return to Judaism tomorrow, he could do so without a conversion (although his rabbi may want him to formally declare his return or some such.) And even if he doesn't return to Judaism, he can, as far as I'm concerned, still call himself a Jew if he wishes. I don't see a reason not to, even though his primary identity would be with the other faith. (Your beliefs don't, after all, determine whether or not you're a Jew.)

The problem, of course, comes from Hebrew Christians with no connection to Judaism calling themselves Jews. Yes, I know a Christian couple--no Judaism at all in their background--who got involved with some Messianic church (I refuse to call them 'synagogues') and, within a couple of days of that involvement, were loudly proclaiming themselves Jews!

But I don't see how that's a danger to us. Israel isn't about to recognize them under the Law of Return, no legitimate branch of Judaism will recognize them . . . so what's the problem? Patrilineal descent doesn't affect (or effect or whatever) such people one way or the other.

To me, the issue is this: two legitimate branches of Judaism--Reform/Progressive and Reconstructionist--have decided that in certain cases a child can be considered a Jew by virtue of their father's Judaism instead of strictly by matralineal descent. They tell the parents and the child upfront that the child may have issues marrying a Conservative or Orthodox Jew or joining a Conservative or Orthodox synagogue.

It's not that different from a common situation in my shul: I know, as a Conservative convert, that if I ever wanted to marry an Orthodox guy or join an Orthodox shul, I'd have to re-convert. Ditto for adopted children who are converted in a Conservative synagogue. But most of us don't really regard it as a problem--if we ever marry Orthodox, we'll just go through another conversion. (Since many people in my shul have close ties to the Orthodox community, this is a live issue for us.)

Meanwhile, if someone slips through the cracks in one of the scenarios we've proposed in posts above--you know what? The world won't come crashing to a halt. (It's not even an issue for me, since I'll recognize anyone as Jewish who is so recognized by one of the four main branches of Judaism I listed above, regardless of whether they come by their Judaism through patrilineal descent or by a conversion that didn't meet the halachic standards of Conservative Judaism.)

Besides, do we really think that every convert to Judaism throughout our history has had a proper halachic conversion? What about the Edomites that the Maccabees converted at sword point? There's no way a forced conversion was halachic (and it's rather unlikely that there were study periods invovled!) And yet, who knows how many Jews today are descended from those Edomites?

cnorman18

Patrilineal Descent--A Discussion

Post #9

Post by cnorman18 »

Okay, as often happens here, I find my position changing.

I personally have always accepted, like you, that anyone who is accepted as a Jew in any branch of Judaism is a Jew. I'm not especially pleased with having my own Jewishness questioned by the Orthodox, so I'm not eager to pass judgment on the Jewishness of another.

My concern is with friction between the branches. The Orthodox have already dealt themselves out of that hand, and I find that disturbing enough; but I'd hate to see the same thing happen among the other branches. From what I've been reading, if the Reform branch formalizes the recognition of patrilineal descent, within a generation the same de facto schism will exist between Reform and Conservative as between the Orthodox and everyone else. My own Conservative shul - well, one of them - has close ties to Reform; my own instruction in my conversion class was conducted by a female Reform rabbi.

I suppose it's acceptable if every branch has its own standards and everyone agrees that conversion or reconversion is necessary if one is going to affiliate with or marry into a stricter branch. That's where we are now with the Orthodox, anyway. I guess I'm advocating that the strictest standard ought to prevail, and unless I'm willing to buy into Orthodoxy, that makes no sense.

In my own community, Reform shuls usually require milah but not mikvah for converts, unless the convert requests both. Weird, but whatever. That seems to be because some of the local Conservative rabbis will accept a convert without mikvah, but not without circumcision.

I think it's good that we have no central authority to rule on these things. I guess a certain amount of chaos is the price we have to pay for that freedom.

By the way, I agree with your judgments on "Messianism." "Messianic Jews" are properly called "Christians." If an ethnic Jew wishes to worship Jesus and still self-identify as a Jew, okay, but that should be qualified as "a Jew who does not practice the Jewish religion."

Question: there are in fact five branches of Judaism. Do you recognize those who practice Humanistic Judaism, which is explicitly atheistic in nature, as Jews? I think I do, if they are born into that branch.

They also have a ceremony or procedure analogous to conversion for non-Jews; no circumcision or ritual bath required, of course. Of the Jewishness of those who "convert" to that branch, I am not so sure. Maybe.

It's my understanding that many if not most Israelis are growing sick of the dominance of the Orthodox over religion and marriage policies. There are more Messianic "synagogues" (I hate that term for them too) in Israel than Masorti (Conservative), and I think that's an atrocity.

Your last point is well taken, too. Chances are that if we knew our total family history and enforced halakhah strictly, very few of us could call ourselves Jews.

And I DO wish someone had the authority to standardize transliteration of Hebrew to English. I know of eight ways to spell Hanukkah - that, Hanukah, Chanukah, Hanuka, Chanuka, Hannukah, Channuka, and Channukah.
That's nuts.

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Re: Patrilineal Descent--A Discussion

Post #10

Post by Goat »

cnorman18 wrote:Okay, as often happens here, I find my position changing.

I personally have always accepted, like you, that anyone who is accepted as a Jew in any branch of Judaism is a Jew. I'm not especially pleased with having my own Jewishness questioned by the Orthodox, so I'm not eager to pass judgment on the Jewishness of another.

My concern is with friction between the branches. The Orthodox have already dealt themselves out of that hand, and I find that disturbing enough; but I'd hate to see the same thing happen among the other branches. From what I've been reading, if the Reform branch formalizes the recognition of patrilineal descent, within a generation the same de facto schism will exist between Reform and Conservative as between the Orthodox and everyone else. My own Conservative shul - well, one of them - has close ties to Reform; my own instruction in my conversion class was conducted by a female Reform rabbi.

I suppose it's acceptable if every branch has its own standards and everyone agrees that conversion or reconversion is necessary if one is going to affiliate with or marry into a stricter branch. That's where we are now with the Orthodox, anyway. I guess I'm advocating that the strictest standard ought to prevail, and unless I'm willing to buy into Orthodoxy, that makes no sense.

In my own community, Reform shuls usually require milah but not mikvah for converts, unless the convert requests both. Weird, but whatever. That seems to be because some of the local Conservative rabbis will accept a convert without mikvah, but not without circumcision.

I think it's good that we have no central authority to rule on these things. I guess a certain amount of chaos is the price we have to pay for that freedom.

By the way, I agree with your judgments on "Messianism." "Messianic Jews" are properly called "Christians." If an ethnic Jew wishes to worship Jesus and still self-identify as a Jew, okay, but that should be qualified as "a Jew who does not practice the Jewish religion."

Question: there are in fact five branches of Judaism. Do you recognize those who practice Humanistic Judaism, which is explicitly atheistic in nature, as Jews? I think I do, if they are born into that branch.

They also have a ceremony or procedure analogous to conversion for non-Jews; no circumcision or ritual bath required, of course. Of the Jewishness of those who "convert" to that branch, I am not so sure. Maybe.

It's my understanding that many if not most Israelis are growing sick of the dominance of the Orthodox over religion and marriage policies. There are more Messianic "synagogues" (I hate that term for them too) in Israel than Masorti (Conservative), and I think that's an atrocity.

Your last point is well taken, too. Chances are that if we knew our total family history and enforced halakhah strictly, very few of us could call ourselves Jews.

And I DO wish someone had the authority to standardize transliteration of Hebrew to English. I know of eight ways to spell Hanukkah - that, Hanukah, Chanukah, Hanuka, Chanuka, Hannukah, Channuka, and Channukah.
That's nuts.
From what I hear (Since I never went through a conversion program), many of the Reform synagogues have actually tightened up the requirements for conversion, just so that the issue about 'are you really a Jew' does not arise.
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