Liminality, Memory, and Patrilineal Jews

My Jewish identity depends on the theological positions of those who gaze at me

“Are you Jewish?” Someone, usually Jewish asks another person they suspect is also a member of the tribe.

“Well, I’m half Jewish.”

“The right half?”

I’ve overheard this “joke” several times before. What it refers to is the traditional definition of a Jew: someone who has a Jewish mother, or someone who has converted to Judaism. (And usually, people forget that second part.)

Because not all American Jews now use this traditional definition to determine “Jewishness,” this can be a point of tension in the contemporary American scene. Patrilineal Jews can be liminal Jews: accepted as Jewish in some synagogues, and considered Gentile in others. As a liberal convert to Judaism, I experience many of these same issues. My Jewish identity depends on the theological positions of those who gaze at me, not on my own relationship to my people or my own convictions.

jewish star of david architecture

Photo by Dhruv Weaver on Unsplash [Black and white photo of an architectural detail of wires which, when looked at from below, makes a large image of Star of David.]

I was reading Regina Stein’s “The Road to Bat Mitzvah in America” in Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives when I read something that stunned me.

One major distinction between the Reform and Conservative views on bat mitzvah did emerge in the late 1950s. Within the Reform movement alone, bat mitzvah as well as bar mitzvah came to embody the public acknowledgement that a child, thought not born to a Jewish mother and therefore not Jewish according to the traditional definition, was to be accepted by the community.[1]

“In the 1950s?!” I exclaimed aloud, bewildered.


Photo by Sahar Mann on Unsplash [Photograph of a 1950s-style diner booth with Venetian blinds leaving shadows on the table.]

“In the 1950s?!” I exclaimed aloud, bewildered.

The Reform movement of the United States officially passed a statement indicating that patrilineal Jews (that is, Jews with a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother) who were raised Jewish were to be considered Jewish. In 1983.

And it’s still by no means a “settled” or “done” decision. Sue Fishkoff wrote in the Baltimore Jewish Times in 2011 how non-American Reform communities still generally did not accept patrilineal Jews; Some communities were afraid that if they did so they would lose potential members. Jean-Francois Levy, a former president of the Liberal Jewish Movement of France was quoted as saying: “We meet people sympathetic to us, and I’m afraid that those who might join us would not do so if we embrace patrilineality. …They would say ‘Look, they don’t even know the most basic Jewish traditions’ “[2]

The article even discusses how some Reform organizations in Costa Rica and Panama have accepted patrilineal Jews in the past, only to change back to the more traditional position of requiring conversion after the appointment of more conservative rabbis.[3]

Historicizing Orthodox reactions to Reform Judaism, Adam S. Ferziger notes that the decision to accept patrilineal Jews may have been even more upsetting to Orthodox leaders than the decisions Reform Judaism has made involving gender equality, officiating same-sex marriages, and officiating at mixed marriages.

However, the willingness of Reform rabbis to officiate at mixed marriages and to
endorse same-sex unions, and particularly the landmark decision to sanction patrilineal descent as a basis for defining Jewishness, have highlighted the far more radical departure of Reform ideology from traditional Jewish norms. Such Reform policies brought even liberal-thinking Orthodox leaders such as Jonathan Sacks, the British United Synagogue chief rabbi, to remark in 1993 that “[t]hey increase the likelihood that at some time Orthodoxy will see Reform as it saw
Christianity: as a separate religion.”[Emphasis mine][4]

It is this question moreso than other theological or social issues that gets under the skin of those involved: what exactly makes someone Jewish?

What exactly makes someone Jewish?

Returning to the resolution the Reform movement passed in 1983, the Resolution talks about the Emancipation and the Enlightenment as guiding nexuses to understand the problem:

This issue arises from the social forces set in motion by the Enlightenment and the Emancipation. They are the roots of our current struggle with mixed marriage.[5]

This is unsurprising for the Reform movement, which traces its lineage back to both the Emancipation — the time when Jews could claim citizenship of the nation-states in which they resided in — and the Enlightenment — a philosophical turn in the 18th century which emphasized personal rationality and freedom.

The resolution continues:

When, in the tradition, the marriage was considered not to be licit, the child of that marriage followed the status of the mother (Mishna Kiddushin 3.12, havalad kemotah). The decision of our ancestors thus to link the child inseparably to the mother, which makes the child of a Jewish mother Jewish and the child of a nonJewish mother non-Jewish, regardless of the father, was based upon the fact that the woman with her child had no recourse but to return to her own people. A Jewish woman could not marry a non-Jewish man (cf. Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha-ezer 4.19, la tafsei kiddushin). A Jewish man could not marry a non-Jewish woman. The only recourse in Rabbinic law for the woman in either case was to return to her own community and people.[6]

In times of matrimonial strife, women were assumed to return, with their babies, to their own communities of origin. And this, the resolution explains, is the reason for the rabbinic ruling that the status of the mother is the only determining factor in the Jewishness or non-Jewishness of a child.

But now, the resolution continues, we live in happier times. Endogamy (marrying within a particular social group) is no longer required in most communities! People fall in love and make babies with all sorts of people — isn’t that wonderful?

I was sure…

I was sure that the decision of Reform Jews to accept patrilineal Jews was new, recent. Groundbreaking, even. It’s not a settled issue, by any means:

Right there, in the Resolution itself, the Reform movement talks about previously-agreed-upon measures to accept patrilineal Jews. The Resolution summarizes an earlier statement adopted by the CCAR (the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinical group of Reform Rabbis in America) in 1947:

With regard to infants, the declaration of the parents to raise them as Jews shall be deemed sufficient for conversion. This could apply, for example, to adopted children. This decision is in line with the traditional procedure in which, according to the Talmud, the parents bring young children (the Talmud speaks of children earlier than the age of three) to be converted, and the Talmud comments that although an infant cannot give its consent, it is permissible to benefit somebody without his consent (or presence). On the same page the Talmud also speaks of a father bringing his children for conversion, and says that the children will be satisfied with the action of their father.[7]

Interestingly, things get a little muddled here. The summary of the 1947 document uses the language of “conversion”: making it clear that before the event of conversion happens, these patrilineal Jewish infants are not yet Jews. However, the traditional process of conversion (circumcision and/or submerging oneself in a ritual bath called a mikvah) is not needed. Instead, a simple declaration of intent on behalf of the parents is enough for the conversion to take place.

But then, a few words later, we see that Confirmation (a ceremony not indigenous to Judaism, but added in America based off of similar Christian traditions as a way to celebrate the end of high-school level religious education) is suddenly considered a conversion “ceremony”:

Children of religious school age should likewise not be required to undergo a special ceremony of conversion but should receive instruction as regular students in the school. The ceremony of Confirmation at the end of the school course shall be considered in lieu of a conversion ceremony.[8]

The 1983 document now discusses a Rabbinical handbook published by them in 1961. Here, the Reform position seems to have slipped towards more traditional once more:

The child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, accoridng to traditional law, is a Gentile; such a person would have to be formally converted in order to marry a Jew or become a synagogue member.[9]

Perhaps this is not a slippage-in-policy rather than a difference between how to deal with patrilineal children rather than patrilineal adults. Suddenly, when it is time for these patrilineal Jews to be more than children running around Hebrew School on Sunday morning does their Jewishness swing into full focus once more.

Ultimately, the 1983 ends relatively unambiguously:

The Central Conference of American Rabbis declares that the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption of the Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people. The performance of these mitzvot serves to commit those who participate in them, both parent and child, to Jewish life.[10]

The wiggle here is how involved a patrilineal Jew has to be in formal Jewish education to be able to call themselves Jewish. In order to be considered Jewish, the Reform movement still wants the child in question to undergo some kind of Jewish education.

But I was wrong.

I’m still a bit startled by this. I was pretty sure I knew my American Jewish denominational history — but I was wrong.

I had assumed that the 1983 Resolution had been groundbreaking. Because people now are still fighting about it. But it wasn’t that groundbreaking — the Reform movement in American had been slowly inching in that direction for decades.

What this points to, I think, is something I try very hard to instill in my undergraduate classes.

The past was not necessarily like today, but only more conservative. People often assume this — because the common understanding of time and society is that as time marches on, people become more accepting, more liberal. It’s a false narrative used to encourage a particular way of thinking about the world — for either conservative or liberal ends. And yes, in many cases the past was more “conservative” than it was today. But not always. And not of a matter of course.

American Rabbis were giving patrilineal Jews b’nei mitzvah in the 1950s!

The reality is messier.

[1] Regina Stein. “The Road to Bat Mitzvah in America,” in Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives, ed. by Pamela S. Nadell and Jonathan Sarna. (Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 2001), 228.

[2] Sue Fishkoff, “Reform Twist On ‘Who Is A Jew?’,” Baltimore Jewish Times, February 18, 2011, 40-41.

[3] Sue Fishkoff, “Reform Twist on ‘Who Is A Jew?'”, 40-41.

[4] Adam S. Ferziger. “From Demonic Deviant to Drowning Brother: Reform Judaism in the Eyes of American Orthodoxy,” Jewish Social Studies 15, no. 3. (Spring/Summer 2009): 60.

[5] Status of Children of Mixed Marriages. Resolution Adopted by the CCAR. Adopted on March 15th, 1983.
[6] Status of Children of Mixed Marriages.

[7] ibid

[8] ibid

[9] ibid

[10] ibid



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