Judaism 101: Born Jewish?

Judaism 101: Born Jewish? April 4, 2013

My Judaism 101 series will return in a couple of weeks, moving on to topics like the nature of God and the meaning of sin, but for the moment I want to post another rabbit trail that resulted from a previous Judaism 101 email thread. This time the panelists went off topic and discussed the issue of descent. We’ll get back to the topic of what makes someone Jewish later, of course, but for the moment I found this discussion interesting because of how foreign it sounded.

In my family and church growing up, a person’s status as an evangelical had nothing to do with who was descended from who and everything to do with what one believed. There was a huge amount of emphasis on having a conversion moment, meaning that being raised evangelical was absolutely not enough to make one evangelical. To be an evangelical, one had to pray the sinner’s prayer and profess faith in God and belief in the Bible. Who your parents were or whether you’d grown up evangelical didn’t matter. Now of course, in practice those raised in evangelical churches and those who convert as adults have different experiences. But still, the differences between this background and Jewish ideas about descent, identity, and conversion is immense.

I think it’s fairly obvious that a large part of the difference is rooted in the fact that Judaism is not just a religion but also an ethnicity, a racial community. Evangelicalism, in contrast, strives to transcend issues of race, ethnicity, or descent (at least in theory). Another thing I found particularly interesting in reading this discussion was the role Judaism’s history played in shaping and forming its ideas about descent and who belongs and who does not—this was something I hadn’t really realized much before. But you can see for yourself.

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What interests me is what kind of structures, institutions, or methods (if any) Reform Judaism in the U.S. formed to come up with consensus regarding practices and policies. For instance when they started accepting patrilineal descent as well as matrilineal—was it a matter of some communities changing and others deciding individually to follow or was there a discussion of leadership followed by a central decision or something in between? And if anything on this scale turns up now or in the near future, how does Reform Judaism do it?



The reason why patrilinal decent is an issue is because traditionally Judaism is passed down through the maternal line—if your mother is Jewish, so are you.  If your mother is not Jewish or did not have a halakhically valid conversion, then you are not Jewish unless you convert yourself.  That’s it, full stop. So without accepting patrilinial decent, a Jewish man who marries a non-Jewish woman and has children with her has non-Jewish children.  No matter what they do, how observant they are otherwise, how much those kids identify as Jewish, they are not. This gets to the heart of the “Who is a Jew” identity flame wars.  But Reform Judaism’s decision to consider children of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother fully as Jews in their own right, without conversion, it was a HUGE break with tradition and it didn’t come easily. This is personal to me because my mother didn’t convert until after my brother and I were born.  It was when she realized that if anything happened to us that she would grieve as a Jew that she finally decided to officially convert for her own sake. I grew up a patrilinal Jew.  This was me they were talking about, this was my family on the line, my mother whose official status would me make me “not really Jewish” no matter what I did or how I spoke up on behalf of Judaism.

Click here for a link to some definitions about who is and is not considered Jewish, by denomination.

But during the 60’s and 70’s more and more Jews where marrying out, and if their children weren’t considered Jewish it was a huge net loss to Judaism.  Considering how much physical survival has always been an issue for us, the potential cost of loosing that many people from intermarriage was a crisis.  Reform Rabbis have no authority to command their congregants to marry only Jews.  They can lead, support, educate, give sermons, guilt-trip, strongly encourage Jewish marriage and refuse to officiate at mixed-marriages, but they cannot command anything. I have great respect for the Rabbis at my temple and I’ve gone to them for help, but they have no authority over me, over what I believe or how I practice Judaism.

It was a really contentious issue and most rabbis would not officiate at a mixed marriage wedding. But finally it got to the point where a decision had to made because so many people were falling in love and marrying non-Jews, and being told to choose between the person they loved or their religion was breaking the community apart. Mostly what drove that decision was necessity, and the reality of what people where doing.

Intermarriage and the rabbi have been frequently discussed. In 1909 the CCAR adopted the following negative resolution: “Mixed marriages are contrary to the tradition of the Jewish religion and should therefore be discouraged by the American rabbinate.” Several attempts to strengthen this resolution were defeated. In 1971 the opponents of rabbis officiating at intermarriages raised the issue again. An ad hoc committee brought a new resolution to the 1973 convention that again was strongly debated and much amended until the following text was adopted:

The Central Conference of American Rabbis, recalling its stand adopted in 1909 …now declares its opposition to participation by its members in any ceremony which solemnizes a mixed marriage.

[It] recognizes that historically its members have held and continue to hold divergent interpretations of Jewish tradition.

In order to keep open every channel to Judaism and K’lal Yisrael for those who’vealready entered into mixed marriage, the CCAR calls upon its members:

1. to assist fully in educating children of such mixed marriages as Jews;

2. to provide the opportunity for conversion of the non-Jewish spouse; and

3. to encourage a creative and consistent cultivation of involvement in the Jewish community and the synagogue. . . .

In his presidential address at the 1979 UAHC Biennial, Rabbi Alexander Schindler called on the CCAR to redefine “Who Is a Jew?” to include patrilinear as well as matrilinear descent, provided that the parents announce that they are rearing their child Jewishly or that the child receives formal Jewish education. For many Reform rabbis, this had been accepted practice and was specifically stated in the 1961 revision of the Rabbi’s Manual.

This is the formal CCAR Responsa* on children of mixed marriages. Basically the decision is that if you have one Jewish parent and identify as Jewish with some minimum level of Jewish practice then you are considered Jewish. This is in some ways stricter then the traditional belief that having a Jewish mother is sufficient, because someone with a Jewish mother, non-Jewish father who is raised with no Jewish identity, or chooses as an adult to completely walk away from any and all association with Judaism at any level, isn’t considered Jewish.  So between my brother and I, I’m Jewish and he is not.  He’s left Judaism as a religion, people, and heritage at all levels; he’s not coming to our parents seder even though he still lives with them.  I respect that he made an honest decision about what he believes.  He’s still my brother, still a good person and I still love him.

I have been trying to find out exactly what happened—there probably was some type of vote among the rabbinic leadership after a few years of committees talking about interfaith marriages, mixed marriages, and conversion. I can’t find the exact system used to ratify new positions in the URJ/former UAHC and CCAR, but knowing in general how these things work, my best guess is committees  committees, a few more committees, and a resolution.   Rabbi Schindler was at the head of the UAHC then, and he pushed very hard for outreach to people in mixed marriages and their children.  Sticking solely to matrilinial decent was not worth losing half of Reform children and families over.  It’s true the Orthodox would never accept it, they still haven’t, but they’d never fully accept Reform as a way of being Jewish that is equally as valid as themselves anyway.

*Responsa is a very old Jewish tradition used to adapt to changing conditions.  If a specific issue arises that the local rabbi can’t deal with, they send a letter to a more famous scholar describing their problem.  That rabbinic scholar then checks the entire body of Jewish law and comes up with an answer.  This has been going on since the middle ages, and is still used today.  Reform have our own traditions of Responsa which are guidelines but not binding.

How would Reform respond to something on this scale now?  I think something similar happened with regards to the resolution in 2000 regarding gay and lesbian marriage, the issue of same-sex marriage was driven by the needs of the congregations until a tipping point was reached. Then the CCAR and UAHC took the lead and spent a couple years in committees talking, studying, talking some more, checking references, checking the scientific data available, a few more committees, and finally voted on a resolution that any rabbi who wanted to officiate at a same sex wedding was not only free to do so but would be supported and would have ritual material available.  However, anybody who doesn’t want to officiate at such a wedding is not compelled to against their conscience. Overall though Reform leadership and rabbinate is very committed to outreach, and inclusion of interfaith families and gay and lesbian families. Believe me, it is real commitment, they have truly invested in such families and walked the walk.  Are there still jerks and occasional bigots in Reform temples?  Of course, in 1.5 million people we are going to have our fair share of jerks and idiots.  But the sincerity from the top leadership is absolute.

In my opinion, this outreach decision has been a success.  Many families who would have been further alienated from Judaism have instead been welcomed.  This is my generation, I was part of the very first wave of children covered by patrilinal decent.  I know other couples like Penny and myself, where between two people only 2 out of 8 grandparents are Jewish, and they are proudly, joyfully raising their children as Jews.  The people who have joined us by first falling in love with a Jew and then deciding to become Jewish for themselves, or committing to raise Jewish children, have given so much life and love to our communities and we are so much richer for them as a people.  What was recorded in the book of Ruth, “Where you go I will go, your people shall be my people, your God shall be my God” has been said over, and over, and over, and over, and over again. And more often then not it is the person for whom Judaism is something new and special who brings their spouse into a greater appreciation of their heritage when the person raised Jewish see’s it through new eyes.

Anat, I know I’ve probably way over-explained this, but I’m explaining for you as well as everybody else on Libby’s blog who is going to read it.  I hope I answered your questions well enough.  IMO there are some significant ways in which the number of people joining us from a non-Jewish background is changing Reform Judaism, but I can get into that later.


Petticoat Philosopher

I’m a matrilineal Jew but patrilineal descent is something I feel pretty strongly about too. (As in, I can’t believe this is a controversy at all among any in this day and age…) Should I add those thoughts here or save them for when we address this topic more directly?

I will say right now that, to the credit of the Reform communities I’ve been a part of or witnessed, there hasn’t been any discrimination against or even differential treatment of patrilineal Jewish families. I have a few friends who are Reform patrilineal Jews and their families didn’t have any extra hoops to jump through to prove themselves. A general word about progressive Jews—we don’t always necessarily listen to higher authority. :-p

Which sits just fine with me because, although it’s not an issue that will ever affect me directly—my Judaism will never be questioned by anyone and, since I am a woman, neither will the Judaism of any children I have—I think it’s just an issue of fairness and well, common sense. I will not accept less from any community that I’m part of than equal treatment of children of all Jewish families, whether they have two Jewish parents or one–of any gender. (Well, I should say “two Jewish parents where one is a woman” because there are, of course, Jewish families where both parents are men!)


Ki Sarita

Note regarding the end of your posts: the Halachic movements in Judaism (those adhering to Jewish law) require conversion of non-biological children, being raised as Jews. They are not automatically considered Jewish.



Yeah, when I was a few months old my adoptive mother had me converted to Judaism with a full mikva and everything. If I had ever wanted to marry an Orthodox Jew or even some Conservative Jews or have my children considered Jewish I wouldn’t have been able to without going through some extra hoops. Then before my Bat Mitzva my rabbi (one of the warmest and kindest women I have ever met) sat down with me and said (basically) “because you were too young to make your own decision when you were converted, you now have the choice whether to ‘ratify’ your mother’s choices for you or to choose something different”. Of course at the time I chose to go through with my Bat Mitzva, but later I talked to my rabbi and told her I was learning about the Pagan faiths. She said “if it makes you happy and fulfilled, go for it”.

Being that I was raised Jewish from infancy and can’t ever remember a time before I was converted I sometimes have difficulty reconciling my experiences with those of other converted Jewish people. I was never treated any differently, and quite honestly in my community there was never any real acknowledgement that I was anything other than a full-fledged Jew. It helped that I shared the same coloring as my adoptive mother, so often new members wouldn’t even know I was adopted. Looking back I feel like the issue was kind of swept under the rug, though I don’t think it was out of any active desire to whitewash my origins so much as ignorance as to how it affected me.

. . . so I notice I kind of went off on a tangent, but it all feels relevant so I hope you guys don’t mind. 🙂



Alexis—I’m glad to hear that being adopted nobody ever questioned your identity as a Jewish child.  Penny and I hope to adopt and raise our children at our temple, and I know of other adopted children there, including children of color.  I don’t know the kids personally but from what I see tell they are well accepted.  I know one Vietnamese boy who was adapted by a Jewish mother—whose lesbian partner converted.  Two woman, one Jewish by choice, and an Asian son—just another family to support, celebrate with, and be welcome part of the community.  Just like every other family.



You know, I didn’t understand the issues with only accepting matrilineal descent for quite some time, as it seemed obvious: you always know who the mother is, you can’t quite be sure who the father is, so we assign Jewish identity by the mother (though, interestingly, tribal identity by the father).

Growing up, whenever I met with someone identifying as a half-Jew, I would ask automatically, “which half?” If they said “mom’s,” I’d go,  “good, you’re one of us!” If they said “dad’s”, I would wince and go, “that’s okay, we’ll let you in.” I did this routine so many times, having copied it verbatim from what my mother would do, which is very likely what her mother would do, each being a product of their time and place. (After all, allowing patrilineal descent would make us no
different than the Reform Jews! They pray in English, for heaven’s sake!)

But I was wrong. There were two important steps to me figuring this out:

1) The summer before my senior year of high school, I met a young woman with a very similar story to Hilary’s: her mother hadn’t converted to Judaism until after she was born, so she had to go through a conversion process. She wanted it to be valid in Israel, so even though she was, like me, Conservative, she was going through this very strict Orthodox process. And I looked at her, and admired how hard she was working and the lengths to which she was going, and I looked at myself, and noticed how comparatively lax I was in observance and how I kept trying to get out the burden of going to services, and I went, “if you compared our observance rates, you’d think she’s Jewish and I’m not, but because her mother converted after
she was born, she’s got to jump through all of these hoops and I get a free pass!”

For those playing along at home: this was my very first realization that I had privilege.

2) A few years later, I was working as an engagement professional (my actual title) at Hillel, trying to get unengaged/unobservant Jews to come in and take part in the Jewish student group. I was talking with one girl who had stopped by about an environmental activity I was planning and trying to make a connection, when she went, “sorry, I’m
the wrong half.”

All of a sudden, this wave of guilt washed over me and I went, “I’m sorry, we really shouldn’t say that.” And since then, I’ve realized that in the age of DNA, if you really care about identifying who’s Jewish by blood, we have no need to rely on who the mother is.

Another story, which may fit here or may fit in another post: When I first started dating a non-Jewish boy, it took me months before I could tell my mom. When I finally did, she didn’t disown me outright, but she did tell me she was upset, and finally tried her hardest to put it in terms I’d understand.

I just keep thinking, how would Mrs. Weasley react if one of her kids came home with a Muggle? And I stared at her and went, “Mom, Mrs. Weasley wouldn’t care. You know who would care? Mrs. Malfoy.”


Petticoat Philosopher

A little more about patrilineal descent: To be honest, I did not even know that “matrilineal descent only” was a rule for many Jews until other, non-Jewish kids (and some teachers too) at school told me when I was in elementary school! Where I grew up, in a medium-sized city in the Great Lakes, there weren’t that many Jews around and people knew very little about Judaism, but that seems to be something that they’d picked up somewhere. After being very authoritatively told by a handful of gentiles that it was okay for me to consider myself Jewish because it was my mom who was Jewish (gee, thanks for the permission!) and being quite bewildered, I asked my mom what on earth these people were talking about and she explained. She had never told me about the exclusion from Judaism of children with Jewish fathers instead of mothers (which was true even in Reform Judaism when she was a kid, as Hilary explained, although not in my time as I was born in the 80s) because she had always found it silly. Several of the couples that my parents were and are close friends with are mixed couples where the husband is Jewish spouse and the children have been raised Jewish. She didn’t want to teach my to make distinctions that she found meaningless.

And that’s perhaps why, from the start, the matrilineal descent rule seemed not only incredibly unfair but just plain nonsensical. I grew up with patrilineal Jews and many are still my friends. They were immersed in Jewish culture, as I was, used Yiddish words around the house as I did, helped make the hamantaschen and got told to stop eating all the filling before it was in the cookies like I did, saw themselves in the Israelites being liberated from Egypt on Passover as I did. To say that, because they had Jewish fathers and gentile mothers instead of the reverse that they were gentiles, the same as anyone who wouldn’t know a matzah ball if one hit them in the head? That’s…not logical. To me, the distinction between a matrilineal Jewish child and a patrilineal Jewish child was always one that was evidently and demonstrably meaningless. And since, today, as Rachel says, we can determine paternity if it’s really necessary, I don’t see what purpose it serves. I will be very, very happy to see it go from all sects (not that I expect any such thing from the Orthodox). And with no caveats, no extra lengths you need to go through to prove your Judaism that do not apply to me.

Adopted children of Jewish families: You know, it’s odd, but I actually didn’t even realize that adopted children had to be converted in the halakhic movements to be considered Jewish. I’ve never been part of one of the halakhic movements, and I don’t know any Jewish adoptees, so I never looked into it. I can’t say I much like that idea. (Can you tell that I’m going to being the one constantly saying protesting everything? I’m the “rebellious child” of the Haggadah, I guess. :-P) To me it seems like the adopted children are being treated as if they are less their parents children than if they were biological. Alexis, it certainly would never have crossed my mind to think of you as a convert. Like a patrilineal Jewish child, you grew up immersed in Judaism and I would see as a Jew the same as I am, or any other Jew is.

I understand the emotional power of the concept of “blood.” The idea that I have my beloved, departed Jewish grandmother’s blood running through my veins is powerful to me. But, in the end, I must acknowledge that it is just that–an idea. It is not my grandmother’s blood that really makes me her descendant. It is her teaching, her love, her example, her influence, the power she had in my life and the way she shaped me and help make me who I am. These things are what truly connect me to her. And these things are what truly connect me to Judaism. And adopted children have them just as much as I do.



Lydia—As a kid I never really saw myself as a convert either. It wasn’t until I started identifying more with my ethnic roots as an Irish woman that I started to think “Hey, I really was not born Jewish, now was I?” It didn’t bother me or anything, but it was still something I thought about.

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