So You Have a Jewish Father: A Guide to When Dad is Jewish but Mom is not
So you have a Jewish father.
You may identify as Jewish. And you may not. You might say that you are half Jewish, or you could just be confused. Any of these answers are completely understandable.
You may have been told that you aren’t really Jewish. This could have come from a campus Chabad rabbi, a friend, or even by the State of Israel.
Conversely you may have been told that you are Jewish. This could have come from a Reform rabbi, a friend, or on a Birthright trip.
My hope is that this guide will be able to delineate the history, questions, and potential issues that arise when your father is Jewish and mother is not. I have tried my best to keep this as factual as possible, without the input of my own feelings on the matter.
First the history:
Ancient Judaism, in its nascent tribal form, almost certainly passed down “Jewishness” by the father. The Torah recounts that a year after the Jews left Egypt, God commanded Moses to take a census of the Israelite population.
“Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers' houses” (Numbers 1:2).
It’s hard to interpret this verse in any way other than an attestation to the fact that patrilineal descent was the dominant mode of identity, including the carrier of Jewishness, in ancient times. In fact, this is exactly how the Talmud understands this verse where, in a number of places, they point out that the status of a child’s Jewishness is dependant on only the father (Bava Batra 109b). The fact that being a Cohen or Levi is dependant on only the father is a remnant from this ancient tribal law.
Furthermore, the Hebrew Bible is filled with stories of Jewish men taking non-Jewish wives – with absolutely no indication that their offspring were gentiles. If we took a full account of the male biblical heroes who married and had (Jewish) children with non-Jewish women, the list would take up a full paragraph. Some major examples are Jacob, Joseph, Judah, Moses, David and Solomon, just to name a few.
However, about 2000 years ago, the reality began to change. The Jewish Temple was destroyed by the Roman empire, scattering the Jews throughout the known world and ushering in a 1,900 year diaspora. As Judaism slowly morphed from a Temple-centric, Israel-based, fluid tribal tradition into its modern form, the mother’s Jewishness became both a necessary and sufficient factor for the offspring to be Jewish. In other words, if your mom was Jewish you were Jewish, if not then you were not Jewish.
While the exact reason is unknown, this change probably occurred for a few reasons. The Jewish diaspora meant that, for the first time in Jewish history, Jews would be spread throughout the corners of the world. Instead of a united nation, Judaism and Jewish identity became much more religious in nature than national or tribal (more on this later). Within this switch, being Jewish no longer meant being born into a patriarchal tribe of all Jews. Rather, Jews were spread out amongst the gentiles and needed new laws to ensure its continuation.
In this light, switching to matrilineal descent protected two things. It assured that the men (who were more likely to intermarry) would marry a Jewish woman since they would presumably want their children to be Jewish. And it further assured there would be no question on whether or not the child would be Jewish in a case where the father’s identity was suspect given the increase in intermarriage and/or rape.
Given these sociological changes, Jewish law, as delineated by the Mishna (2nd century CE), codified Jewishness solely based off the mother. This was the universal and unanimously accepted view throughout the Jewish world for the next 1,600 years.
Fast forward 1,600 years and things begin to change.
First the Jewish enlightenment ushered in an irreligious form of Judaism. Waves of people who had rejected God and the divinity of the Torah still saw their Jewish identity as something of inherent importance to their personal identities. These individuals, people like Freud or Einstein, retained a strong connection to Judaism while simultaneously rejecting the dogma and legalistic aspects of the Jewish tradition.
While a strong secular Jewish tradition was growing, the rise of racial anti-semitism began to proliferate across Europe. Suddenly, for the European public, being Jewish had nothing to do with religious conviction or whether or not one’s mother was Jewish - racial anti-semitism cared only about genetics. For Hitler and his ilk, only one Jewish grandparent, on either side, was a sufficient requisite for Jewishness.
The survivors of the attempted genocide saw themselves as Jewish, regardless of whether or not their mother was Jewish. And who could blame them?
Furthermore, also during this time, many Jews began to immigrate to America, a place that was undergoing perhaps the exact opposite phenomenon. In America where anti-semitism was minimal and Jews were never confined to the ghetto, intermarriage became a normative and even accepted choice by some of the Jewish community.
Here, in America, it was no longer a question of secular Jews not caring about Jewish law or persecuted Jews identifying as Jews because of anti-semitism against them. In America, for this first time since the Mishna, Jewish movements actually tried to change the legal definition of Jewish identity based off of one’s parents.
In stride, it was the American-grown movement of Reconstructionist Judaism that was the first to change this law. First in 1968 with the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and then in 1979 with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Assembly - the Reconstructionist movement considered an individual Jewish if they had a Jewish father and was raised/educated as a Jew.
A couple of years later, in 1983, the American Reform movement followed suit prompting backlash from the Conservative movement who, in 1986, reiterated their commitment to only following matrilineal descent. Ditto for Orthodoxy.
This is the history (albeit a very brief one), but there are still plenty of unanswered questions.
Why have some Jewish movements changed the definition while others have not?
Will people from the Conservative or Orthodox movement view you as Jewish if you are a Reform Jew with a Jewish father?
What about non-Ashkenazi Jews (as my history of modern Judaism was very Eurocentric)?
It is here where we must take a step back.
This is not simply an isolated debate about one specific aspect of Jewish law and tradition, rather this touches on a much larger debate about the overall importance of Jewish law. While the Conservative and Orthodox movements view Jewish law as binding (though to different degrees), their Reform and Reconstructionist counterparts do not (while this is a gross oversimplification it holds true for this topic).
Given that Jewish law dictates that Judaism is a binary dependant on the mother, Orthodox and Conservative Jewish communities will not see you as Jewish. This is not because they are mean or unwelcoming rather it corresponds to their view of Judaism and the legal obligations demanded of the Jewish community. And, given that Reform and various forms of secular Judaism do not view Jewish law as binding, they were willing to change the legal definition of Jewishness.
Furthermore, it is absolutely critical to point out that my history of this debate is extremely Ashkenazi-centric. It was the Ashkenazi Jewish world that went through the enlightenment, subsequent fracturing into multiple form of Judaism, and the Holocaust - the three major factors within this debate.
Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewish communities, to the extent that they haven’t been influenced by the Ashkenaz dominant Jewish institutions, generally take a much more traditional approach to this question and will general follow Jewish law in stride with the Conservative and Orthodox movements.
What about the state of Israel, how does that play a role?
To add one final layer of complexity we must discuss the state of Israel. Israel is a Jewish state, and while the exact definition of this label is subject to endless debate, most people agree that at its root it means that any Jew throughout the world has the right to automatically become a citizen upon request. The the obvious question then is: according to what definition?
One of the major philosophical tenets of Zionism is that Judaism is not a religion, but rather a nation with indigenous roots going back to ancient Israel. Given that all Jews, whether Mizrachi, Sephardic, or Ashkenaz can trace back their history to ancient Israel, this is a definition of Judaism that is historically accurate but is contrary to the definition of Jewishness as defined by Jewish law.
If the Jews are a nation, then it should not matter which parent is Jewish. If either of your parents are Jewish you could identify as Jewish or half-Jewish, within this framework either of these options makes sense. Furthermore, one of the major reasons for the founding of the Jewish state was to protect Jews from racial anti-semitism. A form of anti-semitism that cared not which one of your parents (or even grandparents) were Jewish.
The Right of Return law was initially codified in the early 1950’s as following strict Jewish law (the default option at the time). However, roughly 20 years later it was expanded to include nearly all cases of individuals who may identify as Jewish. Here is the definition:
The rights of a Jew under this Law and the rights of an oleh under the Nationality Law, 5712-1952***, as well as the rights of an oleh under any other enactment, are also vested in a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew, except for a person who has been a Jew and has voluntarily changed his/her religion. (Law of Return)
While it doesn’t directly touch upon our case, one interesting point here is to notice that under Jewish law, Jews cannot convert out of Judaism but under the Right of Return one can. Cases such as Jewish converts to Christianity (such as Jews for Jesus) are interesting because under Jewish law they are still Jewish, but under the Right of Return they are not.
One final point when it comes to Israel is that there is a difference between the Right of Return’s definition of Jewishness and the internal Israeli governmental definition of Jewishness.
In Israel the lines between church and state are blurred and the rabbinical court has oversight over things such as marriage laws (there is no secular marriage in Israel). Therefore, whether or not one is Jewish has legal ramifications in the state of Israel. For instance, in Israel a Jew can only marry a Jew (same with Christians and Muslim). Without making an ethical or political judgment on this law, it is important to point out that the rabbinical courts in Israel are Orthodox and they therefore follow strict Jewish law.
So, If your father is Jewish (but not your mother), you would be considered Jewish under the Right of Return, but once you become an Israeli citizen you will no longer be considered Jewish for legalistic purposes.
So are you Jewish?
By now you should realize that there truly is no one correct answer to this question. According to some Jewish communities who strictly adhere to Jewish law, no - according to others that take a more secular or nationalistic view of Judaism, yes - and from the point of the state of Israel, kinda.
If it bothers you that some Jews will not view you as Jewish, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. One is that conversion is always an option. Every sect of Judaism views conversion as legitimate (even though they each have different standards regarding the process). But, any individual is eligible for Orthodox conversation, and once the process is over they will be seen as Jewish by everyone.
Second, no one denies your Jewishness out of any sort malice towards you, they are simply basing their view off of Jewish law - nothing more and nothing less. These communities feel as bound by Jewish law, as you feel bound by gravity. While that last sentence seems a bit hyperbolic, it is truly what is felt by members of the Orthodox community.
Finally, identity is a complex and tricky thing and, regardless of what other people think, you should feel proud to live out your identity to the fullest. Especially once you have a fuller understanding of the germane historical and legalistic implications of your Jewishness.
If you identify as a non-Jew, great. A half-Jew, great. A full Jew, great. A confused Jew... welcome to the club!
Author’s note: As this is a very different type of article than my normal style, I wanted to leave my email in case anyone had any follow-up questions or implications to explore. I can be reached at email@example.com, please never hesitate to reach out.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
My mother isn't/wasn't Jewish, my father is. I was raised Reform, had a bat mitzvah, [was Jewishly educated, celebrated holidays, identify as Jewish, participated in the Jewish community, did not participate in or celebrate any other faith or religion,] etc. If I have children with a man recognized as fully Jewish, how would they be seen in the eyes of Israel and the American Jewish community (particularly the Conservative movement)? How stable are Israel's laws around this -- could they change in 10 years? What about halachah (Jewish law)? I would really appreciate an answer, even if it's not what I want to hear. Thank you!
See answers from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis here.
If you have a question about Jewish values that you would like to ask rabbis from multiple denominations, click here to enter your question. We will ask rabbis on our panel for answers and post them. You can also search our repository of over 800 questions and answers about Jewish values.
For more great Jewish content, please subscribe in the right-hand column. Once you confirm your subscription, you'll get an email whenever new content is published to the Jewish Values Online blog.