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!
May you be blessed with wonderful children! How their status will be regarded will vary, depending on whom you ask, and what the context might be.
The Reform and Reconstructionist movements accept that a Jewish father can pass on Jewishness to his children, even if the mother is not Jewish. This is known as “patrilineal descent,” but it is not automatic. Usually, rabbis in these movements will expect to see some type of clear acts of Jewish identification on the part of the child in order to affirm Jewish status. In your case, most Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis would regard you as Jewish. Consequently, for most (but not all) Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, your children would be regarded as Jewish, whether or not the man you marry is “fully Jewish.” These rabbis would regard your Jewish status as sufficient to transmit Jewishness to your children, regardless of who you marry.
In the Conservative and Orthodox parts of the Jewish spectrum, patrilineal descent has not been accepted. Hence, with heavy hearts, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis would tell you that, despite all your Jewish involvement, you are not Jewish according to Jewish law. Most of these rabbis would make your conversion path to Judaism a relatively straightforward one, but would still require you to convert in order to establish your Jewish status. If you did not convert, and you married a “fully Jewish” man, he would not be capable of passing on Jewishness to your children. Hence, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis – who do not accept patrilineal descent – would regard your children as non-Jews, unless you convert under appropriate auspices. Again, this would be true regardless of whom you marry.
In Israel, matters are a little more complicated. The state of Israel and its governmental bodies would regard you as Jewish. This is because having a Jewish grandparent is still sufficient to be regarded as a Jew for purposes of the Law of Return. You should not assume that getting the various governmental bodies to see it this way would be an easy or hassle-free process. But, if you were persistent enough, the law would allow you to make aliyah (emigrate to Israel) as a Jew, and receive immediate citizenship as a Jew (should you so desire). This would not require conversion on your part, but would require letters from the rabbis who have known you over the years testifying to your Jewishness, and to the Jewish status of your father and paternal grandparents.
That’s the simple part. Where it gets more complicated is that while the state of Israel will regard you as a Jew, in Israel “status matters” are handled by the rabbinate. “Status matters” refers to issues of marriage, divorce, conversion etc.. In the case of people who the state regards as Jews, they refer all “status matters” to the jurisdiction of the rabbinate. And, in Israel, the rabbis who have jurisdictional authority over these matters are universally Orthodox. The Israeli Orthodox rabbinate would not regard you as Jewish, and nor would they regard your children as Jewish – again, without regard to who your husband might be. So you and your children (along with a substantial number of others) would be in the anomalous situation of being regarded as Jewish by the state, but not by the rabbinate.
You ask about the likelihood of change in these matters. It is, of course, very difficult to predict the future. While some individual rabbis who call themselves “Conservative” in the US might come to accept patrilineal descent, it seems unlikely that the movement as a whole will. As a result, it does not seem plausible that there will be any movement towards halakhic changes on this issue in either the Conservative or Orthodox worlds.
In Israel, any change that might come about would be more likely to be in the direction of greater stringency – i.e. tightening the Law of Return to stop the state accepting the Jewishness of those whose mothers are not Jewish – rather than greater leniency. It is important to stress, though, that there are no such moves currently on the horizon, and the preservation of the status quo seems the most likely future path.
Your inquiry cuts to the heart of one of the most difficult and potentially painful chapters in the development of modern Judaism. I am going to answer you as honestly and straightforwardly as possible, with the understanding that this is not just your own private destiny at stake here, but really that of the Jewish people as a whole.
I have written this slowly and with hesitation, because I am enormously sympathetic to your predicament and to the possibility that my response may sound harsh or unfeeling--it is not meant to be.
The short answer is that Jewish law will not recognize the children (or grandchildren) of a Jewish man and non-Jewish woman as Jews without benefit of conversion. This is universal in the Orthodox world and my understanding is that it is true of the Conservative Jewish world as well. The State of Israel is somewhat more complicated, because even though the children of a non-Jewish woman will not be registered as Jewish, they do in theory qualify for immigration rights because of their Jewish grandparent. In practice however, they may face difficulties. I do not envision this changing in the next ten years or most likely, ever (I say most likely because some important thinkers have held open the possibility that one day a renewed Sanhedrin might rethink even fundamental halakhic concepts and rulings-- see Rav Kook's 'Moreh Nevuchei Ha-Zman', chapters 8-12). I do not, similarly, envision Israeli law changing any time soon, though of course one cannot say what future political changes might bring.
It is important to understand that this is not about racial/biological distinctions. Though things may well have been different during certain parts of the biblical period (many stories in Genesis, for example, before the imposition of halakhkic norms, seem to assume patrilineal descent), it has been universally accepted by Jewish legal authorities that while tribal identity (i.e. Cohen, Levi, Israelite) is conveyed by the father, Jewishness is fundamentally conveyed by the mother. This is not something that Orthodox Jews believe they have the capacity to change just because social conditions seem to require it. It is rather something perceived as basic to our covenantal relationship with God, in which certain things have been mandated and are non-negotiable.
Whether or not you share that understanding, you may find it helpful to compare the issue of Jewishness with the example of how someone becomes a citizen of a country such as the United States. There are various paths to citizenship, such as naturalization, being born to American parents abroad or being born on American soil. But without one of those three paths as defined by American law, no amount of "feeling American" or being raised as an American will make you an American citizen, period. Every community has a limited number of paths to full citizenship, and traditional Judaism sees itself not just as a set of religious beliefs or rituals but also as a well-defined people, with all of the benefits and responsibilities that may entail. Indeed, that is why, even though I have great respect for the right of Reform Jews to live and worship in the way that seems right to them, I cannot help feeling that by unilaterally changing the definition of Jewishness to include patrilineal descent, the movement made a huge mistake that creates unfair burdens not just for people like you but for the Jewish people as a whole. This is one of the great fault lines in American Jewish life and will lead over time to deep schisms not just in religious belief or practice but more fundamentally in the sense of connectedness and peoplehood among different Jewish groups.
Your case is particularly painful because I understand that your father was Jewish and that you were also raised as a Jew. That must make this whole conversation extremely unnerving or even offensive to you. Yet I ask you to recognize that Jews who consider themselves faithful to halakha cannot simply will the law to be otherwise than what has been handed down to us.
The traditional Jewish response to a situation like yours is that someone who wants to bring their own existential sense of Jewishness and their halakhic status as a Jew better into sync has open to him or her the option of formal conversion. I want to be clear that I am not advocating this: conversion is an intensely personal decision that you need to think about in consultation with a local rabbi who knows you, but in a case like yours, with a Jewish father and a Jewish upbringing, it may be something you will one day want to consider, particularly if the issue you raise about children being Jewish is important to you.
Jewish Values Online is a great service to the Jewish community, but one thing it is not is an opportunity to forge personal bonds or to look a questioner in the eye to get a sense of who they are and convey your own human understanding of their situation. With that in mind, I apologize for any distress my answer may cause. May we all live to see our eyes opened in truth and kindness.
I have answered dozens of questions from this website. I haven’t dodged a single question and I’ve attempted to respond to each questioner in a timely fashion. Admittedly, I have procrastinated writing a response to this question for several months.
Why? Because I am a Conservative rabbi and this is perhaps the most challenging question that a Conservative rabbi can be asked in the beginning of the 21st century. My Reform and Orthodox colleagues were able to respond to this question in a much more timely fashion. The Reform rabbi is able to cite his movement’s historic 1983 resolution establishing that “if the child is raised exclusively as a Jew and one parent is Jewish, then the child is recognized as a Jew in Reform communities regardless of the gender of the Jewish parent.” The Orthodox rabbi frames his answer with words like “difficult” and “painful” but ultimately cites Halacha (Jewish law) as unable to recognize the children (or grandchildren) of a Jewish man and non-Jewish woman as Jews without benefit of conversion.
Like many Conservative rabbis this issue hits home with me. I have a first cousin who, by definition, is not considered Jewish according to Halacha. That means that according to the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, of which I’m a member, I am not permitted to officiate at her wedding should she marry an individual deemed Jewish according to Halacha. That marriage would be considered an intermarriage without a formal conversion, and the children of that marriage would not be considered Jewish from a Halachic definition. This cousin has been raised Jewish, attended Hebrew School, became a bat mitzvah in a Reform congregation, and considers herself Jewish. To complicate matters, her younger brother underwent a formal conversion in the mikveh after having a bris on the eighth day and is therefore regarded as Jewish according to Halacha. I’m not sure that there could be a more confusing example of the mess that has been created with Jewish identity in the modern American Jewish world.
Before making any recommendations as to how to resolve this issue or how I will respond to the question above, it is important to understand that the Reform Movement’s 1983 resolution allowing patrilineal descent didn’t create this mess, but it did complicate it further. In the almost 30 years since that decision, there has been much crossover between the Conservative and Reform movements in America. Thus, when the Reform movement issued its resolution (which was in the works for over 35 years), it might have thought the implications would be wholly positive and would really only impact Reform Jews (the resolution specifies “in Reform communities”). However, that resolution has had negative impacts on both the Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements. The question of “Who’s a Jew” has less implications for the Orthodox Jews in America as it is unusual for them to marry outside of their sect. It is when a Modern Orthodox or Conservative young person wants to marry an individual who has been considered Jewish through the Reform movement’s notion of patrilineal descent that we are posed with the problem. Jewish young people in these more liberal denominations interact throughout adolescence and the college years in youth groups, summer camps, Israel trips, and college Hillels. Additionally, following college Jewish communal organizations like Federation and B’nai Brith do not distinguish between patrilineal Jews and matrilineal Jews at young adult singles’ events.
We are now facing head on the inter-denominational challenges that have arisen from the Reform movement’s resolution as the children of that era are now of marriage age and having their own children. In response to the question above, I would respond as follows:
There is no question that you have been raised in a family that has embraced Judaism, Jewish culture, and Jewish values. You have grown up identifying as a Jewish person and because of your father’s Jewish heritage, you have a claim to the birthright of the Jewish people. The Reform denomination of Judaism, in which you have affiliated, acknowledges you as a full-fledged member of the Jewish people for all purposes. Should you marry a man who is Jewish through matrilineal descent, it would be advisable that you undergo a formal conversion so there would be no Halachic issues concerning your children’s Jewish identity.
Matters surrounding Israel’s legal system as it pertains to Jewish identity should not be an issue for you unless you plan to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen. Should that be the case, I would advise you to inquire about those issues at that time and not worry about them now. Like all civil laws, they have the ability to change over time based on Israel’s government at the time and the authority and opinion of the Chief Rabbinate.
As you acknowledged, this might not be the answer you want to hear, but at this time it is the reality. A conversion for someone in your situation (raised Jewishly who identifies as Jewish) is intended to make your Judaism more legitimate from a Halachic perspective. It should not be understood as undermining your religious identity throughout your life. It is a conversion in a different category than an individual becoming Jewish from another religion altogether. Consider it a technicality.
My ultimate goal is to remove such problems in the future so these painful questions don’t arise in the future. It is first important to acknowledge that this is a matter full of nuance and the American Jewish community is made up of very different communities who will never agree on most issues. That being said, this issue must be resolved for Jews from the more liberal movements of modern Judaism (Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Modern Orthodox) whose followers are marrying each other and raising families together.
Over the years, there have been several recommendations to fix this matter. Some have suggested mass conversions for all Jewish children before bar or bat mitzvah. Others have recommended that all brides and grooms go to the mikveh as a form of conversion before the wedding to assure Halachic Jewish status.
My proposal is to set a time limit on the status quo. Until the year 2020, matrilineal descent is the only accepted form of passing Jewish status genetically. Jewish individuals who are raised Jewish in a home with a Jewish father and identify as Jewish are to be considered Jewish from a cultural perspective, but must undergo a formal conversion for recognition as Jewish from a Halachic understanding.
After the year 2020, it will be understood that because of modern genetic testing (DNA tests) it is now possible to ascertain patrilineality with complete certainty. Therefore, a Jewish individual with at least one Jewish parent will be considered Jewish from a Halachic perspective for all matters. While the Orthodox will not agree to this, it will not have the same negative implications as the fissure between the Reform and Conservative movements that has existed for the past three decades.
The leaders of the American Jewish community should begin collaborating on such a partnership agreement. Only if we are on the same page on the matter of Jewish status will we be able to seek harmony among the disparate denominations of liberal Judaism. We cannot allow the ultra-Orthodox to dictate the definition of a Jewish individual, but we also cannot allow ourselves to be fractured by our own differing definitions of Jewish status. There has been far too much controversy and pain for this situation to continue unresolved.
For many centuries, traditional Jews around the world have interpreted halacha (Jewish law) to state that the religious identity of a child is shared with his or her mother. If the mother is Jewish then so is the child, if the mother is not Jewish then the child would not be recognized as Jewish. The American Reform Movement began to question this practice as early as 1947, but the Central Conference of American Rabbis (our national rabbinic umbrella organization) did not issue a formal resolution until 1983. In this resolution the CCAR established that if the child was raised exclusively as a Jew and one parent was Jewish, then the child would be recognized as a Jew in Reform communities regardless of the gender of the Jewish parent. This resolution, called the Resolution on Patrilineal Descent resulted in a serious rift between the Reform Movement on the one side and Conservative and Orthodox Jews on the other. Today it remains a significant point of contention between these groups.
The answer to your question, then, is: “it depends.” In American Reform and Reconstructionist communities your child would be considered Jewish because you are Jewish. In Conservative and Orthodox communities he or she would not be considered Jewish because you might not be acknowledged as Jewish despite your Reform Jewish upbringing and identity. In the United States there is a range of opinion within the Conservative movement. That said, most of the Conservative rabbis I know would require you to take part in a ritual conversion but not necessarily in an intense course of study leading up to it. In an Orthodox setting there would be far stricter requirements. Your conversion would need to be completed before the birth of your children for them to be recognized as fully Jewish in these communities.
As for your status in Israel, this is more complicated. Jewish religious law in Israel is currently under the control of Ultra-Orthodox state rabbis who do not recognize Conservative conversions and even some Orthodox conversions. This would only effect your children if they one day wanted to marry an Israeli in Israel under the supervision of the chief rabbinate (which is currently the only way to have a legal Jewish wedding in Israel). As the law in Israel currently stands your child would have to go through a conversion process under the supervision of a Ministry of Religion approved Orthodox rabbi before the wedding could take place. However, more and more Israeli couples are seeking to get married outside of Israel on their own terms and some even return to Israel for Reform ceremonies that are not recognized by the State. The Reform Movement in Israel has been fighting for religious pluralism for Jews in Israel for many years and has achieved some success, but I would hesitate to predict that any significant change is on the horizon. That said, ten years is a very long time in Israel and anything is possible!
Answered by: Rabbi Gary Pokras
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