One of the great schisms in Judaism today is what “rules” we follow to define or identify who is Jewish. This may come as a surprise, but this is actually nothing new. We have been trying to keep people out of the tribe for as long as we stopped actively trying to bring people into the tribe.
When and why did such an enormous ideological change happen?
About 2,000 years ago, under the Roman empire and then the early Christian empire, where conversion to Judaism became a crime punishable by death. Up until then, we have evidence that conversion to Judaism was widespread and indeed very simple to do. No one in the Jewish community was trying to make it “difficult” for a person to self-identify as Jewish.
But let me start this story from a different angle: This post is meant to be a passionate argument in favor of a simple idea: Any person who has ONE Jewish parent (mother or father … doesn’t matter which), and who chooses to identify Jewishly, has a right to call himself or herself a Jew. The notion that a person can inherit Judaism through either matrilineal or patrilineal descent is known as bilineal descent, as in the Latin root bi = two.
Organized Jewish movements have different official opinions on this matter. Orthodox groups (and there are many different types of orthodoxy) maintain the post-Roman idea that Jewishness only happens through the mother. The Conservative movement also supports only matrilineal descent. Mixed-marriage families who belong to their movement must give their children an official conversion, in the mikveh, if it is the father, and not the mother, who is Jewish.
On the other side of the debate are the Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements: All three recognize patrilineal descent, and hence, are in support of bilineal descent.
What do you believe?
Here is the logic I offer to people I meet, who are trying to sort this out. And as you enter the realm of this debate, I have just one request: It doesn’t matter “how you were raised” — what movement you attended as a child, or what the official position of your current movement is. I would like to ask you to think for yourself and make your own decision.
The oldest historical way of identifying Jewishly was through the father. Just look in the Torah. Who is Jewish? Moses is Jewish, but his wife is not. Would anyone say Moses’ grandchildren weren’t Jewish? Of course not. What a crazy thought! What about King David? According to Jewish tradition, one of his descendants will be the messiah — not a descendant of his wife. Would anyone today say HIS children aren’t Jewish? Of course not! So, why then, would we say that the child of a Jewish man living today is not Jewish, if that person is choosing to identify Jewishly.
The question of whether we wish to honor patrilineal descent boils down to a simple question: What do you think should determine Jewish identity — Jewish law (halacha) or Jewish history?
Which, do you believe, carries more weight?
A halachic Jew, in essence, the orthodox and Conservative movements, would argue the former. I would argue the latter.
Halachic Judaism — the legalistic Judaism that came up with kazillions of rules such as the Jewish dietary laws and the prohibition of driving a car on Shabbat — was one of many Jewish manifestations that have evolved over the millenia. For a variety of reasons, many of them flukes, this just happens to be the strain of Judaism that those of us living today descended from.
But we have evidence that there have been many MANY different expressions of Judaism around the world and over the ages, and in most of those examples, Jews were not living obsessively focused on the debate and creation of arbitrary rules.
Orthodox Jews like to believe that the more you study halacha, the more “observant” you become. For me, education has had the opposite effect. The more I have studied and learned about halacha, the arbitrariness of its logic, the less weight I am able to give it intellectually. And, therefore, the less impact it has on any of my personal practices. Becoming learned in halacha has made me LESS halachic, not MORE.
Here is a staggering thought that one of my professors of Jewish history once said: There are more non-Jews walking on the Earth today who have a Jewish ancestor in their past than there are Jews. Take a moment and think about that.
SO many Jews have been lost to history due to the pressures of assimilation and forced conversion that today’s world Jewish population of 13.3 million is a mere fragment of what it could have been, had circumstances in our past been different.
Jewish population growth worldwide is close to 0 percent. From 2000 to 2001, it rose 0.3%, compared to worldwide population growth of 1.4%. (An aside: About 37% of worldwide Jewry lives in Israel.)
There are so few of us in this tiny tribe.
What I don’t understand is why in the world any of us would be trying to make our tent smaller rather than larger?
You have a Jewish parent and you want to come break challah with me at the oneg after Shabbat services? I have just two words for that: Welcome, friend.