Basic to Judaism is the duty to honour one’s parents: as set out in the Deuteronomy version of the Decalogue, “Honour your father and mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, that you may live long and it may be well with you in the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Deut. 5:16).
From parents we gain innumerable privileges – life, nurturing, continuity, identity. Who we are depends on the heredity and the environment they give us.
Who we are as Jews also depends on them. Both parents are part of our Jewish identity. But each makes a specific contribution. The mother determines whether we are Jewish (unless of course one is a convert to Judaism); the father determines our Jewish category – Kohen, Levi or Yisrael.
The matrilineal principle – Jewishness deriving from the mother – has been the rule throughout history. This was impressively borne out 40 years ago when David Ben Gurion wrote to Jewish scholars in many countries asking for their definition of a Jew. Most of the replies said that “only one who is born to a Jewish mother or who is converted to Judaism according to Halachah” could be regarded as a Jew (Hoenig, “Jewish Identity”, Feldheim).
Some ask why the principle is matrilineal and not patrilineal. The source is Deut. 7:3-4, which refers to “your son” as the child of an Israelite mother, implying that the child is not “your son” in a religious sense if his mother is non-Jewish.
This conclusion, found in the Talmud (Kiddushin 65b, 68b), is cited by all the halachic authorities including Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch. There are no dissenting opinions, either in the Talmud or from later rabbis. This has been the unbroken rule throughout history.
Rabbi (Lord) Jakobovits offers four reasons:
1. “The certainty of maternity must be set against the doubt of paternity, however small this doubt may be.”
2. “Even in nature, the mother’s bond with her child is firmer than the father’s”.
3. “The mother has the superior influence on the child’s religious development”.
4. “Jewish law, unable to sanction or recognise a mixed marriage as religiously valid, technically regards the child as legally having a mother only” (I. Jakobovits, “The Timely and the Timeless”, Vallentine Mitchell, 1977, pp.198-217).