Q. What is your response to the Reform movement in Australia having recently standardised its recognition of people as Jewish who have a Jewish father, but not a Jewish mother?
A. Someone said that the poor will always be with us. That may or may not be true, but as far as Jews are concerned there are certain questions that are always with us: God and man, life and death… above all, the question of Jewish identity. In other words, Who is a Jew?
Yitzhak Rabin asked, “How many faces has Judaism got?” Fair enough, but if we are going to ask questions why not ask, “How many parents does it take to make a Jew?” One is reminded of the Sukkot question: how many walls does it take to make a sukkah? The answer? Ideally, four – but three will also do, and in certain circumstances two and a half. So, how many parents does it take to make a Jew?
It depends on whether either or both parents are Jewish themselves. Ideally, two Jewish parents make a child Jewish. Traditionally, one is also acceptable, provided it is the mother. And thereby hangs the tale.
What if the one parent who is Jewish is the father? (One could of course also ask what happens if neither parent is Jewish and the child wants to enter Judaism by conversion. But that’s another story).
The matrilineal principle – Jewishness by maternal descent – has been the rule throughout history. When in 1958 David Ben Gurion wrote to scholars in many countries asking for their definition of a Jew, most respondents, whatever their personal affiliation, endorsed the traditional definition and said that “only one who is born to a Jewish mother or who is converted to Judaism according to halachah” could be regarded as Jewish (B. Litvin, Jewish Identity, ed. S.B. Hoenig, 1965).
The Biblical source of the principle is Deut. 7:3-4, which refers to “your son” as the child of an Israelite mother, implying, according to rabbinic exegesis, that a child is not “your son” in a religious sense if the mother is non-Jewish.
This conclusion found in the Talmud (Kidd. 65b, 68b) is cited and accepted by all 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.
Lord Jakobovits offers this rationale (The Timely and the Timeless, 1977, pages 198-217):
1. The certainty of maternity must be set against the possible doubt of paternity.
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. In a mixed marriage, Jewish law technically regards the child as having only one parent, the mother.
Outside orthodoxy, in an age in which our numbers are not increasing whilst mixed marriage is, both the rule and the rationale are questioned. David Goldberg, a British Liberal rabbi, argues that the halachic definition “cannot be justified biologically, eugenically, genetically or educationally” and that “can only be defended on the basis of tradition” (Jewish Chronicle, 27 August, 1982).
It is also argued that commitment to Judaism is a more important pointer than whether or not the mother happens to be Jewish.
The outcome is that the Reform movement is prepared to accept as Jewish the child of a couple of whom either parent is a Jew, on the basis that this will make Judaism more inclusive. There are many good reasons why this policy must be opposed:
1. A person who wants to be accepted as Jewish has the option of conversion.
2. It is a counsel of defeat to confer Jewish status upon people for the sake of increasing our numbers; the constructive option is to make better Jews of the Jews we have, and to encourage them to have larger families of Jewish children.
3. The policy would encourage mixed marriage and threaten our survival, especially since twice as many Jewish men marry out compared to women.
4. Since the Jewish character of the home is still largely in the hands of the woman, a non-Jewish mother is unlikely to create a Jewish atmosphere for her children.
5. If Jewish law can be unilaterally turned on its head, why maintain other possibly inconvenient principles or practices of Judaism?
6. Since orthodoxy will not join in the Reform policy but remain pledged to the halachah, Reform will have irrevocably split the entire Jewish people.
7. The policy is not fair to the next generation, who will find that their parents have saddled them with an unnecessary identity crisis.
No-one denies we have problems, but patrilinealism solves none of them.