Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Matrilineal Principle and Jewish Identity

What is commonly known today as the matrilineal principle is actually two principles rolled into one:

1) The child of a Gentile father and a Jewish mother is unambiguously a Jew.
2) The child of a Jewish father and a Gentile mother is unambiguously a Gentile.

These two halves of the commonly assumed simple truth, "Jewish status follows the mother", have histories of their own that are relevant for how one approaches this issue today.

In the Bible, there is no evidence of a matrilineal principle.  Numerous sources indicate that an Israelite man who fathered a child with a non-Israelite woman could expect that child to be a part of the Israelite nation.  There does seem to have been some possible stigma associated with that child--non-Israelite mothers are often singled out for mention--but no sense that they were outside of the Israelite community.  For the most part, it seems safe to assume that the children of non-Israelite men and Israelite women were generally lost to the Israelite community given the patriarchal realities of the ancient world.  The case of the son of an Egyptian man and an Israelite woman in Vayikra 24 seems to be the exception that proves the rule: this character unusually ended up with the Israelite community as a result of the Exodus; normally, such a person woudl not be part of the Israelite community.

The first inkling we get of any sort of matrilineal approach is in the book of Ezra, where a figure known as Shekhaniah, a "son of Elam", proposes to Ezra that all of the returning exiles who have taken foreign wives cast away those wives and their children, causing them to leave the community.  While the need for this edict only underscores that these people would, by default prior to this event, have been considered part of the Israelite community, this measure does seem to mark the beginning of a policy treating the children of Gentile women as Gentiles.

This approach is crystallized in a clear rulingin Mishnah Kiddushin, which states that a Gentile woman produces Gentile offspring.  Even this ruling met with some popular resistance, however.  A few centuries later we have evidence of some in the Jewish community of Tyre wanting to circumcise such children on Shabbat, revealing their sense that "patrilineal" Jews ought to have been a part of the Jewish community.  The rabbinic repsonse is fierce and clear: Such a child is a Gentile, in keeping with the Mishnah's ruling.  We will see however, that the feeling that patrilineal Jews are not identical to other Gentiles resurfaces later on.

On the question of the children of Gentile father's and Jewish mothers, classical rabbinic sources are divided, and a debate persists for centuries.  Some sources--including the Mishnah--argue that such a child is a mamzer, a Jew, fully obligated in mitzvot, but forbidden from marrying Jews of untainted lineage.  (A mamzer can legally marry only another mamzer or a convert, who also lacks pure Jewish lineage.)  Others maintain the Jewishness of said matrilineal child, while either lowering the level of lineal taint--such as forbidding a daughter from such a union to marry a kohen--or claiming that no taint exists whatsoever.  Rabbinic stories about such matrilineal children are suffused with a sense of liminality and conflict, with rabbis at war amongs themselves (and sometimes even with themselves) as to how to treat such children.  Finally, some classical rabbinic sources may open the possibility that that the child of a Gentile father and a Jewish mother is in fact a Gentile, though if this person were to convert, they would be free of any lineal taint of mamzerut.

The Babylonian Talmud's latest opinion on this matter is to reject mamzerut for matrilineal Jews.and seemingly to embrace them as full Jews (possibly with the restrictions on marrying a kohen), and the opinion that they are full Jews comes to dominate and is the ruling of the Shulhan Arukh many centuries later.  But other medieval and modern voices rejected this path and maintained that a matrilineal child is in fact a Gentile in need of conversion.  Sources in the 19th century continue to advance this claim, even as opposing sources try to crack down on this perspective and embrace matrilineal Jews as full, unambiguous Jews.

As noted earlier, the ruling that patrilineal Jews are in need of conversion is much less controversial and accepted as black-letter law by all rabbinic authorities after the Mishnah.  However, modern rabbis, including R. Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer and R. Ben Zion Uzziel have argued--based on a close reading of a number of Talmudic passages--for the classification of patrilineal Jews as zera yisrael, still of Jewish stock, such that their conversion--unlike that of their purely Gentile counterparts--is truly a reclaiming of roots and therefore to be encouraged.  In other words, while conversion is still required, these authorities understand that the process is metaphysically different from that of a Gentile coming to Judaism without any genetic connection.

All of this material opens of the possibility of recognizing, honoring and meeting the challenges of ambiguous identity presented to those with one Jewish and one Gentile parent.  While the halakhic conversation has clearly gone in a direction that fundamentally treats matrilineal Jews as Jews and patrilineal Jews as Gentiles, there is actually much more ambiguity here than is typically acknowledged  Once could imagine a model in which the standards for conversion for patrilineal Jews are dramatically lowered as they are welcomed to embrace their Jewish identity without ambivalence or ambiguity as well as demanding/respecting/honoring the need for matriineal Jews to do the same, if not with a full-blown formal conversion, than with an act of immerison in a mikveh in front of a panel of 3 as a way of satisfying the halakhic opinions that require this and being honest about the real choices that confront a person who is confronting the complexity of their own ethnic narrative and inherited faith traditions.

62 comments:

AS said...

i applaud the author/s' s desire to not only acknwledge, but actively make space for the genuinely ambiguous ethnic identifications that are engendered by judaism's dual existence as a people, into which one is born, and a religion, into which one can choose to enter. add into the mix different communities varying criteria regarding how to judge those two axes, and much ambiguity abounds!
what i am wondering is: given the acknowledged and endorsed ambiguities of "daddy-jews," and the various models of rituals for a more complete sense of entering community, how would such a ritual affect the person's status from before? that is to say, if a patrilineal jew converts or performs a ritual of sorts, what is his status? is it as a convert? is it confirming and solidifying his previous existence as a jew?
the ambiguity inherent in identity remains - how is that processed? i ask this especially given the different standards and even prejudices which converts encounter.
- Posted by josh schwartz at August 3, 2009 at 12:59am


Just came across this. Bravo, etc.
Josh, I am excited to talk more with you about this sometime in person. I have a number of thoughts, which boil down to this: we have to be willing to put law and social psychology in, ahem, highly-overlapping magisteria here.
That is, people are going to have ideas and feelings about the personal status legal issues (is or isn't this person A Jew, Obligated, Etc.), and different communities and poskim will come down differently. Then there will be many ideas and feelings about whether this person is jew-ish, zera yisroel, an MOT, fun to have at the shabbos table, looks like a yid, worthy of being attacked (sic) with kiruv, and so forth.
This person will have ideas and feelings about both the law/legal stuff and the identity/anthropology stuff.
The overlap between these two categories (legal vs. soc-psych-anth) is huge and contested. Some people would like to put one whole group (in the Venn diagram) within the other: the law is a manifestation of the culture of the Jews. These people are often reform/recon-ists, who like the idea of a vibrant and dynamic halakhah that we change by community fiat. Another group of people would like to parenthesize non-legal considerations as "soft" (that old canard about the social sciences) or as, well, parenthetical to the supposedly clear rules. So, have a nice dinner conversation about all the patri-jews who are "so Jewish! even though they're not!" and then strategize how to convert them without pissing them off.
Obviously from the way I am writing about this I think that neither of these approaches is satisfactory. R' Ethan proposes some lovely synergies, ritually etc., as have other people I've talked to. I am not yet satisfied with those proposals, but thinking about it more. According to Avi Poupko, R' Elisha also has some nice ideas (maybe everyone should go to the mikve with intent to be a Jew before their chasene? or we dip all the babies, just to make sure? given that we don't really know about the kosherness of the long-ago conversions of ANYONE's ancestors.)
Being me I am highly concerned with the soc-psych-anth side of things, also with peoples' well-being. It is always going to be challenging to try to skilfully draw lines. One direction I am thinking, with this, is to bring in more language of mixed-heritage, borrowing from biracial and bicultural studies, overlapping identities and the hierarchy of oppressions. Oh the jargon. In any case, do let's talk.
- Posted by Rebecca Ennen at August 20, 2009 at 4:50pm

AS said...

Dear Friends:

As the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, the largest international organization for adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage, I wish to express my appreciation for the interesting halachic essay about them.

It contained a great deal of valuable research on historical discussions of adult descendants of intermarriage, which will enrich my own research. I am grateful for this.

Now, with regard to Rebecca's and Josh's comments --

There is a key factor missing. I appreciate their warmth and receptivity to children of intermarriage, but shouldn't the adult children of intermarriage be asked what they want, rather than having halachic discussions about their status without having them present?

Our views are easy to find out. We have a website at:

www.half-jewish.net

with an active message board filled with comments from half-Jewish people from all over the world.

I can tell you a couple of things about what many of them want:

AS said...

[continued from above]

First, they wouldn't want to be called "patri-Jews" or "converts" or "daddy-jews" or "zerua Israel."

Those who have a Jewish father and a Christian (Muslim, etc.) mother prefer the usage "patrilineal Jews," if they decide to live as Jews.

Those who have a Jewish mother and a Christian, etc. father prefer the usage "matrilineal Jews," if they decide to live as Jews.

Those of our members who do not identify as Jews, but as Christians and Muslims, etc., refer to themselves as Christians, Muslims, etc., and consider themselves "half-Jewish" by ethnicity.

Second, our organization firmly opposes measures suggested in Rebecca's thread to address the status of children of intermarriage -- and Rebecca herself is not comfortable with these measures --

such as asking every Jew to go to the mikveh and undergo some type of conversion ritual before they marry and/or that all Jewish babies be sent to the mikveh and a conversion as a matter of routine, because none of us can be certain who our ancestors really were.

We oppose these measures because they would:

1. unintentionaly impugn the Jewish legitimacy of Jews with two Jewish parents;

2. bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the Christian baptism concept;

3. would likely not be recognized as halachic conversions by most rabbis; and

4. the proposal assumes that the adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage will agree to such rituals.

In addition, many of my group's members are in revolt against requirements that they convert.

They can see clearly that Jews with two Jewish parents brought up as Catholics, Hindus, etc., can walk back into the Jewish community without any requirements at all. They see such Jews, even if they have spent several generations outside of the Jewish community, being welcomed back with no restrictions at all.

My group members would like to be treated in the same manner. Many of them have soured on conversions because when they've sought them out, they have been prevented from receiving them, or been treated poorly during the conversion process.

We have waited many decades for the Jewish community worldwide to become more welcoming of us, but that does not appear to be happening as rapidly as we might wish.

In response to the pleas from half-Jewish people for a more receptive, welcoming Judaism -- and contacts from Jews with two Jewish parents who are also looking for a Judaism that is warmer and more welcoming --- we have started the Inclusivist Judaism Coalition.

Our concept of "who is a Jew" can be found here:

http://inclusivistjudaism.wordpress.com/who-is-a-jew/

We are welcoming the children and grandchildren of intermarriage as Jews if they identify as Jews.

If they identify as members of other faiths, we recognize them as "mishpachah" (family) members, and they may still join our organization and learn about Judaism.

Now I'm assuming that neither Rebecca nor Josh are adult children of intermarriage -- if they are, that perhaps could be mentioned in their future comments.

I am pleased by the welcoming attitudes displayed by the essay and Rebecca and Josh's comments, but urge that organizations thinking about how to integrate half-Jewish people may wish to consider involving half-Jewish people in the discussion.

Cordially,
Robin Margolis
www.half-jewish.net
www.inclusivistjudaism.wordpress.com
- Posted by Robin Margolis at February 19, 2010 at 8:43pm

AS said...

I am in the process of fully converting with an Chassidic Orthodox shul. It doesn't matter how long the process takes or anything anymore as I made the decision which was in truth the hard part. Now I also want to add that I'm a granddaughter of a Jewish grandfather who escaped Germany though his first family were murdered. My grandmother is a Catholic and my mother went to Hebrew school in the 1950s/60s, long before this debate. My mother is not a true Catholic as she doesn't believe as my father does, but she's Catholic by default. My mother warned me for all of my life that Jews will never accept me or her, and the truth is simply to be with G-d. And when I hear things on high holidays comparing my very existence to another Holocaust as that's an acceptable thing to say to someone... it's very wrong. I cannot imagine the pain that my mother had as a child being told something so very hurtful.

Yet despite my experience, I see no other path to honor G-d and truly honorable Jews are amazing people to call as a friend. And lucky for me being an adult with all the warnings that I had my whole life, I was able to make an informed decision on what I want to do.

As for the writings, we can debate it to know end. But why could Isaac not see that Esau was bad but Jacob was the rightful son? The answer to me is that parents love their children unconditionally and want what's best for them. If the parents try to include gentile and Jewish households, then they are setting up someone to be a gentile or a Jew. If parents are weak and leave it to the child, then children will suffer. During Ezra's time it reads in a very similar way and Jewish men were asked to divorce practicing Gentile mothers and children. But if a parent is to love unconditionally and the child is being raised as a Jew, then there is no doubt on the righteousness of this decision. So to me the answer is to always think with love as a the priority.

But I want to end that I knew what to expect with the Orthodox and they are genuine people. But my experience in Reform and Conservative shuls was full of people who simply believed in blood as a means for defining themselves and look down upon everyone else. To me this attitude that I get about blood purity is the true horror that's left over after the Shoah. When blood and DNA are the only way to define Jewishness because that's the way the Nazis sought to define Judaism, like it was a disease. Debates where impure people should be excluded or avoided is to me what's truly shameful. This attitude does not have a loving message and in truth teaches hate.

And as for an easier way to study and mikveh and truly be accepted sounds nice, but would it truly matter if the audience is still hearing and repeating a message of moral superiority due to blood?
- Posted by Victoria at February 21, 2010 at 10:22am

AS said...

The opening statement in light of the rest of this text is not necessarily accurate. It might be slightly more accurate to say that a child of a Jewish father and mother is unambiguously Jewish. Anything else is not necessarily quite so clear cut as your brief overview of the Talmudic literature and later texts shows.

In any case, you leave no room for the abandonment of the exclusively matrilineal principle in favour of a different model - bilineality or a raising of the importance of involvement in Jewish life (belief and behaviour) over the ethnic heritage. That you don't entertain it but restrict yourself to conversion for 'patrilineal' Jews is odd to me.
- Posted by Anonymous at March 11, 2010 at 7:57am

AS said...

The author here mentioned that children of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother are to be considered "zera yisrael". I'm all for a reclaiming of roots and a desire to worship God, but I'm unsure as to what was gained by this distinction.

Do we make those zera yisrael convert to Judaism?
Do we change the conversion ritual if we do?

What about a grandchild? If someone who is zera yisrael marries a non-Jew, are *their* kids Jewish? Does it matter if the child is a boy or a girl? How long can one be "of Jewish descent" before the designation becomes meaningless?

It seems like one of the stickiest parts of the whole matter is that now, there are people who consider themselves Jews, who lead Jewish lives, but if such Jews choose to become more observant, they often discover that they are being asked to convert to their own religion. I'm not sure how to balance the situation.....
- Posted by Hannah at April 19, 2010 at 3:34pm

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