Plight Of The Patrilineals
01/11/2011 - 21:46

As we all know by now, this weekend’s tragic shooting rampage in Arizona has not only stirred up much partisan finger-pointing about inflammatory rhetoric but highlighted yet again the utter wackiness of our gun-crazy culture (hold your angry comments NRA supporters: I’m unabashedly liberal on gun control and see no reason any civilian, much less a schizophrenic, should have access to a semiautomatic rifle).

But the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who identifies as Jewish but is not Jewish according to the traditional “matrilineal descent” definition, is also shining a spotlight on the “who is a Jew” debate. Giffords, 40, is the daughter of a Jewish father and Christian Scientist mother who raised her in both traditions; according to JTA, for the past decade (following her first visit to Israel) she has identified exclusively as Jewish, and she belongs to a Reform congregation.


While Giffords is married to a (gasp!) gentile, they had a Jewish ceremony at their 2007 wedding, with chupah and rabbi.

She also is pro-Israel and told JTA in 2006 that she always had special admiration for the Jewish women in her family: “In my family, if you want to get something done you take it to the Jewish women relatives. Jewish women, by and large, know how to get things done.”

“Kung Fu Jew,” a blogger on JewSchool, posted, somewhat angrily, yesterday about the incongruity between the Jewish community claiming Giffords as its own while at the same time failing to accept most patrilineal and intermarried Jews. (Thanks to Jewish Outreach Institute for alerting me to the post.)

Giffords, writes “Kung Fu Jew,” is “Jewish enough for the Jewish community to own a side-show of the media circus. Jewish enough to be our martyr, it seems, but not Jewish enough to be treated equally in life.”

I sympathize with Kung Fu, but I also think his post is a bit oversimplified, in that it lashes out at a Jewish community utterly lacking in consensus on this issue. [For more on patrilineal descent, please check out this, this and this, from the three-part series I did last year on the topic.]

Yes, the Chief Rabbinate-controlled Israel, while it would grant Giffords citizenship under the Law of Return, does not recognize Giffords as a Jew (although his assertions that she would be a “second-class citizen” and would not have the right to divorce in Israel are misleading, if not completely wrong). And that’s one of many reasons why IMHO the Chief Rabbinate is a major source of problems in Israel.

And yes, many traditional Jews still won’t recognize Giffords as Jewish, something I would like to see change (although, in fairness, many in the Conservative movement are struggling with this issue in a wise and sensitive manner, seeking to balance respect for Jewish law with a desire to be more welcoming). However, Giffords, who co-chaired the Jewish Outreach Institute’s 2007 conference, has been welcomed in her Reform congregation, and at this point I suspect most American Jews – and perhaps most Israelis – would happily welcome anyone who wants to be Jewish, even if they are not celebrities or congresswomen.

Illustrating that, I was heartened by yesterday’s Jerusalem Post editorial (hat tip to, which praised Giffords for being a “Jewish role model” and referenced the human cost of stringent halachic definitions: 

Critics of the Law of Return might complain that it has extended citizenship to more than 300,000 former Soviet Union immigrants who are not halachicly Jewish. But is it conceivable to exclude these “non-Jews” despite the fact that the vast majority integrate fully into Israeli society, serve in the IDF and become productive citizens? Is it conceivable to exclude Giffords, another “non-Jew,” who is so unequivocally Jewish?

With all our desire for a universally accepted definition of “Who is a Jew?” that would unify the Jewish people, we cannot ignore the complicated reality that many “non-Jews” are much more Jewish than their “Jewish” fellows.
Congresswoman Giffords is one of them.

And while we’re on the topic of patrilineal Jews and Israel, check out this post on Ynet by Emily Bernstein, a new immigrant to Israel. (Again, hat tip to JOI…) Emily, if you're reading this, please drop me a line at, as I'd love to learn more about your personal experiences in Israel and decision to make aliyah. As you can imagine, the name Emily Bernstein is rather ubiquitous on Facebook and Google.

Let's all keep Giffords, who remains in critical condition, in our prayers and/or thoughts.

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She identified with the Jewish community, supported Israel, etc. It's very compelling. At the same time, there are non-Jews who are zealously supportive of the Jewish community and Israel, moreso than many Jews. That doesn't make them Jewish. We do need to be more welcoming. At the same time, I wonder, looking at the other side of the coin, if being welcoming in this way sends an unwelcoming signal to those who have actually converted to Judaism. I know a number of people who grew up as "patrilineal" Jews, and then chose to convert either Conservative or Orthodox. Many of them spent years studying for conversion and turned their entire lives inside out to be Jewish. Is it not a slap in the face to a convert to say, essentially, "That's all well and good that you spent two years of your life and put all of yourself into becoming Jewish. But the person down the street who just declared themselves to be Jewish - well, as far as we're concerned, there's no difference. If it makes you feel good to have gone the office route, good for you. But we certainly don't see any difference." Just as the community honors those who are not Jewish but are bringing up Jewish children as well as those who have identified Jewishly in less traditional ways, are community really should be honoring those who have actually converted to Judaism. To do less is to sell them short. May Gabrielle Giffords have a speedy and full recovery.
Judaic Feminism, Perhaps you are confused about what feminism is. Feminism is the belief that men and women are EQUAL, not that women are better. Matrilineal descent actually discriminates against women by denying them equal responsibility to choose a Jewish spouse. It also has served over the centuries to perpetuate some very negative stereotypes about non-Jewish women. Matrilineal descent did not originate in kaballah. It originated in the social context of Roman antiquity, where two things were true: 1) matrilineal descent was the norm for a wide variety of social norms (who was born a slave, who belonged to any of the various ethnic groups that had special rights under the Empire) etc; and 2) sexual relations between a Jew and a non-Jew occurred in situations of rape, seduction, and a general imbalance of power. Under such circumstances, it would have been cruel to deny the Jewishness of a child who had a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, even though Judaism up to that time had been patrilineal, and even though the Talmud states that where valid marriage can occur between the child's parents (read: where both parents are Jewish and non-mamzerim), the child obtains his status AS A JEW from the father. Similarly, in a situation where a Jewish man had, God forbid, raped or seduced a non-Jewish woman, it would have been cruel to claim this child as Jewish and possibly requiring separation of mother and child. The law as given in the Talmud was actually meant for the exact opposite of what it is being used for today. It was meant to minimize children's conflicts over their identity.
A side-note to this issue: The Reform Movement in Israel does NOT accept patrilineal descent.   The Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism website emphasizes that: "Movement rabbis do not perform marriage ceremonies for couples who are not Jews according to the Halacha." (emphasis in original)   Joel Katz Religion and State in Israel @religion_state
Isn't it interesting that Ms. Wiener is complaining that Traditional Judaism is discriminatory since it only accepts MATRILINEAL DESCENT !!! Well, I would have thought that feminist would applaud the wisdom of matrilineal descent. Fortunately, this halachah is based on the Kabbalah that the soul of Kehillas Yisrael is only passed through the soul of the Mother. Why that would be discriminatory and attacked by Jewish men throughout history had it not been a sanctified Talmudic tradition. Why did the Reform have to fight against matrilineal descent? Where are the Jewish feminists upholding the wisdom of Matrilineal descent?
good point!
She is a supporter of Israel. Has been to Israel. Got sworn in over a Torah. Got married in a temple by rabbi. ( reform and a female rabbi, not my cup of tea but I'm not exactly frum either ) She made a point of being Jewish in her campaign. Good enough for me, and it should be good enough for everybody else . After take a guy like Phil Weiss, or Noam Chomsky. Jews by accident of birth and enemies of our people. Giffords, someone who basically joined the team. Its a no brainer.

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