view counter
Why is Patrilineal Descent Not Catching On in Reform Worldwide?
Photo Galleria: 

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) -- For three decades now, the American Jewish Reform movement has considered as Jewish the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother who is raised as a Jew.

But most Reform Jews in the rest of the world still do not accept “patrilineal descent.”

That makes the debate about “Who is a Jew” not just between the Orthodox-dominated Israeli Rabbinate and American Jewish liberal movements, but also between American Reform Judaism and most of the Diaspora.

That debate was on display last week at the biennial conference of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the worldwide version of the Reform movement, in San Francisco.

“The challenge of being one people yet expressing our Reform identity is at the heart of what we’re discussing here,” said Rabbi Andrew Goldstein, chairman of the World Union’s European region and moderator of the Feb. 9 panel discussion.

Goldstein is a member of the British Liberal movement, which accepts patrilineal descent. But a second Jewish Reform movement in Britain does not. Except for a few Liberal congregations in Ireland and Holland, no other Reform movements in the Diaspora or Israel accept patrilineal descent.

According to traditional halachah, or Jewish law, only those born of a Jewish mother or having formally converted to Judaism are considered Jewish.

Why has the doctrine of patrilineal descent not spread farther, particularly in countries with high rates of intermarriage?

There is the need to “get along” with other Jewish movements in their countries, concerns about Jews from other denominations not being able to marry a “patrilineal Jew” and the desire to avoid the problems a patrilineal Jew might face if he or she immigrates to Israel, according to Reform leaders who were interviewed at the San Francisco conference.

Rabbi Robert Jacobs is one of six Reform rabbis in South Africa, where none of the country’s 10 congregations accepts patrilineal descent as sufficient for Jewish status even though the community there is in rapid decline.

“South African Jews live with a particular angst,” Jacobs said, noting the dwindling numbers.

Most have moved to Israel, where the Chief Rabbinate demands proof of maternal Jewish ancestry for weddings and burials. If the country’s Reform Jews count the child of a non-Jewish mother in their ranks, that could jeopardize any community member’s ability to make aliyah, Jacobs said.

“The ability to acquire a passport for Israel resounds,” he said.

Finances can be a factor. In Germany, the Reform community only recently began to receive funding from the country's "religious tax," which is doled out to Jewish communities by the Central Council of Jews in Germany. If German Reform congregations accepted patrilineal descent, Goldstein says, that would jeopardize the arrangement.

In France, the Liberal Jewish Movement of France, the Reform umbrella there, represents a fraction of the country’s 600,000 Jews. Most French people, Jewish or not, don’t really understand what Reform is, according to Jean-Francois Levy, a former president of that organization.

Though the movement recently reopened the question of patrilineality, Levy says he doubts it will endorse the position.

“We meet people sympathetic to us, and I’m afraid that those who might join us would not do so if we embrace patrilineality,” Levy said. “They would say, 'Look, they don’t even know the most basic Jewish traditions.' ”

Some Reform congregations embraced patrilineal descent only to reverse themselves later. That happened in Panama, El Salvador and Costa Rica, said Rabbi Joshua Kullock of Guadalajara, Mexico, executive director of the Union of Jewish Congregations of Latin America and the Caribbean, the umbrella body for the region’s 11 Reform communities.

El Salvador began to accept the children of non-Jewish mothers as Jews during the country’s civil war, when the congregation was lay-led and desperate for members. When the conflict ended, so did the practice.

The Reform congregations in Costa Rica and Panama stopping embracing patrilineal Jews when they hired Conservative pulpit rabbis -- Costa Rica six years ago and Panama eight years ago.

“It was more important for them to have rabbinic leadership from South America, speaking Spanish, than to bring in Reform rabbis from the United States,” Kullock said.

Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinical body that passed the still-controversial resolution in March 1983, said her colleagues at that landmark CCAR conference “were cognizant that other movements would not adopt” the new practice and that it would be controversial even within the Reform movement.

“At the time, the Canadian rabbis made it clear they would not accept it,” she said of Reform rabbis in Canada. “So it’s not surprising that other Reform groups outside the U.S. don’t accept it.”

Dreyfus said the resolution simply codified what had been general Reform practice for decades, and had been adopted as a proposal by the CCAR back in 1947. The Reconstructionist movement adopted a similar position in 1948.

The 1983 resolution stated that the child of one Jewish parent, father or mother, was "under the presumption" of being Jewish, but that Jewish status had to be "established" through a Jewish upbringing and life-cycle markers, such as a brit milah for a boy and a bar or bat mitzvah.

In any case, Dreyfus said, the resolution is “not binding.” Reform rabbis may decide their own policies in their own congregations.

Last Update:

04/02/2012 - 17:19
Andrew Goldstein, CCAR, Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, France, Jewish life, Judaism, Liberal Judaism, patrilineal descent, Reform Judaism, Robert Jacobs, South Africa
The Jewish Week App -- Now Available!
view counter


The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

Hi all!

Interesting article.

I think we are seeing a lot of bullying happening within Judaism today.
Everyone is at the mercy of the Haredi and ultra orthodox, more so in Israel. They have become tyrants within Judaism. Let us not forget that the American communities not that estranged to pass their own little interpretations of who is Jewish, The ultra orthodox will crucify them yet in the same breath use their funds.

We need to remember that patrilineal descent is Jewish to start off with! The Torah itself is loaded with references to patrilineal descent, while I can understand the Orthodox laws about Halakha, they are illogical today. How can we say that a father is more important than a mother, are both not need to make the child with the will of hashem! The orthodox in Israel are becoming mesuganas, and to all the people who pose nasty comments to the reform rabbis must examine their own reflection ( if you can do better, no one is stopping you)

hello?, have you done any research before making this claim about Reform rabbis? I hear over and over again about how "Reform rabbis are illiterate in Hebrew", when in fact HUC-JIR, the Reform movement's seminary requires the equivalent of a MINIMUM of two semesters of Hebrew even to be ADMITTED. So stop this calumny about "Hebrew illiterate Reform rabbis". I can't see how knowing Hebrew and Aramaic relates to this issue at all. I've read the relevant texts on this issue in English translation, and even with scholarly works helping me to understand what the underlying Hebrew says, and the texts are not nearly as clear as traditionalists make them out to be. The Torah has always required interpretation; many parts of the Torah or Talmud are either susceptible to multiple interpretations (see: "These and these are the words of the living God"), and that interpretation needs to take place in the context of our own day and age, not in the context of the social norms of 6th-century Babylon.
what is sad though is the underlying reason to opt for patrilineal descent is to offset dwindling numbers, meaning already back in 1947 or whenever this resolution was passed, Reform leadership saw that there would not be any staying power and they would need to implement something to boost the numbers. They realize that THEY HAVE NOTHING tangible to offer their constituency and their whole doctrine is empty of any meaning and it is no wonder why young Jews are marrying out, because they are raised without any of the beauty, meaning and depth that traditional Judaism for 3300+yrs offers. When they opt to marry out it is because they don't see any of the value or values that Judaism offers and they see themselves ostensibly no different then the gentile families they marry into. How sad......
The principle of matrilineal descent came into being at a specific time, and in response to specific external factors. Progressive Judaism needs to acknowledge that now, both internal and external factors are calling for the principle to be reviewed and possibly replaced. Reform Judaism worldwide needs to stop looking over its right shoulder and adopt the principle of patrilineal descent (actually equilineal descent) across the board, including by the umbrella body, the WUPJ. The increasingly Haredi-dominated Orthodox establishments in Israel and South Africa do not accept our rabbis or our conversions. Why on earth should we be concerned as to whether they accept those of our members whose bloodline is not Jewish on the maternal side!? Let’s have a Liberal/Progressive/Reform Judaism that is faithful to its own 200 year old tradition (e.g. regarding egalitarianism), rather than being worried about what the neighbours will say! I look forward to a time when Progressive Judaism once again sets the pace and the agenda, instead of worrying about being out of step with Orthodoxy.
its amazing how much these so called reform rabbis can stomach for their ego, salary, or whatever thing is driving them. They and their congregations are are 99% illiterate in hebrew and aramaic- how can they have the arrogance to vote on what judaism and torah is and its dictates? Would they allow such bias and uninformed opinions into their professional life, or in their own families health? "Let's vote if this genetic disease will really pass from parent to child" - all in favor!? Its a sham and people know it and need to look in the mirror.
Dreyfus says its non binding every reform congregation can set their own laws. Mr Dreyfus are u Jewish? U are mixing up Judaism with newfound religions. Jewish Laws cannot be decided at a congregation. If there is a bet din it relies on the rules of the torah Being Jewish means being born into an old religion, dating back.... Laws are not decided individually each at its own reform congregation, maternal descent etc... You should give your religion a new name and surely not Jewish, as u don't know what it means.
This decision was the biggest shonda and biggest disaster in US Jewish history. Kudos to the central Americans for rejecting status quo breaking and divisive tampering with halacha so long ago.

view counter