My Problem with Patrilineal Descent

My cousin asked me to take a look at an article about who’s a Jew and patrilineal descent. It mentions that the normative position in halakha (Jewish law), which is roughly equivalent to the Orthodox position today, is that the child of a non-Jewish mother is non-Jewish. The article does not discuss why that is the halakha. It then traces development of Reform opinion that Jewishness is also inherited through the father. It notes that the most recent trend would make Jewishness so dependent on religion and affiliation as to suggest “that someone who had a Jewish mother, but had not been raised Jewish and had not had any public religious acts of identification such as a Jewish baby-naming ceremony, a bar or bat mitzvah, or a Jewish confirmation service could theoretically be regarded as a non-Jew despite his or her lineage.”

I told her that the whole thing is ridiculous. Here’s why.

1 – The rabbinic (“Orthodox”) tradition has far more subtlety than this article makes out. Those subtleties and legal mechanisms are live topics of discussion and practical tools in Israeli society (e.g., see Rav Amar’s work concerning “zera Yisrael”, children born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother).

2 – If the American Orthodox community is unaware of these ideas and tools, it’s only because they’ve allowed the discussion to be captured by the Reform movement and its simplistic dichotomies. Learned people in all movements might be aware of things like zera Yisrael, but the popular discourse shows that this is not a halakhic issue but a political one.

3 – Who cares what any Reform rabbinic body says? The Reform movement, by design, is non-halakhic. That’s disastrous in my opinion, but it was also intentional and good in the eyes of the dominant founders of the Reform movement. But what that means is that there’s no force to any Reform rabbinic decision other than political force, and no real framework for considering different opinions and factors in order to reach a halakhic ruling. So Reform rabbinic decisions are politics. Not Torah. Obviously there will be “authorities” who pander to whims and trends, and others who resist change by temperament, but there is no space for a Torah-driven discussion of these matters.

This point will be obscure to many Reform Jews because most  Reform Jews have so little exposure to in-depth Torah study, Talmud, and contemporary halakhic discussion. My intention is not to insult Reform Jews, but it will probably sound that way because of the lack of exposure. Institutions of Jewish education – across the movements – have failed. It is up to individuals to find out what’s out there, and see the real contrasts for themselves.

4 – The deeper issue here is that who we are, what it means to join us, and what conversion is have become totally warped. This is true across the movements, in Orthodoxy as much as Reform. The fundamental problem is that we are treating ourselves as a religion. Torah is not a religion. Torah is anti-religion.

Again, that will sound obscure for anyone – Reform, Orthodox, or otherwise – who hasn’t engaged in serious Torah study. Nevertheless, it’s real. We talk about it periodically on the podcast, and hit it from the angle of idolatry in this episode.

As a result of this warped self-conception, we treat joining us as if one were joining a religion, and the only questions are how seriously we take our religion (whether it’s the religion of Reform Judaism or of Orthodox Judaism or whatever other ridiculous construction) and how much up-front buy-in we require of the people joining the religion. (Standards of rigor vary within Orthodoxy as they do within Reform, and that variance has even led to significant religious-political conflict in Israel.)

All this is sick.

I wish everyone would seriously study the directly relevant halakhot in Mishneh Torah. I’ll link to chapter 14 but chapters 12-14 are must reads – and they’re short. For anyone who buys into the present popular discourse about conversion, Rambam should be profoundly disturbing.

Very tellingly the so-called laws of conversion are actually part of the laws of forbidden sexual intercourse. It’s not about what an individual believes; it’s about integrating what we stand for into our very biology.

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