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Why is patrilineal descent not catching on in Reform worldwide?

By Sue Fishkoff, JTA

February 15, 2011 | 10:10 am

Panelists at a session of the World Union for Progressive Judaism biennial in San Francisco discuss their countries' Reform movement policies on patrilineal Jews, Feb. 9, 2011. (World Union for Progressive Judaism)

Panelists at a session of the World Union for Progressive Judaism biennial in San Francisco discuss their countries' Reform movement policies on patrilineal Jews, Feb. 9, 2011. (World Union for Progressive Judaism)

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 one Liberal congregation each in Ireland and Holland, no other Reform movements in the Diaspora or Israel accept patrilineal descent. Patrilineal Jews are accepted as full members of Progessive congregations in the former Soviet Union but must convert for marriage.

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.

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