Why is the Maternal Bloodline More Important than the Paternal Bloodline?
By Cookie Schwaeber-Issan
It’s always been odd to me that in Judaism, the ethnicity of one parent automatically makes you Jewish while the ethnicity of the other parent does not.
According to Halacha (Jewish law), if your mother is Jewish, you are considered Jewish, whereas, if only your father is Jewish, you are considered non-Jewish. Who decided that? It’s an interesting question to pursue, because the very source of all we know concerning Judaism can be traced back to the Bible. Oddly enough, though, according to the Jewish scriptures, the ethnicity or lineage was typically passed down through the father and not the mother. Here are a few cases in point. Joseph, the son of Jacob the patriarch married Asenath, the daughter of Potipher, an Egyptian who happened to be one of Pharaoh’s officials. Yet, his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh are both recorded as Jewish children. Moses, likewise, inter-married a woman named Zipporah, a non-Jewish Midianite. His sons, Gershom and Eliezer are also recorded as Jews.
To this very day, reference is made to the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as opposed to the G-d of Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel. So the question begs to be asked – when did Jewish lineage change from the father to the mother and who or what influenced that change?
According to myjewishlearning.com, it states that, “A person’s status as a priest, Levite or Israelite is passed down from the father and such distinctions were of utmost importance in biblical and Rabbinic times. If priesthood can be passed down via one’s father, why not Jewish identity?” The answer is, “The change to a policy of matrilineal descent came in late antiquity.”
Shaye D. Cohen, Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard offers his take on why this happened. One of his theories is that “rabbis who codified the concept of matrilineal descent were influenced by the Roman legal system of the time.” (myJewish learning.com) During those times, late Second to early Third Century, the father’s status would prevail if the marriage occurred between two Romans. However, in the case of intermarriage, the child would take on the citizenship of the mother. Another of his theories emanates from the animal kingdom and mixed breeding. The thought is that “the Torah prohibits the breeding of animals of different species,” which led to an opinion in the Mishnah that the animal may be mated with the breed of the maternal species. Cohen, however, only offers these two theories speculatively and does not conclusively state that either of the two are definitively the cause for the change.
Either way, the Biblical model was clearly discarded in favor of a preponderance of rabbinical perspective sometime during the Common Era. That one key opinion dramatically came to impact the question of “Who Is A Jew,” determining the rights, privileges and status of who may live in the Jewish homeland to this present day. While the Secular Law of Return provides for children of Jewish fathers or even one Jewish grandparent to become citizens, it does not provide for those individuals to marry in the land of Israel or to be registered as Jews.
During a recent Israel news interview the subject of Olympic gold medalist Artem Dolgopyat’s inability, as the son of a Jewish father but non-Jewish mother, to marry here in his homeland of Israel, came up. The centuries’ long rabbinical decision that one’s Jewish ethnicity is only passed down by the mother, was, yet again, reiterated, stating that it would be impossible for the Olympic winner to wed his girlfriend here. No questions asked, no challenging a decision which, itself strays from scriptural precedent. No! What was good enough for Second Century rabbis is good enough for twenty-first century Israel. But is it and should it be?
If biblical Judaism changed with the times in the Second Century, as a result of being influenced by the mores and culture of those times, why does it not continue to evolve into a more modern and advanced era which has miraculously seen the re-emergence of the Jewish homeland after centuries of constant persecution, exile and the planned destruction of the Jewish race? Jewish hatred is, once again, gaining traction to the point where diaspora Jews are being hunted down for the war-time actions of Israel, a country to which they may not even have any ties. Jewish houses of worship and cemeteries are being desecrated. Punishment and judgment are being proposed by way of boycotting and divestment – all in an attempt to economically cripple Israel. So why is this a good time in history to stay with the Second Century rabbinical ruling that only one parent determines the lineage of who is a Jew?
And why should individuals like Artem Dolgopyat who have chosen to live as Jews in their ancestral homeland be treated as aliens with no rights simply because the wrong parent is Jewish? They, of all people, should be looked upon with enormous awe and respect for the fact that they made the decision that, of all the nations in the world, Israel was the best choice for them. It already testifies to their deepest yearnings both in how they view themselves and the people to whom they feel most intertwined.
Have we, as a country, reached a “full capacity” status to where we are better off by not accepting the children of Jewish fathers as equally having acquired the necessary birthright or will we be strengthened all the more by recognizing that neither parent supersedes the other in terms of what they endow to their offspring at birth?
Why is it that Jews who are born in Israel are permitted to live without any religious observance and not have their citizenship called into question or be forced to adopt the orthodox faith in order to be considered a member in good standing? Those fortunate enough to have been born in this country may eat traif, not observe the Sabbath, intermarry and be free to believe as they wish. But Jews born anywhere else in the world are held to a standard that is often beyond their comfort zone and morally wrong for anyone to demand that they conform to a one-size fits all type of existence.
While many orthodox Jews may live as righteous and upstanding individuals, they certainly don’t have the lock on all things honest, pure, virtuous or moral. Among them are those who have violated the laws of man and G-d in the worst and most indecent ways possible, so no one should feel that they can point to a singular way of life as being sanctioned by the Almighty before taking an honest assessment of how they live and interact with others on a daily basis.
It might be fair to say that many non-observant Jews live a more exemplary life, but, again, if they weren’t born here, or have the wrong parent who is Jewish, they are, in fact, the ones being boycotted and divested from their people.
If this is truly the homeland of all the Jews, why don’t we begin by recognizing both parents as being those who automatically confer Jewish lineage upon their children. Religion and matters of faith is something that is decided upon much later when that child has grown into adulthood. Jewish fathers are no less equal to Jewish mothers, and it might be the exact time in history to return to the origins of the Jewish faith which actually recognized the line of the father. Adding to our numbers can only add to our strength, not detract from it, because if non-observant Sabra Israelis are not guilty of the latter, why should diaspora Jews be any different!