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Why Patrilineal Jewish Descent matters for Zionism

West London Synagogue

As both the first Jewish senator from Georgia in US history as well as the youngest elected, Jon Ossoff’s appointment dominated various American and international headlines during the opening weeks of 2021.[1] Such novelties also inspired some of the Jewish community to label Ossoff’s achievements as monumental for patrilineal Jews.[2] This highlight of the young politician’s patrilineal Judaism points to the risk of discrimination still faced by many Jews born to non-Jewish mothers, adding yet another facet to the already complex mosaic of the Jewish community and what it means to be a Jew.

Indeed, the fact that the Senator Ossoff’s patrilineal descent even comes into play showcases how – in all but the Reform and Reconstructionist movements of Judaism[3] – people born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers do not count as Jews according to halacha, unless they undergo formal conversion, despite Jewish lineage having passed through the paternal line in the Torah and the father’s family still determining the child’s tribe today.[4] This practice, however, has its roots in post-biblical sources; in our earliest texts, we see the primacy of patrilineal descent in determining a child’s religion and – later – tribe. It is, in fact, this system of patrilineal descent to which every born Jew ultimately traces their identity.

The preservation of the matrilineal descent law remains strong despite our ancestors in the Torah having deeply valued patrilineal lineage. Indeed, Shaye J.D. Cohen, has proposed that in biblical times, non-Israelite women who married Israelite men bound themselves to their husbands, thus accepting her into the Jewish culture and faith at a time that predates the practice of conversion.[5] Going off of this view which holds marriage as a form of adoption into the Tribe wherein the woman enters the culture and raises her children in the Jewish faith, marriage itself with the promise of children raised in Judaism could be viewed as a form of conversion for both mother and offspring.

Examples of Cohen’s teachings are abundant in the narratives of Genesis. Consider, for instance, the initial formation of the holiest group within the ancient Israelite community – the priestly Kohanim and their Levi assistants. In Chapter 31 Verse 17 of Ketuvim (Scriptures), the Israelites who claim descent from these aforementioned groups yet are unable to trace their lineage through their fathers were barred from joining the priesthood, indicating the lofty position of patrilineal heritage among those preparing to enter Eretz Yisrael for the first time.[6] Surely, to insist that one’s matrilineal lineage renders their father’s tribal lineage obsolete, even in the face of proven priestly descent, makes little sense given these iterations.

Indeed, moving beyond the priesthood to Bnei Yisrael as a whole, the first book of the Torah Bereishit (Genesis) has God inform Abraham that “I shall establish a covenant between me and you and your descendants.” Here, not only does God not specify the descendants of Israelite women, but the Hebrew states “ulzracha” (“your seed”),[7] which could indicate the seed of Abraham himself as well as all Israelite men who would go on to bear children.

As another set of examples, both Chapter 1 Verse 2 of BaMidbar (Numbers) as well as Chapter 27 Verses 6-11 of Bereishit (Genesis) command the Israelites to gather[8] for entry into Eretz Yisrael according to their fathers’ households – with no mention of mothers. Moreover, in Chapter 4 Verses 24-26 of Shemot (Exodus), Moses’ non-Israelite wife Tzipporah proves her commitment to the Jewish people by circumcising their firstborn son, an act which saves Moses from the wrath of God over marrying a non-Jew.[9] This turn of events indicates the ability of a Jewish man to wed a non-Jewish woman and bear Jewish children in the eyes of God even without a formal conversion process, so long as that woman dedicates herself to Judaism. Perhaps the same acceptance could apply to contemporary scenarios featuring a non-Jewish woman who embraces Judaism coupled with a union to a Jewish man.

Furthermore, consider how the main work of ethical Rabbinic teachings has the Hebrew title Pirkei Avot, or “Chapters of the Fathers”,[10] illustrating the immense regard not only the ancient Israelites but also later rabbis have held toward the Jewish patriarchy as a fundamental source of wisdom.

In fact, while some contemporary Rabbinical authorities cite Devarim (Deuteronomy) Chapter 7 Verses 2-4 as evidence of the matrilineal law’s ancient roots,[11] let us examine the text in context. In these verses, God warns Am Yisrael not to intermarry with other nations – by commanding them not to give their daughters to the foreigners, nor to take foreign women for their Israelite sons.[12] Such a decree could signify a need to avoid giving away members of the Tribe just as much as prevent the acceptance of outsiders among the Israelites – especially seeing as the command seems to emphasize worship of foreign deities (“elohim acherim”) rather than specific reference to the children of foreign women not being Jewish. If anything, when discussing the danger of foreigners turning Israelites toward false gods, we may note how Verse 4 states “yasir”, the future tense, singular, masculine version of the verb lehasir (“to turn away”), possibly pertaining to the male leaders of the foreign nations into which the Israelites are forbidden to marry – rather than specification of non-Israelite mothers or their offspring. Whether we consider women in ancient times such as Tzipporah adopting the Jewish culture or non-Jewish women who marry Jewish men today, regardless of birth origin, practicing Jewish parents who choose to raise their children in the faith have no reason to want to turn those children away from Judaism.

Still, due to the majority of contemporary Jewish sects adhering to the law of matrilineal descent, many patrilineal Jews throughout the global community find themselves excluded from acceptance in Jewish spaces in both Israel and the West.[13] [14]

Thus, when one considers how Jews of patrilineal descent often face rejection despite life-long commitment to the Jewish culture and faith, the rising levels of tension and infighting amidst intersectionality in the West yet again bring into question what exactly it means to be a Jew. While the Jewish people often identify as an ethnoreligious group wherein members can either be born to Judaism or convert, the lines become murky – specifically when Zionism comes into play. After all, indigeneity requires some native presence in a territory and not one only granted according to religious belief. Indeed, while many founders of the modern State of Israel were secular, the attempts of much of Israel’s leadership to maintain the country’s religious nature have caused some to designate today’s Jewish State as more of a theocracy founded upon manifest destiny than the re-established homeland of a lost indigenous population.[15] By framing the murky schism between politics and religion in the laws of contemporary Israel, professor of Israel Studies and Jewish Thought at Brandeis University, Alexander Kaye, further demonstrates the how stark complexity can arise regarding ancestry versus halacha in determining Jewish origins and acceptance into the Tribe.

Moreover, while conversion remains a crucial path to joining the Tribe, when the laws of Judaism maintain rules surrounding Jewish identity that prioritize religion over Jewish ancestry in Israel, the Israeli Law of Return could appear closer to manifest destiny than a custom born of democracy, which could prove disadvantageous in the face of immigrants to Israel who may feel entitled to the land despite most not having clear records of ancestral history in the region apart from the Torah. An issue arises, then, when those same Jews would claim such ancestry while at the same time noting the caveat that such heritage is contingent upon matrilineal descent, despite the initial Torah designating Jewish ancestry as patrilineal.

Due to the atrocities of Nazi eugenic experiments during the Shoah, the trepidation over acknowledging a genetic aspect to Jewish peoplehood is understandable.[16] Furthermore, caution to avoid exclusion of converts also remains a goal of maintaining Jewishness as primarily a faith. That said, contemporary DNA testing holds Jewishness as a heritage identifiable among blood family members. Therefore, as opposed to Christianity or Islam, Judaism features a genetic component that oftentimes traces to the Levant even among Ashkenazim whose ancestors resided for centuries in Europe.[17] In fact, studies have shown that most of the European admixture appearing in Ashkenazi genetics originates from the maternal line, while the paternal lineage remains largely Levantine.[18]

Provided the inability to prove conversion for the majority of these ancient non-Jewish women, many Ashkenazi Jews today might not even qualify as Jewish under halacha.

Of course, the acknowledgment of patrilineal and other born Jews need not negate the importance and inclusion of Jews by choice. After all, Jews who have converted join the people by embracing both the national ethnicity and religious faith. Notwithstanding, while ancestry does not represent the sole defining trait of peoplehood, the right to a post-diaspora Jewish homeland in the territory of ancient Israel will come under understandable scrutiny if the parameters for Jewish identity take on more of a religious light than a claim based upon geographic origin.

To that effect, similar to non-Native Americans adopted into a Native tribe, Jews by choice who embrace the faith and culture through conversion represent wholly authentic members of the tribe. That said, attribution of Jewish lineage in born Jews to only one parent resonates more as a religious custom than logic pertaining to a bloodline of specific territorial roots. For instance, a person of half Cameroonian or Mexican ancestry’s lineage will likely not come into question based merely on which parent provides that bloodline.

Therefore, by touting Jewishness as primarily a religion rather than both a culture and ancestral heritage that can pass through either parent just as any other heritage, the faults in the rationale surrounding Zionism begin to emerge. For this reason, Jewish peoplehood in both Israel and the diaspora could benefit from acknowledging Jews of both matrilineal and patrilineal descent as part of the Tribe.

[1] Wise, Alana. “Jon Ossoff Wins Georgia Runoff, Handing Democrats Senate Control.” NPR, NPR, 6 Jan. 2021, www.npr.org/2021/01/06/952417689/democrat-jon-ossoff-claims-victory-over-david-perdue-in-georgia-runoff.

[2] Katz, Zoe. “Jon Ossoff’s Victory Is Momentous for Patrilineal Jews.” The Forward, The Forward, 12 Jan. 2021, forward.com/opinion/461917/jon-ossoff-jewish-patrilineal-intermarriage-millenial/.

[3] Rabbi Washofsky, Mark. “How Does Reform Judaism Define Who Is a Jew?” Reform Judaism, Union for Reform Judaism, reformjudaism.org/learning/answers-jewish-questions/how-does-reform-judaism-define-who-jew.

[4] Law of Return (Amendment 5730–1970), SH No. 586 p. 34 (Isr.).

[5] The Origins of the Matrilineal Principle in Rabbinic Law, Shaye J.D. Cohen, AJS Review, V. 10.1, 1985, 19-53

[6] Scriptures, Chronicles 31:17 Unicode/XML Leningrad Codex, Brandeis University, 2004, www.cvkimball.com/Tanach/Tanach.xml.

[7]  Genesis 17:7 Unicode/XML Leningrad Codex, Brandeis University, 2004, www.cvkimball.com/Tanach/Tanach.xml.

[8] Numbers 1:2 Unicode/XML Leningrad Codex, Brandeis University, 2004, www.cvkimball.com/Tanach/Tanach.xml.

[9] Exodus 4:25 Unicode/XML Leningrad Codex, Brandeis University, 2004, www.cvkimball.com/Tanach/Tanach.xml.

[10] Howard Witkin (5 January 2002). “Unlocking Ancient Wisdom – Pirkei Avot 1:1”Aish.com. Retrieved 28 August 2017.

[11] Shaye J. D. Cohen. (1985). The Origins of the Matrilineal Principle in Rabbinic Law. AJS Review, 10(1), 19-53. Retrieved July 15, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1486271

[12] Deuteronomy 7:2-4

[13] Maltz, Judy. “Israel’s Top Court Forces Interior Ministry to Explain Discrimination against Patrilineal Jews.” Haaretz.com, Haaretz, 29 Dec. 2019, www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israeli-top-court-demands-ministry-explain-discrimination-against-patrilineal-jews-1.8327297.

[14] Zeveloff, Naomi. “Patrilineal Jews Still Find Resistance.” The Forward, 2 Apr. 2012, forward.com/news/154009/patrilineal-jews-still-find-resistance/.

[15] Kaye, Alexander. “The Invention of Jewish Theocracy: The Struggle for Legal Authority in Modern Israel.” 2020, doi:10.1093/oso/9780190922740.001.0001.

[16] “THE BIOLOGICAL STATE: NAZI RACIAL HYGIENE, 1933–1939.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/the-biological-state-nazi-racial-hygiene-1933-1939.

[17] Siegel-Itzkovich, Judy. “Gene Tests Show That Two Fifths of Ashkenazi Jews Are Descended from Four Women.” BMJ : British Medical Journal, BMJ Group, 21 Jan. 2006, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1336798/.

[18] Costa, Martin. D., et al. “A Substantial Prehistoric European Ancestry amongst Ashkenazi Maternal Lineages.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 8 Oct. 2013, www.nature.com/articles/ncomms3543.

About the Author
Sarah Katz is an author, screenwriter and security professional with a B.A. in Middle East Studies from UC Berkeley, M.A. in Counterterrorism and pursuing a Ph.D. in Cyberpsychology with a focus on augmented reality. Her work has appeared in the Jewish Journal as well as Cyber Defense Magazine, Dark Reading, Infosecurity Magazine, Tech Xplore, 365 tomorrows, AHF Magazine, Scarlet Leaf Review and Thriller Magazine. Her book "Back to the Tribe: Intersectionality through a Global Jewish Lens" discusses the dangers of stealth antisemitism masquerading as anti-Zionism on the Western left.
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