Why the Conservative Movement needs to embrace patrilineal descent

My classmate Steven Abraham’s blog “It’s Time to Say Yes” inspired me to write this piece about a related issue to intermarriage: patrilineal descent.

By nature, I am fairly traditional, especially when it comes to the running of the prayer services. I’ll never forget the day I walked into the Women’s League Seminary Synagogue (WLSS) for my rabbinical school interview and was given the second aliyah. I almost walked out, feeling that such an honor needed to be given to a Levi. When I asked about why I was given this aliyah, I was told “We’re egalitarian here — no privileges for Kohanim or Leviim.” As someone who came from a traditional family, it was difficult for me to accept this answer. During my time in rabbinical school, I often prayed in the Stein Chapel, a non-egalitarian minyan at JTS, for which I was castigated for going to a service where women don’t count.

The vigilant emphasis on egalitarianism during my time in rabbinical school as well as a personal transformation led me to become more accepting of men and women’s equal roles in every aspect of Jewish life. Yet by the end of my time in rabbinical school, one thing perturbed me — that only those of matrilineal descent were considered Jewish.

The Conservative Movement’s choice to follow the traditional stance that Judaism is determined by the mother stems from a 1986 standard by my teacher Rabbi Joel Roth and by Rabbi Akiba Lubow. The standard was accepted shortly after Reform Judaism decided to accept those of patrilineal descent as Jewish provided both parents agreed to raise their children as Jews.

My challenge with matrilineal descent being the sole basis for Jewish identity stems from the fact that this was not the basis of Jewish identity in the Bible. Joseph and Moses marry the daughters of non-Israelite priests and yet their children were viewed as members of the Israelite clan. Most of the Israelite kings in the Bible also married non-Israelites. In fact it was not until Romans times when matrilineal descent became the dominant view. The common reason given is because it was a time of persecution and “you always knew who the mother was,” a view which should no longer apply today because of DNA testing. In an article called “The Matrilineal Principle in Historical Perspective,” Dr. Shaye Cohen asserts that in Roman law, a marriage between a citizen and non-citizen follows the mother and that rabbinic law copied Roman law. so that the status of relationships between a Jew and a non-Jew were judged in accordance with the mother rather than the father. This reasoning does not jive with an egalitarian movement (as the Conservative Movement has overwhelmingly become) for if men and women are viewed as equal partners in the raising of children, it makes no sense to distinguish between children born of a Jewish mother and those born of a Jewish father. As I take my daughter to morning services, play with her, change her diapers and watch her most mornings of the week, I am an equal partner in raising her.

The Conservative Movement’s flagship institutions have celebrated the equality of all people. Last month there was a much-deserved celebration of the ten year anniversary of accepting gay and lesbian rabbinical students and officiating at commitment ceremonies of same-sex couples, a position on which I used to be opposed but have since come to embrace. Now it is time for the Conservative Movement to take the next step and accept those children in our communities and in our religious schools whose are products of patrilineal descent.

The patrilineal issue was raised when I was in rabbinical school and yet the response from one member of the administration was “We have to have some standards.” However, why make this the standard to uphold? In a country where over half of all Jews intermarry, why only accept those whose mother is Jewish? If the Conservative Movement is truly egalitarian it needs to embrace patrilineal descent.

About the Author
Rabbi Ben Herman joined Bet Shira Congregation in 2019. He values personally engaging with each individual he meets and hearing their story. Karina and he are the parents of two beautiful girls: Ariela Shira and Leora Rose.
Related Topics
Related Posts