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At a pluralistic yeshiva, a debate rages over who is Jewish enough

Matrilineal descent is an unquestioned rule in Judaism. But the Hadar Institute accidentally sparked an angry debate over whether just one parent — whether mother or father — is enough.

Hadar, a respected pluralistic institute of Jewish study known for its inclusivity of women and queer people, stunned and outraged many of its supporters this week by suggesting that it was redrawing traditional definitions of who is a Jew — to make them more restrictive.

The Orthodox and Conservative movements generally consider Jews of matrilineal descent and converts members of the tribe, while the Reform and Reconstructionist movements include Jews of patrilineal descent as well. 

But on Monday, the Hadar Institute posted an application for its Beit Midrash Fellowship that said candidates needed either to have converted or have two Jewish parents.

“Can someone please explain what on earth is going on here?” Ruth Geye, a 24-year-old living in New York City, tweeted along with a screenshot from Hadar’s FAQ page with the requirement underlined in red. 

Her thread quickly went viral in the progressive Jewish Twittersphere, and a post in a usually-jocular Facebook group about Conservative Judaism had accrued 260 comments — mostly negative — about the two-parent rule by Wednesday afternoon.

“When I said I loved egalitarian Judaism I didn’t mean egalitarian discrimination,” tweeted Cameron Bernstein, a popular Jewish TikToker.

Hadar quickly pulled the language from its site, and on Tuesday released a statement apologizing and saying the institute’s policies had not changed; it would continue to follow matrilineal descent for admission to its fellowship programs.

This language misrepresented our approach to this highly sensitive topic and the lack of clarity led to many people feeling excluded and hurt,” wrote Rabbis Aviva Richman and Ethan Tucker, who head Hadar’s yeshiva program. “We deeply apologize for the miscommunication and the pain that we caused.” 

The conflict brought into public view tensions that have been brewing for some time in traditional egalitarian circles. Questions of lineage and legitimacy have long been fraught across Jewish communities, and have only been heightened by the increase in interfaith marriage in recent decades. 

With Hadar and many other organizations striving to be more inclusive — of women, Jews of color and other constituencies long ill-served by mainstream Jewish institutions — robust debates are ongoing over how to continue to adhere to halacha, or Jewish law, while also addressing contemporary realities. 

“Judaism is an invitation to responsibility, and therein lies some of the tension,” Rabbi Tucker told me in an interview. “To the extent inclusion means you know, just come without any expectations – well, we have a tradition that has expectations,” he said. “That’s part of our covenant, that’s how we reach towards God, that’s how we build community. But it’s very much an invitation.”

Mixed parentage remains a topic of discussion

Hadar, founded in 2006, is one of the leading institutions of a movement known as halachic egalitarianism, or traditional egalitarianism, which promotes gender equality while adhering strictly to religious laws such as those of keeping kosher or observing Shabbat. While not affiliated with any official Jewish movement, halachic egalitarianism is associated with an informal network of organizations, of which Hadar has long been a leader, providing a home for queer Jews and women who would not be welcomed in a more Orthodox religious environment to rigorously study Torah.

When Rabbis Richman and Tucker issued their apology, they revealed the fine line Hadar attempts to walk between affirming the value of inclusion and commitment to halachic definitions of Jewish status that inherently exclude some people. 

As a starting point and emerging from current convention, halachic Jewish status is expressed through matrilineal descent and/or affirmative embrace of the covenant through formal conversion to Judaism,” their statement says. “We also recognize the way that definitions of Jewish status are often used to exclude and to harm rather than to include and heal.”

Online, many said that the apology did not fully acknowledge the hurt and pain Hadar’s initial language had caused. Some complained about a continued emphasis on “biological essentialism.” But others felt it was unfair to laud the institution for its strong halachic commitments and then complain when it followed the law to a strict conclusion; laws and rules, after all, are not always comfortable.

While the language is no longer on Hadar’s site, commenters on Twitter and Facebook quickly noted that it was not some kind of typo. Rabbi Tucker, one of Hadar’s founders, has written and taught extensively on lineage, essentially arguing that a two parent standard better addresses the realities of modern Jewish parenting and identity, and also calling intermarriage “ethnic apostasy,” a phrase which quickly escalated the anger around the papers online.

Tucker’s three-part essay and a three-part lecture are all available on Hadar’s website. In them, the rabbi suggests that matrilineal descent stems from a tradition in which the mother was the primary parent, and that the realities of modern parenting, in which a non-Jewish father would likely take an active role in raising his children, demands a change in approach.

His proposed solution is to perform a giyur l’chumrah, a conversion ritual done if there is any doubt about someone’s Jewish background, on anyone of mixed parentage. The process involves immersion in a mikveh, or ritual bath, in front of rabbis and, if relevant, a symbolic circumcision in which a drop of blood is drawn. 

(In all major streams of Judaism, children of Jewish mothers do not need any kind of conversion to be considered fully Jewish; a giyur l’chumrah would be a lower bar for children of Jewish fathers, who would be required to undergo a full conversion process in order to participate fully in Orthodox Jewish life.)

Hadar already facilitates giyur for its students; some, especially those with patrilineal backgrounds who have become more Orthodox, can find the practice affirming as it aids acceptance in their religious community.

In Facebook groups, jokes abounded about “Big Mikveh” potentially profiting off of an increase in immersions. And many argued that requiring a giyur for people with Jewish mothers was oppressive.

“Casting doubt on the Jewish status of someone whose previous status was unimpeachable is an active threat to them and their descendents,” said Geye, the woman who brought the controversy into the public eye.  “It would be disastrous if anyone else ever adopted this position.”

Obligation and equality

But why is Jewish status a requirement for learning Torah in the first place?

Indeed, Hadar does not ask about participants’ parentage for most of its programming, which includes week-long seminars, one-off lectures in various cities across the country and virtual classes on a wide range of topics in Jewish thought. 

But its leaders said Jewish status is relevant for its flagship year-long and summer-intensive yeshiva fellowships. 

These programs are designed for cohorts characterized by shared obligation in mitzvot and halachic practice,” the statement said. It included among these daily minyan, or prayer services requiring a quorum of 10 Jews; most Orthodox institutions count only men in a minyan, but egalitarian institutions, including Hadar, generally count all Jews.

In an interview, Rabbi Tucker expanded on this, explaining that “these two programs are anchored around Jewish practice, and so you need a working definition of Jewish status to have shared prayer.” 

The question of who is considered obligated to observe mitzvot, which is central to who may take part in Hadar’s yeshiva program, is a thorny but central one in Judaism. Most traditional interpretations of obligation in Jewish law only require men to fully observe mitzvot and Jewish law; women are exempt from “time-bound” commandments such as laying tefillin. Historically, this has been a way, at times, to exclude women from some forms of religious practice.

Over the past several decades, there has been a flourishing of what is known as partnership minyans, which allow women to lead parts of the service, such as Kabbalat Shabbat – a ritual generally reserved for men in Orthodox congregations. Some, though not all, partnership minyans wait for 10 women in addition to 10 men before beginning services. But despite the inclusion of women in partnership minyanim, they are still not considered obligated in the same way men are.

Hadar, though, holds that Jews of any gender are halachically obligated in all commandments, and so a minyan of 10 Jews of any gender fulfills the halachic requirement. 

“If we live in an age in which that freedom and agency has become more gender equal, our direction and aspiration is that the fulfillment of mitzvot will be similarly so,” Tucker told me. “For us at Hadar, it’s not that we are halachic but egalitarian; we are egalitarian because that is our understanding of what halacha demands.”

The contrast is striking between this inclusive halachic reading on gender and one that sees any Jews of mixed parentage as not Jewish. I asked Tucker why his interpretation is narrow in the case of descent and wide in the case of gender; he said he does not see it that way.

Tucker explained that he sees halacha as placing an emphasis on parents, and the modern discussion should consider why the sages felt that was so important, and apply it to modern realities. He gave an example of a piece of Mishna instructing someone to roll and reroll a book; now that books are bound with spines instead of scrolls, the literal instruction doesn’t apply but if one understands that rolling and rerolling a scroll prevented its decay, you can see that the value was one of taking good care of the book. This same approach is the one he wishes to apply to halacha around parentage.

“It’s not that we are halachic but egalitarian; we are egalitarian because that is our understanding of what halacha demands,” Tucker said. “It’s not really so much that we think of halacha as mutable; we’re trying to understand what are the underlying values.”

Tucker emphasized that his writings on the subject had not changed Hadar’s policies. Instead, he said they were an attempt to open what he thought to be a “stale” conversation that did not speak to the lived experience of modern Jewish life. Though his papers did include proposed policies and actions, in an email to alumni, he wrote that they were not meant to be prescriptive nor to “enter into a person’s journey midlife as a destabilizing force.”

But the clarifying statements from Hadar and Tucker have done little to quell the rampaging discourse online, which continues to be sharply critical. “What, we let Hitler’s definitions supersede our own communal thinking now?” tweeted prominent rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. “No no no.”

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