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Patrilineal Promise and Pitfalls

One of Reform Judaism’s bravest and most important policy decisions of the past century was the movement’s decision to welcome “patrilineal” Jews as full members of the Jewish people.

Rooted in the biblical definition of Jewish lineage, the American Reform movement’s 1983 policy on patrilineal descent held that Jewish identity could be claimed whether one’s father or mother was Jewish. This opened synagogues to countless Jews who would otherwise be pushed away by halachic requirements of matrilineality and, arguably, gave American Jewry a chance to revive itself by affirming what we already knew — countless people with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers define themselves as Jews.

If such reasoning was good enough for the biblical patriarchs, it was good enough for our own age. As a rabbi, I’ve always embraced this thinking.

And yet in practice, patrilineal descent raises challenges that manifest themselves beyond the theoretical world of policy prescriptions. I saw these challenges most often when I served as director of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University. I was rabbi to all students on campus, not just to the Reform students, and I often participated to great fulfillment in the Orthodox and Conservative minyans, praying alongside Jewish students whose boundaries of identification with the Jewish tradition were different from those of Reform students, who grew up as the first generation to be fully embraced by the patrilineal descent decision.

One student I remember offers an instructive example. He grew up Reform: bris, bar mitzvah, confirmation, a leader in our campus Jewish community. He “looked” Jewish. But his mother was not Jewish, which meant that as he explored his connection to Judaism, learning to pray in the Conservative and Orthodox minyans, he suffered the deep wound and pain of “not being counted,” because according to Jewish law, he is not a Jew. All he wanted was to pray, to be connected, to be part of the greater whole of the Jewish people.

I shared this story with Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, of blessed memory. Arthur told me that when Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the Reform movement’s head, was proposing that Reform Judaism embrace patrilineal descent, Arthur and at least one other leading Conservative rabbi approached him, offering a compromise: We’ll embrace the policy shift by welcoming these families into the synagogue, but let’s agree that by bar and bat mitzvah age, we take these kids to the mikveh for conversion, thereby unifying our standards of definition for “Who is a Jew.”

I always felt this story represented a missed opportunity for the Reform movement — a chance to position itself as the most welcoming stream for intermarried families, bringing them into the tent of Abraham and Sarah, teaching them Jewish tradition and widening that understanding of Judaism’s rich historical heritage while still embracing a shared religious understanding of “Who is a Jew.”

I believe that this position has great integrity, most important because it recognizes that despite the Reform movement’s own declarations of embracing an original, biblical identity, we have broken with 2,000 years of religious tradition. Granted, it’s a break that can generally be rectified through conversion should an individual choose to embrace the tradition’s religio-legal definition of Jewishness (and more often than we realize, that rectification is made quietly in countless Jewish communities across the globe — even in Israel). Nevertheless, it unduly places the onus for rectification on individuals who may have previously been under the impression that they would universally be accepted as a Jews. This is an unfair burden to be endured when the Reform rabbinic leadership ought to be helping to forge a different path.

Rabbi Hertzberg’s policy proposal never happened, of course, and sadly, official policy in the Jewish community and Israel remains divided on the “Who is a Jew” question. But the people — in my own community and throughout the world — vote with their feet. And as long as intermarriage rates show no real sign of diminishing, we have an opportunity to embrace people as whole Jews seeking whole answers. Halachic details can come later, as we search for unity in the boundaries of our shared tradition.

Rabbi Andy Bachman is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn.

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