The Legacy of Patrilineal Descent

It’s been over 25 years since the Reform Movement voted to accept as Jews the children of patrilineal descent. Despite the vehement opposition of both the Orthodox and Conservative denominations at the time, the Jewish community is still standing. And by many counts, it’s much stronger.

Writing in the (New York) Jewish Week, Julie Weiner took a look back to see how the groundbreaking resolution has impacted the Jewish community. She writes:

The decision, along with outreach efforts to make interfaith families feel welcome in its synagogues, is widely credited as being a huge factor in the Reform movement surpassing the Conservative movement to become the largest stream of American Judaism.

This is a far cry from the hysteria that surrounded the resolution when it was first announced in March of 1983. An open letter to the New York Times published just three months later, penned by an Orthodox rabbi, said “every member of a Reform family will henceforth be subject to scrutiny to determine whether he or she is genuinely Jewish by Biblical definition.” The Conservative movement, during their 1984 Rabbinical Assembly, “overwhelmingly rejected any changes in the traditional Jewish law,” said an article in the United Press International.

Despite all of this, Julie noticed that the 25th anniversary came and went with “no major pronouncements or reflections from Reform leaders.” Why not? Was the movement “embarrassed or ambivalent about the decision,” she wondered?

Most Reform leaders I talk to insist the opposite is true. They argue that patrilineal descent has been so successful, so accepted, that no one gives it a second thought.

But simply passing a resolution didn’t have a magical affect on demographics. It was the first step towards creating a greater sense of inclusion. The resolution let people know that Judaism is more than DNA. Which parent passed the religion along was less important than whether or not the child was being raised as a Jew. Most notably, though, children with a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father now had people publicly standing up for their rights at Jews.

Of course, over 25 years later this is still an issue. Jews of patrilineal descent are still viewed by many as illegitimate. Julie talked to JOI’s associate executive director Paul Golin, who believes the Reform movement needs to do more to “educate people” and make sure patrilineal Jews are “armed with a response and don’t suddenly feel blindsided when they meet Jews who say ‘Oh, you’re not really Jewish because your mother isn’t Jewish.’”

There will likely never be a consensus across denominations regarding patrilineal descent, but the lack of pageantry regarding the anniversary, as Julie points out, is telling. Not just from the Reform side, but nothing from the Orthodox or Conservative movements either. Perhaps it’s because intermarriage is more common today than it was 25 years ago, and each stream of Judaism recognizes that focusing on who is or isn’t legitimately Jewish is less important than focusing on getting people – regardless of their background – to make Jewish choices.


  1. I saw this sensational new Jewish Cartoon called Rabbi Akiva’s Letters. An ancient story written by Rabbi Akiva himself that unlocks learning power for all ages. Set a spiritual mood with great music from Isaac Bitton. Visit to check out the promo trailers.

    Comment by Ron Isaac — October 27, 2009 @ 8:56 pm

  2. Dear Friends:

    I would like to offer an alternative perspective — many children of intermarriage are not happy with the Reform and Reconstructionist patrilineal descent criteria for Jewish identity — or I should say, the “bilenial” criteria.

    Many people in the Jewish community think that the Recon/Reform standard means that those communities accept all children of intermarriage as Jews by descent, provided that they have a Jewish father or mother.

    The Reform/Recon standard was welcomed on that basis.

    But that view of it is not true. The actual Reform responsa — which apparently follow the Recon model — Recon enacted patrilineal descent first — work basically as follows:

    If a child of an intermarriage Jewish father or Jewish mother is raised as a Jew — they are considered Jewish. If they are raised in another faith, they are considered non-Jewish. If they are raised as “nothing,” they may squeeze in the door without conversion. If they are raised as “both,” the local rabbi must make some decision about them.

    How does this work in practice?

    Prior to the enactment of the Reform/Recon patrilineal standard, Reform/Recon generally accepted the children of Jewish mothers as “real” Jews, no matter how they had been raised. Some patrilineal children were covertly accepted as real Jews — most had to convert.

    After the new patrilineal standard passed, it did not improve matters. Because there was — and is — little effective outreach to interfaith families — most children of intermarriage are raised in other faiths, both, nothing, etc.

    So we are shut out of Reform/Recon congregations, unless we agree to convert.

    In some ways, the Reform/Recon standard is harsher than the Orthodox/Conservative standard.

    The Orthodox/Conservative standard accepts all children of a biological Jewish mother or maternal Jewish grandmother, great-grandmother, etc. as Jews. Children of a Jewish father — not Jewish, and must convert.

    Now this too is not a fair standard. It grossly discriminates against patrilineal children and grandchildren of intermarriage.

    Many children of intermarriage are exasperated with both types of standards, never mind the ever-shifting standards of Jewish identity in Israel.

    They’ve asked why can’t all of us be declared Jewish, based on descent alone? Extend the matrilineal standard of the Orthodox/Conservatives to patrilineals?

    So I have started a group, Inclusivist Judaism, that — among other things — will do just that. All children and other descendants of intermarriage who contact us will be declared Jews if they have a Jewish parent, grandparent, great-grandparent, Jewish DNA study results, etc.

    No conversion required, and we will help them prepare paperwork packets documenting what is known of their ancestry.

    In addition, those desiring to live as Jews will only be required to have an official welcoming ceremony, in which they meet with a rabbi/cantor/lay leader and three other Jews to declare their return to Judaism, and sign a paper to that effect. We’ll give them a copy of the paper.

    We believe that similar procedures were used to welcome back returning Jews during the era of the Inquisition. Much of the time, no formal return procedures were thought necessary, but we feel that people will like a welcoming ceremony. If they don’t know much about Judaism, we will help them study it.

    We won’t send anyone with Jewish ancestry to formal conversion — mikveh, etc. — unless they request a formal conversion ceremony, in which case we’ll be happy to help them. But we will consider it a formality.

    Robin Margolis

    Comment by Robin Margolis — November 2, 2009 @ 8:52 pm

Leave a comment



Click Here!