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.

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