Recognizing Jewish Identity across Denominations

Since 1983, when the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the Reform rabbinical body) passed a resolution accepting patrilineal descent, the debate surrounding “Who Is a Jew?” has persisted. Results of the change in policy have since exacerbated not just the differences between the Orthodox-dominated Israeli Rabbinate and the American Jewish liberal movements; it has also created a gulf between American Reform Judaism and most the Diaspora’s Reform movements. In only rare circumstances do progressive movements or congregations outside the United States accept patrilineal descent, according to this JTA article.

The Reform movement’s inability to coalesce around patrilineal descent and reconcile where modern Reform Judaism stands regarding “Who Is a Jew” has put communities across the globe in an unstable situation.

Without allowing for and welcoming in half the children of intermarriage (not to mention the intermarried themselves), Jewish communities in places like South Africa and France are finding themselves with dwindling numbers and no clear answer for a vibrant future. Fearing drops in financing from the government (Germany’s Jewish community) or the inability of its community members to make aliyah has led these Reform communities to an impasse. What does it mean when a child born to intermarriage can be considered a Jew in Kansas, but not in Cape Town?

JOI has highlighted this article in order to encourage an agreement in accepting patrilineal descent between the Reform and progressive movements around the world. The issue is not about intermarriage, but providing children of intermarriage (who have no control over which parent was Jewish) the equal opportunity to be a Jew. We understand that children of patrilineal descent might be non-halachic Jews, but we should make it easier for those who identify as Jewish to feel more welcome and included. The American Reform Movement’s decision to “open the tent” in 1983 has led to enormous, incalculable benefits for the American Jewish community. Jews, who would have been turned away because they only had a Jewish father, are now contributing, active members of the community. Let’s focus on embracing those who are born to Jewish fathers and their non-Jewish partners so we can create a more unified worldwide community that allows all those who stand with us to find meaning in Judaism. The sooner that the Jewish community finds a more open answer to “Who Is a Jew,” the better it is for the future of Judaism.

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