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.


  1. Patrilineal descent should be much more of a halachic debate than it is. Moses, despite rabbinical apologists who might say otherwise, was in an intermarried family at least at the start of marriage when he knew little about Judaism and his father-in-law was a priest in a different religion. Moses also made it clear that anyone who stood at Sinai was a Israelite and we have no reason to believe everyone who left Egypt would have been an Israelite by today’s matrilineal standards. At a time when the Jewish world should be coming together we are cutting ourselves off from ourselves. It is time for all streams of Judaism to recognize patrilineal descent.

    Comment by Marc Dubey — March 2, 2011 @ 9:37 am

  2. As a person who has personally struggled with this issue—that of being a person zealously identifying one’s self as wholly Jewish while being so only patrilineally—I clearly believe that this is an area of utmost importance—especially with missionary efforts proving more effective than ever at assimilating Jews— to Judaism as a whole. With literally multitudes of people finding themselves in this very lonesome crevasse. Earnest seekers of G-d, who have very deep and sincere devotion to Jewish values and lifestyles.
    We are most often left out in the cold, in a fashion much like the ancient Pagan unwanted children, rutinely abandoned and left exposed to the scavengers whenever they bore witness to a shameful act of their parents, or exhibited some undesirable feature. For such callousness and bigotry to exist among the very people who have always laid claim to being the moral barometer of the whole of humanity, is not only saddening, but sickening and dare I say, blasphemous.
    How can the Jewish community survive or better yet keep its dignity if it shuns those who seek to enrich it with devotion , simply because they lack yichus,while harboring those with yichus who find it meaningless and simply some accident of birth? No wonder children of intermarriage seldom raise their children to be Jewish, they never had any other real option. The greatest threat to Judaism is not assimilation, but ostacism, and xenophobia. It has maintained a stalwart policy of defiance to missionary efforts, rather than addressing the very real questions of the proselytized. Is Judaism without these answers? Hardly. Yet what is not only present but prevelant, is ambivilence to the ’stranger who lives among you’; I am certain that I read somewhere that Jews are not to mistreat such people. The present halakha literally creates animosity and anti-Jewish sentiments by proving to the children of intermarriage that it not only could give a damn about the souls of these people, but that it basically wishes they’d all just go to hell.
    Judaism is and has always been a nation of refugees and converts. How is it that she then disowns her own children? Is it any wonder that the world has always, even until today, seen Judaism as a harsh and unwelcoming, xenophobic and elitist regime, when it treats its own as not its own. I pray; my deepest heartfelt desire, is to see before the end of my days, Judaism finally circumsize her heart, and be the lamp of virtue HaShem has created us to be, and take responsibilty for our sins as a nation and people, by healing and welcoming the intermarried as opportunities for growth, rather than stains on the bed sheets.
    Stephen Sharpe—A son of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Lover of HaShem,and His people…all of them

    Comment by Stephen Sharpe — April 22, 2011 @ 6:27 am

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