Is someone Jewish because they are born to a Jewish mother? Born to a Jewish father or mother? Raised in a Jewish household? Provided with Jewish education? Identify as Jewish?
The “Who is a Jew” debate is a familiar one. One of the difficulties that interfaith couples face when they choose to raise a Jewish family is how they and their children will be accepted by the broader Jewish community. It is complicated because different denominations have different perspectives regarding this question (Orthodox and Conservative hold traditional matrilineal descent laws, whereas Reform and Reconstructionist accept patrilineal descent as well). One issue that emerges from this debate is the decision parents make as to whether to formally convert their children when the mother is not Jewish. In fact, this was a recent topic of conversation on JOI’s Mothers Circle listserve for women of various religions raising Jewish children.
Interfaith families are not the only ones faced with these questions. Households with two Jewish parents are also facing the conversion decision as more and more Jewish families adopt children, as reported on in the New Jersey Jewish News. One adoptive mother explained her perspective:
I got so angry [when the Rabbi asked us to convert our adopted child]….She’s my daughter, the daughter of a Jewish mother. Why should I have to convert her? Is she less my daughter because she didn’t come into the world through my legs? I find that offensive.
I imagine that some intermarried parents feel similarly, even if the issue is slightly different: “Why should I have to convert her? If I am raising my child as a Jew, is she any less Jewish because she came into the world from my womb?”
The point is that both view the raising of a child—and the child’s experience in the world—as the determining factor, rather than who actually birthed the child.
The halacha (traditional Jewish law) seems to be all about the birthing. Interestingly enough, however, modern technology has forced a need to clarify the traditional law of matrilineal descent. In my mind, this new perspective on the law could indicate that experience is a central factor in determining the religious status of a baby. Consider a case where the genetic mother and the gestational mother are two different women. According to many halachic authorities (it’s a new issue and there is not agreement), if a Jewish woman is an egg donor and the egg is carried in a non-Jewish surrogate mother, the child is not Jewish. Genes are not what is most important; in this case, gestation is the determining factor in Jewish identity. It is the child’s experience in the womb and the woman’s experience of pregnancy that determines “who is a Jew.”
Rabbi Amy Joy Small speaks about how this area of Jewish practice is changing with the times: “[it] isn’t what it was 10 years ago, and in 10 years it will not be the same as it is today.” I wonder what Jewish identity will look like in 10 years, but it’s also important to address people’s concerns now: How does the conversion question affect families and their connection to the Jewish community? Some leaders in the Jewish community would like to see all of these children formally converted, but pressuring them at the risk of turning the family away from Judaism is not the way to accomplish our shared goal of growing and creating an inclusive Jewish community. Whatever decision parents make, we as a community must be supportive and welcoming. We should focus our energies on nurturing Jewish identity, for the entire extent of that extra-long gestation period we call life.
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