Jewish Identity and Jewish Status
Our community takes a lively interest in many things, and one idea currently exercising members is around the nexus of Jewish Identity and Jewish Status. Rabbi Sheridan and I are happy to announce that we will be leading some sessions in the Adult Education Programme for the coming term, examining a number of the texts which explore and underpin the debate, and as a ‘taster’ we would like to begin here in with a definition of some of the terms of reference.
The position of the Movement for Reform Judaism here in the UK follows that of traditional Jewish practise that goes back to the Talmudic formulations of the status of Jewish children born of a variety of parental backgrounds: Known as the Matrilineal principle, it stems from a Mishnaic assumption of differential validity of certain relationships and can be found in Mishnah Kiddushin 3:12. This Mishnah assumes that the status of the offspring is determined by the potential of the parents to contract a valid marriage with each other. The offspring of these marriages would follow the religious status of the mother.
Mishnah Yevamot 7:5 goes further, penalising both Jewish men and Jewish women for marrying ‘out’, making the offspring of neither a Jewish mother or a Jewish father a Jewish child. A vigorous debate in the Gemara reverses this Mishnah, leading us to the halachic position we know today, the child of a Jewish mother and a gentile man will be Jewish, that of a Jewish man and a gentile woman would be gentile. Talmud records barely any trace of a view that the child of a Jewish man and a non Jewish woman would be considered Jewish.
Once codified, the law has remained unchanged, and until modern times, unchallenged.
Modernity has brought new challenges to the Jewish world, and the American Reform Movement chose to address this particular issue in the 1960’s in response to a growing number of Jews marrying outside of the faith, with an informal understanding that a child of a non Jewish mother and Jewish father could be accepted into the community under certain conditions to do with Jewish education and practise up till a ceremony of confirmation at the age of 16. It made no mention of the child of a Jewish mother held to such constraints. In 1980 a special committee was established to review this position, and in 1983 a statement was issued clarifying the practise and expectations for the North American Jewish Community. The resolution was understood to be advisory guidance, not binding on each community of the Union (of A – a reflection of the controversy and mixed feelings of the various parties. It also diverted radically from traditional Jewish understanding of status being conferred by a Jewish mother.
It now stated that the child of one Jewish parent rather than two – either father or mother - is to be considered to be only under a legal presumption of Jewish status – a doubt has been recorded that would be removed only with the active living of a Jewish life. A child of any mixed marriage is seen as ‘potentially Jewish’ and the presumption will only become certainty with brit, Jewish education until an age of majority (Kabbalat Torah at 16); Clear and obvious identification with the Jewish people, and the abjuration of any other faith. This means that the American Reform Movement became in effect more strict than other more orthodox movements, in that the child had to prove their Jewish identity through adherence to Jewish education, lifestyle etc – even if the mother herself were halachically Jewish!
The child has only a claim to Jewish status, and it is up to them and their parents to validate this claim through subsequent and meaningful and consistent acts of identification. The resolution reads “The Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people. The performances of these mitzvot (commandments) serves to commit those who participate in them, both parent and child, to Jewish life..."
Quite why this became known as ‘Patrilineality’ is confusing to me. It is described by the responsa as Equilineality - That any child with one Jewish parent is equally potentially Jewish, and only a child with two Jewish parents is beyond the ‘presumption’ from birth.
The only other Jewish community outside of North America to take on this position is that of the Liberal Jewish community in the UK. Under a longstanding agreement between the Reform and the Liberal Jewish communities, a child recognised as Jewish according to the practises of each Movement would be recognised by the other Movement as Jewish.
The effect of this is that a child of one Jewish parent (of either gender) born into the Liberal Movement would remain under a presumption of Jewish identity until they had undergone Kabbalat Torah at 16. The child of a Jewish mother in the Reform Movement would be considered to be Jewish from birth, the child of a non-Jewish mother would be considered to be gentile until such time as their status would be recognised by a Beit Din.
The Reform Movement here then addressed the status of children born to non-Jewish mothers whose fathers wished them to have a Jewish identity and whose mothers were happy with this, but did not want themselves to have such an identity. (Conversion of course through our Beit Din is always an option and always encouraged in order to form a family with one religious identity, but we recognise the mother’s desire to have her own faith or none). This however is not a bar to the conversion of minor children.
The Mishnah tells us (Ketubot 11a) that parents may bring young children to a Beit Din to be converted, as although an infant cannot give its consent, it is permissible to benefit somebody without his consent, and conversion to Judaism is seen as beneficial to the child (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 268:7). Jewish law also allows such children who were converted to Judaism to be able to legally to reject the conversion on reaching the age of majority, but if they are silent or accept Judaism at that point, they are deemed Jewish. Using this legal framework, the Beit Din of the Reform Movement offers conversion of the minor children of a Jewish father (and a consenting non-Jewish mother), and we frequently bring such children –both born and in potential – before the court in order to convert them from a young age. This removes any question of presumption or doubt, and so the children enter our chedarim as Jews. As with any conversion we have a process of learning – both the parents must follow our Jewish Preparation course before attending the Beit Din to declare with informed consent the religious environment their children will grow up I, and their desire for their children to be Jewish.
We hope that this information is useful as a platform on which to begin our exploration of the subject, using texts from Bible through Talmud and through to modern Rabbinic Responsa. We look forward to seeing you soon to continue the conversation.