Patriliny, Matriliny, Ambiliny
Over the past few months a group of members have been considering the vexed questions: Who is a Jew? What constitutes Jewishness? And who decides?
We looked at the traditional texts, considered the Responsa and found quite a few surprises along the way.
Status and Identity
What do we actually mean by Jewishness? Daniel Gordis and David Ellenson, in their book, ‘Pledges of Jewish Allegiance’ make an important distinction between status and identity..
‘”Status” from the Latin word meaning “standing,” refers to the condition of a person in the eyes of the law. When employed by a person’s relationship to a group, the person’s own conception may be irrelevant. Authorities external to the group or within the group itself may well make status designations with no regard for the individual’s sense of self –definition. For example there were self-defined Christians who, living in Nazi Germany were defined as Jews under the Nuremberg laws of 1935. Similarly (though with very different implications) a person born of a Jewish mother who has sworn allegiance to another religious faith would still be considered Jewish by nearly all traditional Jewish legal authorities…
‘Identity, in contrast, embraces a more specific and personal component. Its etymological root derives from the Greek idios, means “private” or “individual.” When the term “identity” as opposed to “status,” is employed to refer to a person’s relationship to a group, it may simply signify the psychological orientation of the individual toward that group. It reflects the individual’s autonomous understanding of who he or she is. Individuals who participate in the life of a given Jewish community might well identify as Jews despite not having undergone any formal rite of conversion. Identity in this instance would not address the Jewish legal relationship that obtains between a person and the community. It would, rather, reflect a person definition of self in reference to a group and might even be affirmed by one or more sectors of that group, though not necessarily the one with any legal authority to define status.’
For most of Judaism’s 3,300 years, status and identity were pretty much the same thing. If you were born a Jew, you remained a Jew, subject to the demands of Jewish law and living within the community that supported it. However with the coming of modernity; with the invention of the individual and of individual freedoms, with movement among people of other faiths, and the ease of conversion that synonymity of status and identity has dissolved. So when we say that Judaism should become patrilineal what do we mean? That the children of Jewish fathers should be subject to Jewish status or that they should identify themselves as part of the Jewish community?
Judaism is Patrilineal
One thing became clear in our weeks of study. Judaism developed as a patrilineal society and it continues to be so to this day. There was no change from patriliny to matriliny, the original laws remained intact, what happened was that additional rules were added to meet the changing needs of society.
To go back to biblical times, society was male focussed, - absolutely patriarchal. Women were taken in marriage; they left their father’s houses to become part of their new husband’s family. They would fit into the domestic routine established by their mothers– in- law and by their unmarried sisters –in-law. They would engage in the religious ritual of the household, following their new husband’s faith. Thus there is no mention of conversion in the Bible. The non-Israelite wife (and there were many) simply assimilated into the way of life of their spouse. This is what Ruth does. Her famous speech ‘Whither you will go I will go,’ states that while her husband may now be dead, she will continue to follow the routines and rituals of her mother – in law that she took on when she married, rather than return to her father’s house and faith. But the practice could bring trouble. Foreign wives were constantly accused of corrupting their husbands; bringing in other gods and turning them away from the worship of the Eternal One. But women themselves had no status, they were merely the vessels that produced the next generation and patriliny meant that the status of the child – the male child - followed that of the father. He took his name and inherited his portion of the tribal land, while girl children took on that status until they married.
This pretty much remains the same to this day. A male child receives an identity on his birth as a Cohen, or a Levy or Israel. It doesn’t mean much except for a few ritual obligations in Orthodox synagogues, but the sense of identity is so strong that it has survived as an oral tradition for three thousand years. There is no physical land to inherit any more, but the spiritual inheritance remains and there is no reason to think it will not continue for further millennia too.
The Women’s Place
Matters changed probably in Roman times. The social situation by then was very different to that in ancient biblical Israel. Jews were scattered around the known world, living a more urban life and one with many links to the societies around them. The concern with their status reflects the concerns of Roman law with women’s status. The wife and mother revered, the prostitute and the adulterer reviled, everyone needed to fit into a category; ambiguity was not an option.
Patriliny continued to be the norm. Where a man married a Jewish wife, his children acquired his status and inherited from him. But there were many anomalies. There were slaves kept by Jewish households. Female slaves who bore children to their masters could not expect their children to inherit his status or property. The Romans used rape as a weapon of war and control. Were Jewish women subjected to such rape no longer to be considered Jewish? Were the children of rape not Jewish? To solve these anomalies the laws concerning status were developed to add further categories. Thus the second century compilation the Mishnah states;
In every case where there is marriage and there is no transgression of the laws of marriage, the offspring follows after the status of the male. This is the case when the daughter of a priest, Levite or Israelite is married to a Priest, Levite or Israelite.
But in every case where there is a marriage and there is a transgression, the offspring follow after the inferior. This is the case when a widow married to a High Priest; a divorced woman or a woman bound to her former husband’s brother (halitsah) married to an ordinary priest; a woman who is the product of an illegal union (mamzeret) or who is the daughter of the subservient tribes (netinah) married to an Israelite; the daughter of an Israelite married to a mamzer or netin.
In every case where there cannot be a legal marriage, but it is possible to have a legal marriage with another person, the offspring is a mamzer. This is the case when there is intercourse with one of those forbidden in Torah (Leviticus 18 laws of incest).
In every case where there cannot be a legal marriage with any one, the offspring is like the mother. This is the case of a bondswoman and a non-Jew.
This passage needs unpacking more than we have the space to do here, but it is necessary to know the consequences of the status of mamzerut. This illegitimacy includes the prohibition of marriage to anyone other than another mamzer for ten generations. It is also important to realize that ‘legal’ here, means a ‘Jewish’ marriage – not any other form of union as possible under secular law today. Thus a man, who could legally marry a Jewish woman, but goes and marries a non-Jew, which cannot be a legal Jewish union, their offspring are mamzerim. However a non-Jewish woman could never contract a legal Jewish marriage, whoever her husband may be.
In this scenario, it is far better the woman is the non-Jew. Lack of Jewish status can be rectified – and was – and is, through conversion – either of both the wife and child, or of just the infant On the other hand, if a Jewish woman marries a non Jew, her children may be Jewish, but they carry the stigma of mamzerut and that is something that can never be changed, for the Rabbis interpreted ‘ten generations’ as meaning ‘for ever.’ Why the harshness of the punishment? Possibly as a preventative measure to stop men marrying off their daughters for business or social advantage, while recognizing that ‘boys will be boys’ and will always find the beautiful blonde stranger more alluring than the homely girl next door. Actually, this piece of legislation seems to have been rescinded. After much debate in the Talmud public censure seems to have been favoured. Moses Maimonides declares the parties in mixed marriages should be publicly flogged – a position held by many an Orthodox Rabbi even in modern times!
What Of Today?
Why are we talking so much about ancient practices when the situation today is so very different? The answer is that it isn’t. It wasn’t different during the Roman period, and while in Ashkenazi Mediaeval Europe the restrictions on Jews kept them apart in ghettos, from the 18th century Emancipation, the numbers of interfaith marriages radically increased. In the 19th century it is estimated that about 10 percent of European Jewry was intermarried.
Some of the Orthodox Rabbis of the time responded with surprising leniency, accepting patrilineal children through the process of tevilah (ritual immersion) and brit milah (circumcision) for the boys. In other words, converting the children without their mothers – the position we follow in the Reform Movement today. Many Orthodox maintained this liberal position at the time, however in order to keep such families out of the clutches of the Reform communities, who were converting non-Jews swiftly and easily.
What has changed is not the numbers of mixed faith marriages that pose questions of status on their offspring; it is rather, the establishment of the State of Israel and its secular requirements for citizenship, which demand only one grandparent to be Jewish. Indeed if you are married to a person with one Jewish grandparent, but you yourself have no Jewish ancestry that is also acceptable for Israeli citizenship. On the other hand, the Orthodox Rabbinate within the State has an entirely different understanding of Jewish status, which includes different requirements for conversion within Israel from the rest of the world. Their huge power and struggles with Batei Din (rabbinic courts) around the world have resulted in a mess of staggering proportions. There are tragic anomalies that wreck peoples’ lives and give Judaism a terrible name. No one centre is seen as an acceptable authority and the antics of some Rabbinical courts bode ill for the future of k’lal Yisrael - the integrity of the Jewish people.
Ambilineal descent is found in some tribal societies where there is the possibility of choosing between inheritance from the father, and inheritance from the mother or, indeed, accepting both. This has been adopted by the American Union of Reform Judaism (URJ) and of Liberal Judaism (LJ) in this country in response to the anomalies thrown up by continuing a patriarchal tradition in an egalitarian age. The ‘DNA’ of Jewishness (if there is such a thing) is of the same strength whether inherited from the father or the mother, and in an age where parenthood is increasingly shared it is no longer the case that the mother’s influence is the greater in a child’s religious education.
For this reason, the American Reform and English Liberal movements have moved away from a definition by descent to a definition by education. If a child has only one Jewish parent, there is a safek – a doubt about their Jewish status in the case of LJ, or a presumption of Jewish status according to URJ, but one that needs later confirmation subject to a Jewish upbringing. In both cases ‘Jewishness’ is not conferred until the end of their Cheder education – at fifteen. This makes perfect sense and all our problems would be solved if this system was universally adopted and universally accepted. But it isn’t and there lies the problem. The adoption of an ambilineal position brings these movements into conflict with the notion of K’lal Yisra’el. American Reform and Liberal Judaism require equal treatment of children, whether it is the father or mother that is Jewish. But the rest of the world will accept only the child of a Jewish mother as Jewish – and that regardless of upbringing. Indeed, even within Reform and Liberal communities that acceptance continues - which makes it hard to impress upon a family with a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father that the child is not yet Jewish, when the rest of the world deems it so.
It creates yet another anomaly – that of matrilineal Jews acceptable to Orthodox and British and Israeli Reform movements, but not to Liberal and American Reform – as well, of course, of patrilineal Jews acceptable to the latter but not the former.
The British Reform Response
The British Reform movement works within the parameters of k’lal Yisra’el and has ensured that when it comes to status issues, decisions are made according to halachah. Therefore conversion requires milah and tevilah and acceptance of some of the commandments. Gittin - the divorce documents - are prepared in the presence of two witnesses and nissuin – marriages - are conducted in accordance with the full halachic requirement.
Orthodox authorities may choose not to recognise them – that is their problem. The fact that we do these things according to ancient religious authority means they can recognise them if they have the will to do so.
When it comes to a child of one Jewish parent; if the mother is Jewish but the father is not, we recognise that child’s status with or without a Jewish education. When it comes to the position of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, we offer conversion – to the mother is she wishes it, - or just to the child. The process is simple. The parents take a course on Judaism. The child is immersed in a mikveh and if a boy, he is circumcised. The family bring the child to the Reform Beit Din (Rabbinical Court) who will accept the child as Jewish and write the documentation to confirm this. This process has been described as Reform Judaism’s best-kept secret. I do not know why this should be. Any child of a Jewish father can be Jewish if that is what both parents wish and are willing to undertake the process to make them so.
Let us go back to the original distinction between status and identity. Status refers to the condition of a person in the eyes of the law. Jewish law can be changed, but those that change it have to be of sufficient universal authority that other Jews will accept the changes. This is patently impossible. No one individual or group of Rabbis holds sufficient authority as to be acceptable to the rest. Jewish status then, will not change, so we have the choice to work within the current traditional definition or outside it. What we have to ask is if we the Movement of Reform Judaism, were to go outside of the halachic definition, what would we lose and what would we gain? We would lose our position as a movement within k’lal yisra’el; we would gain an egalitarian, but more demanding requirement for Jewish status for the children of mixed faith couples. Is our intention to make it more difficult to be Jewish or easier?
Identity is more personal and specific. It reflects the individual’s autonomous understanding of who he or she is. This brings in a host of other questions and relates expressly to the individual community rather than to the Reform movement as a whole. It relates to this community, and these are the questions we at WDS must ask. How far should we accept as members of our community those who are not halachically Jewish, but identify with us and want to be part of us? Patrilineal Jews? Messianic Jews? Evangelical Christians who, identifying themselves as New Israel believe themselves also to be part of Old Israel? On what basis do we make these decisions?
We must consider each and every one of these questions before we can move further in the discussion about Patriliny within the Reform Movement.
Sybil A. Sheridan
 David Ellenson and Daniel Gordis Jewish Pledges of Allegiance Stanford 2012 p3.
 Mishnah Kiddushin 12:3