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The Mishnah (Kiddushin 3:12) states that, to be a Jew, one must be either the child of a Jewish mother or a convert to Judaism, (ger tzedek, "righteous convert"). The Talmud (Kiddushin 68b) derives this law from the Torah, specifically : "Thy daughter thou shalt not give to his son, nor shalt thou take his daughter to thy son. For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods." This rule was clearly accepted by the 2nd century CE, with virtually no debate over it appearing in the Talmud. Orthodox opinion regards this rule as dating from receipt of the Torah at Mount Sinai, but most non-Orthodox scholars regard it as originating either at the time of Ezra (4th Century BCE) or during the period of Roman rule in the 1st-2nd centuries CE.
In the Hellenistic period of the 4th Century BCE–1st Century CE some evidence indicates that the offspring of intermarriages between Jewish men and non-Jewish women were considered Jewish; as is usual in prerabbinic texts, there is no mention of conversion on the part of the Gentile spouse. On the other hand, Philo of Alexandria calls the child of a Jew and a non-Jew a nothos (bastard), regardless of whether the non-Jewish parent is the father or the mother .
With the emergence of Jewish denominations and the modern rise in Jewish intermarriage in the 20th century, questions about the law of matrilineal descent have assumed greater importance to the Jewish community at large. The heterogeneous Jewish community is divided on the issue of "Who is a Jew?" via descent; matrilineal descent still is the rule within Orthodox Judaism, which also holds that anyone with a Jewish mother has an irrevocable Jewish status, and matrilineal descent is the norm in the Conservative movement. Since 1983, Reform Judaism in the United States of America officially adopted a bilineal policy: one is a Jew if either of one's parents is Jewish, provided that either (a) one is raised as a Jew, by Reform standards, or (b) one engages in an appropriate act of public identification, formalizing a practice that had been common in Reform synagogues for at least a generation. Karaite Judaism, which includes only the Tanakh in its canon, interprets the Torah to indicate that Jewishness passes exclusively through the father's line, maintaining the system of patrilineality that many scholars believe was the practice of ancient Israel.
In the Torah, the sons of Moses, Gershom and Eliezer, by his wife Zipporah daughter of the Midianite priest Jethro, are Jews. Within the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), The Book of Ruth relates the story of a Gentile woman married to a Jewish man, whose children are considered Jewish.
Professor Shaye J.D. Cohen of Harvard University states:
Numerous Israelites heroes and kings married foreign women: for example, Judah married a Canaanite, Joseph an Egyptian, Moses a Midianite and an Ethiopian, David a Philistine, and Solomon women of every description. By her marriage with an Israelite man a foreign women joined the clan, people, and religion of her husband. It never occurred to anyone in pre-exilic times to argue that such marriages were null and void, that foreign women must "convert" to Judaism, or that the off-spring of the marriage were not Israelite if the women did not convert.
In contrast, the Book of Ezra relates that the prophet Ezra, a Jewish priestly scribe, commanded his Jewish followers amidst the Babylonian Captivity (c. 459 BCE) to divorce their foreign wives, and this sometimes has been regarded as the foundation of the present rule. According to the Bible, Ezra resolved the identity threat which arose by the intermarriage between Jews and foreigners and provided a definite reading of the Torah.
Josephus (37 CE – c. 100 CE), in Antiquities of the Jews, refers to marriages between Jewish men and Gentile women without much commentary and seems to assume that the offspring is Jewish (or, according to one of his statements, "half-Jewish"); as is usual in prerabbinic texts, there is no mention of conversion on the part of the Gentile spouse. In contrast, Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE - 50 CE) calls the child of any Jewish intermarriage a nothos (bastard), regardless of which parent is not Jewish. In the same vein, the Mishnah raises the possibility that the child of a Gentile father and a Jewish mother is a mamzer, though this is dismissed in the later stratum of the Talmud.
The Mishnah (Kiddushin 3:12) states that, to be a Jew, one must be either the child of a Jewish mother or a convert to Judaism. The Talmud (Kiddushin 68b) derives this law from the Torah, specifically from Deuteronomy 7:3-4, which reads: "Thy daughter thou shalt not give to his son, nor shalt thou take his daughter to thy son. For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods." The Talmudic sages point out that only the child born to your daughter, though fathered by a non-Jew, is called "your son"; a child born to your son by a non-Jewish mother would not be called "your son," but rather "her son." Furthermore, the Torah is specifically concerned with a non-Jewish father turning away a Jewish child from Judaism, whereas there is no parallel concern for a non-Jewish mother turning a child from Judaism, presumably because the child is not Jewish.
Rabbi Louis Jacobs noted,
"There has been a development of the law in these instances from Biblical and pre-Rabbinic times [from patrilineal to matrilineal descent]. The attempt to find reasons for the change, however, has proved to be elusive...[b]ut the development in the law had already taken place before the redaction of the Mishnah at the very latest. With the exception of the Rabbi in the Jerusalem Talmud (Qiddushin, 3:12) who permitted the child of a gentile mother and Jewish father to be circumcised on the Sabbath and whose opinion was vehemently rejected, the law is accepted unanimously in both Talmuds. It is recorded as the law in all the Codes without dissenting voice and has been the universal norm in all Jewish communities.
In the Middle Ages, there was a minority stream of rabbinic opinion arguing in theoretical terms for a rule that, to be Jewish by descent, both of one's parents must be Jewish. In practical terms, however, the matrilineal rule remained unchallenged from Talmudic times till the twentieth century.
With the birth of alternative branches of Judaism and the rise in intermarriage in the 20th century, questions about the law of matrilineal descent arose. Children born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, in particular, were asking why they were not accepted as Jews. As of today, Judaism is divided on the issue of "Who is a Jew?" via descent.
Matrilineal descent still is the rule within Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox Judaism also holds that anyone with a Jewish mother has irrevocable Jewish status; in other words, even if someone with a Jewish mother converts to another religion, that person still is considered Jewish.
At the same time, matrilineal descent remains the norm in Conservative halakha. In 1986, the Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly reiterated the commitment of the Conservative movement to the law of matrilineal descent. Furthermore, the movement stated that any rabbi who accepts the principle of patrilineal descent will be subject to expulsion from the Rabbinical Assembly. At the same time, it affirmed that "sincere Jews by choice" should be warmly welcomed into the community and that "sensitivity should be shown to Jews who have intermarried and their families." The Conservative movement actively reaches out to intermarried families by offering them opportunities for Jewish growth and enrichment.
Polls conducted by the Conservative movement show that 68% of all regular attenders at Conservative synagogues would support changing the law to allow Jewish identity by patrilineal descent.  However, there is little rabbinic support for such a change (and, if Cohen's argument is correct, such a change could not be made without also recognising the legality of mixed marriages.)
Reform Judaism in the U.S. officially adopted a bilineal policy in 1983: one is a Jew if either of one's parents is Jewish, provided that either (a) one is raised as a Jew, by Reform standards, or (b) one engages in an appropriate act of public identification. This declaration formalized what had been Reform policy in practice for at least a generation. Clause (b) has been generally interpreted as making any form of public self-identification sufficient, though some congregations may make more formal requirements - especially if the individual in question has been raised as a Christian. In addition, the movement decided to accept people who were raised as Jews, such as adopted children, even if it was not certain that either of their parents were Jewish.
The Central Conference of American Rabbis declares that the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption of the Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people. The performance of these mitzvot serves to commit those who participate in them, both parent and child, to Jewish life.
Other movements within the World Union for Progressive Judaism have adopted essentially the same position as U.S. Reform Judaism. These include: Liberal Judaism in England; Reconstructionist Judaism in the US, Canada and elsewhere; Progressive Judaism in Australia; one congregation in Austria; some congregations in Eastern Europe. Note that Reform Judaism in Canada and England adopts a different position, similar to that of Conservative Judaism (though there may be an accelerated conversion process for the children of Jewish fathers).
Reconstructionist Judaism, which values equity and inclusivity, also adopted the idea of bilineal descent. According to Reconstructionist Judaism, children of one Jewish parent, of either gender, are considered Jewish if raised as Jews.
Karaite Judaism Includes only the Tanakh in its canon, excluding the Talmud. Karaite Judaism interprets the Torah to indicate that Jewishness passes exclusively through the father's line. Maintaining the system of patrilineality, that many scholars believe was the practice of ancient Israel.
Many secular and non-religious Jews in America, Israel and elsewhere adopt a bilineal view similar to that detailed above. In Israel, the status quo is that the Orthodox definition is followed: the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother may immigrate to Israel (and may claim rights under the Law of Return), but will be registered in official documents as a non-Jew. The consequences are various: he/she may not be wedded inside the state to anybody considered to be officially a Jew, and he/she may not be buried in a military cemetery if he/she dies in battle.
Some groups of Jews have historically recognized only patrilineal descent, e.g. the Juhurim of the Northern Caucasus, and other Jewish groups of Central Asia. This is also the majority view in Karaite Judaism, though some require both parents to be Jewish.
The historical debate
The law of descent as currently accepted by Orthodox Judaism appears to be an exception to a generally patrilineal system of family law. For example, laws of inheritance and the descent of the monarchy follow the father. A Jew also belongs to the tribe of his or her father, so a Kohen or Levi must be the son of a Kohen or Levi. The child of a mixed Sephardi-Ashkenazi marriage generally adopts the communal identity of the father.
For this reason, many scholars suggest that the original rule of Jewish descent must have been patrilineal, and that it was changed around the time of Ezra, or even later, at the time of Yavneh, possibly under the influence of Roman law. There are several instances in the Bible where Israelite men marry Gentile women without direct mention of the women converting. For example, many of the Israelite kings married foreign princesses, and this does not seem to have prevented the children of these marriages succeeding to the throne. An example is Rehoboam, who was the son of Solomon by the Ammonite princess Naamah. Another example is the Book of Ruth, which seems to claim such ancestry for King David himself.
The Orthodox answer is that both Ruth and Naamah were converts to Judaism: the Talmud  derives the laws of proselytes from the exchange between Naomi and Ruth.
Historians, however, believe that the very notion of conversion with a mikvah is postbiblical. It must also be pointed out that, even if Ruth never became Jewish, this would not affect the Jewishness of King David on either a pure patrilineal or a pure matrilineal rule, as Ruth was King David's paternal great-grandmother.
A reconciliation of the evidence has been offered by Professor Shaye J.D. Cohen. The original rule was patrilineal, but only applied to cases where the parents were legally married, or could lawfully have married, as it is only in these cases that the child legally has a father at all. So in the case of an all-Jewish or all-Gentile marriage, the child inherits his or her Jewish or Gentile status from the father. In Biblical times, the same rule would have applied to mixed unions, as such marriages were frowned upon but not regarded as legally impossible. However, since the time of Ezra, Jewish law has held that mixed marriages are not only forbidden but void. Accordingly, the child of such a union has no legal father, and takes the status of the mother by default; just as in English custom a legitimate child takes his or her father’s surname but an illegitimate child takes his or her mother’s. In the result, it is only in the case of a mixed marriage that the child inherits its Jewish status from the mother; in the normal case of two Jewish parents a child inherits his or her status from the father, but the Jewishness of the mother is a necessary condition for this to happen. The practical result of this is the same as that of a purely matrilineal rule.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 Jacobs, Louis. "There is no problem of descent.". http://www.louisjacobs.org/index.php?pge_id=71. Retrieved 2009-06-03.
- ↑ Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 16.225, 18.109, 18.139, 18.141, 14.8-10, 14.121, 14.403, or, according to one of his statements, "half-Jewish"
- ↑ On the Life of Moses 2.36.193, On the Virtues 40.224, On the Life of Moses 1.27.147
- ↑ Antiquities of the Jews 16.225, 18.109, 18.139, 18.141, 14.8-10, 14.121, 14.403
- ↑ On the Life of Moses 2.36.193, On the Virtues 40.224, On the Life of Moses 1.27.147
- ↑ Wertheimer, Jews in the Center: Conservative Synagogues and their Members.
- ↑ Karaite FAQs; Congregation Or Saddiqim, Giyyur
- ↑ half-jewish.org/bibleintermarriage.html
- ↑ half-jewish.org/who_is_born_a_jew.html
- ↑ Yevamoth 47b
- ↑ Reviewed by Louis Jacobs, There is no Problem of Descent.
- ↑ The Arba'ah Turim holds that the Biblical prohibition of intermarriage only applied to the seven nations of Canaan, and that both the extension to Gentiles in general and the sanction of invalidity are rules of Rabbinic rather than Biblical law: Tur Even ha-Ezer ch. 16.
- The origin of Matrilineal Descent in Judaism
- Why is Judaism passed on through the mother?
- Louis Jacobs, "There is No Problem of Descent"
- Matrilineal or Patrilineal Descent Lisa Katz
- Professor Shaye J. D. Cohen, "The origin of the Matrilineal rule in Rabbinical Judaism"
- Reform Movement's Resolution on Patrilineal Descent, March 15, 1983. "The Status of Children of Mixed Marriages"