POLICY – MATRILINEAL VS PATRILINEAL DESCENT
Or Shalom recognizes that both the arguments in support of patrilineal and matrilineal descent are strong and compelling. We live in a time of fragmentation and transition within the Jewish world. Long term consequences and outcomes are difficult to foresee. Within this context, the following reflect some of the deliberations explored by the Or Shalom Vaad and Board during 1997 and 1998 (the Report of the Vaad is attached as an appendix).
Or Shalom embraces diversity and egalitarianism. We want to honour equally all people of Jewish descent who want to raise their children Jewishly. Jewish tradition continuously evolves. The tradition of matrilineal descent emerged out of a human process; it was not G-d-given. Or Shalom embraces change where it feels this change is just, fair and in keeping with the values of our times. Accepting people of patrilineal descent and including them within the community contributes to the survival of the Jewish people. The non-acceptance of the status of patrilineal descent deepens the hurt and sense of injustice. There is already widespread acceptance of patrineal descent in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements.
Matrilineal descent has been the essential way of knowing who is a Jew for 2,000 years or more. We want to remain within the historical Jewish mainstream, to uphold the essence of Jewish continuity and tradition. The fundamental definition of who is a Jew is a different kind of issue than changing a particular practice, like men and women davvening together. Being a Jew comes from being part of a people. It is not an individual matter. Individuals can not simply decide for themselves whether or not they are Jews. To be fully accepted as a member of the group, one accepts the group’s definition of what being a member is. Or Shalom’s keeping matrilineal descent assures that Or Shalom people will be accepted in other parts of the Jewish community.
Accepting patrineal descent will seriously affect Or Shalom’s standing in the rest of the organized Jewish community in Vancouver and beyond.
People of patrilineal descent can, and many do, choose to acquire full Jewish status by simply going to the mikvah (and, in the case of most men, fulfilling the mitzvah of hatafat dam). The door is open; acknowledging the weight of their Jewish heritage, the required standards for affirmation at Or Shalom for people of Jewish patrilineal descent is minimal. Those who go to the mikvah, and men who fulfill hatafat dam find that by doing so they come to a deeper commitment to and connection with Jewish life for themselves and their families.
This is something we want to encourage.
After reviewing the Vaad’s report, and after considerable G-d-wrestling, Or Shalom’s Board concluded that we should adopt the following policy decisions:
1. Or Shalom affirms that people of patrilineal Jewish descent have a claim on Jewish identity. That means we at Or Shalom will not question their own sense of belonging and attachment to the Jewish people and Jewish life.
2. For full participation as a Jew at Or Shalom, people of patrilineal Jewish descent will require mikvah*, and additionally for men, brith mila** or hatafat dam***. There will be no further eligibility requirements for individuals of patrilineal Jewish descent with their own sense of belonging and attachment to the Jewish people and Jewish life. The practical implications for those of patrilineal descent would be the following:
a) Or Shalom continues the practice that we have had throughout our history. As a community we are open to all that are interested in sharing with us and we will continue to welcome everyone.
b) While everyone is most welcome to share in our community, it is important that someone who acts and speaks for the community in religious context be someone who is accepted in that role by the whole community.
There are two particular roles where this acceptance is important. One is serving the community as shaliah tsibbur, which means, in effect, being the one chosen from among the community by the community to stand before us and lead us all in davvening. The other role is being called to an aliya (including Bar or Bat Mitzvah). This means saying the brachot for a Torah reading on behalf of the entire community gathered together at that time.
Because these two roles mean speaking and acting for the community as a whole in a religious context, someone who serves in either of these two roles needs to be someone whose Jewish status is recognized and accepted by those whom they are leading. At present, a substantial number of members of Or Shalom are comfortable only with someone about whom there is a broad agreement within our community regarding their status as a Jew – either by having been born to a Jewish mother or by having consolidated their Jewish status through fulfilling the mitzvah of mikvah and, for a man or boy, having fulfilled the mitzvah of brit mila or hatafat dam.
This means that for someone with a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother to have their own individual aliya, as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah for example, they would have to first have fulfilled these mitzvot. This way when someone stands before our community as a Jew to lead us in davvening or Torah reading, there will be no doubt that they will be welcomed and accepted in that role by our whole community.
c) People of patrilineal descent are welcome to join in group aliyot and to offer their wisdom and learning through divrei Torah.
d) The rabbi may exercise discretion in guiding and supporting anyone who is celebrating or observing personal lifecycle passages.