All Israel’s Children: Reconsidering Patrilineal Descent Dialogue Report

April 29, 2021 | 17 Iyyar 5781

Dear friends,

I write to you sitting in the traditional unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Watuth Coast Salish Peoples, with a summary report of Or Shalom’s recent All Israel’s Children Dialogue. 

This summary was drawn from notes taken in each breakout group, messages entered in the Zoom chat, email messages sent after the dialogue, and comments during a debrief session with the facilitators. We all owe gratitude to Shelley Stein-Wotten for her initial merge of our dialogue notes and chat messages, and to Mark Winston for his help in categorizing your comments and editing this document. Reading the notes, you will see how fulsome they are, expressing a spectrum of longings and concerns and, above all, respect for, pride in, and love for the Or Shalom community.

To begin, a singular comment stands out that signals the seriousness of our endeavor: “Our ancestors probably would say Judaism is already extinct.” A few years ago, when we studied with the cutting-edge Talmud scholar, Rabbi Benay Lappe, she noted something similar, but with a very different conclusion. She said that our ancestors would not recognize the Judaism of today, and, further, that Judaism will continue into the next generations in forms that we will not recognize. Judaism has prevailed because it is elastic and evolving, one paradigm rolling into another over the centuries. Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of Jewish Renewal, believed that we are experiencing a shift in paradigms. What a time to be alive! 

Emerging from a pandemic, we live in what Dr. Gershon Sholem called a “plastic moment,” wherein change is particularly possible because of the flexibility we have acclimated to, of necessity. What a marvelous opportunity we have — to shape our future, and what a serious responsibility that is.

In the week of the Omer in which we contemplate the quality of hod — humility and awareness of our limits — let us admit that we do not know all. We don’t have all the answers. We are feeling our way, challenging our assumptions as we listen to one another’s stories and collectively striving to improve the life for our community by meeting real human needs.

What emerges from the record of our listening is that we have moved one another. One note-taker reported: “Our group’s feelings were centered on heartbreak, on empathy with all forms of exclusion from Judaism, and a desire to provide a place of belonging.” Another note-taker reported: “Participants of matrilineal descent are being seen as compassionate and open.” An individual participant: “At heart I am a traditionalist. However, I never considered the impact of gender fluidity or gay men. Now, I’m back at square one.” And another: “Too many people are hurt. Now is the time to take a stand.” One more quote expressing a shift in perspective: “I was one of those people who voted against patrilineal descent [over 20 years ago]… Since that time, I increasingly regret the pain it cost others… We have to change.”

Mark and I agree that the notes from our All Israel’s Children Dialogue is not an ambiguous document. There are consistent messages of desire for better inclusion of all who receive Jewish identity through a parent and consistent expressions of desire to continue the conversation. Further, there is a significant subset of participants urging us to be true to ourselves and to live into our commitment to egalitarianism by acknowledging contemporary expectations that all genders of parents and diverse family structures impart heritage, even as this has, historically, been a maternal role. You ask that we “make our caring for others manifest.”

Ancestry is important to Or Shalom members, the chain of inheritance, but you speak of heredity as only one of many portals to Jewish life. Some speak of us all as “Jews by Choice,” suggesting a variety of creative processes by which Or Shalom members can affirm and reaffirm our Judaism — ideas ranging from a curriculum of study to rituals of immersion. Your brain-storm opens a fertile bed for considering coming of age rituals for all our youth, perhaps an opportunity to provide what each uniquely needs to rectify, ratify or affirm their Jewishness — all of it a celebration. 

Not unexpectedly, the dialogue notes also reveal our community’s sense of responsibility to consider potential impacts of policy changes. With sensitivity to Or Shalom members who would not welcome change, one participant says: “It is normative that some division will occur within Or Shalom if things change.” Another: “A progressive community is always evolving. This may be divisive and will be hard no matter what we decide.” 

With concern for our place within the larger Vancouver Jewish community, a participant asks: “What will the impact be on us in the larger community? We need to assure that we are not an island.” And we are called upon to “articulate our decisions in the larger community,” “building bridges of understanding.”

Still, many voices echoed this well-articulated sentiment: “[In the past] I had adhered to the saying, ‘My tribe right or wrong.’ I know I have to change that to ‘My tribe, when right to keep right; and when wrong, to set right.’” Finding balance between honouring Or Shalom’s internal culture, and considering our relationship to the broad Jewish community, will clearly be an important part of conversations going forward. 

It is in the nature of our community to feel one another’s pain. Clearly the dialogue created space for expression of hurt on the part of individuals disenfranchised as patrilineal children. And we have realized how many members of community are touched by this. 

There is another pain, less expressed in the dialogue, that I know we will also want to honor. This pain is voiced by a participant who affirmed that patrilineal Jews should be recognized as Jews by Or Shalom. Nevertheless: “I won’t make a strong argument for heredity but I’ll make an argument for sadness… I’m saddened by our separation from the Orthodox… [by] internal divisions [in Jewish community]. It makes me nervous and sad.”

Finally, I want to acknowledge that with the strong leaning in our dialogue groups toward broadening our acceptance, several members of community wondered whether those uncomfortable with a move away from matrilineal descent did not fully express this for fear of sounding exclusionary, or perhaps did not attend at all.

We cannot know what has not been shared. But it seems that the community wishes to proceed, slowly and carefully, to tease out a path forward that better supports the rich diversity of our membership. Within the process that unfolds, I expect more opportunities for all who desire to express themselves publicly or privately. 

With fullness of heart, I thank each of you who did attend the dialogue, to listen with love, to share what is vulnerable, and to enter a holy process of communal discernment. Further, I thank each of you who committed to our course of text study with Rabbi Schely, taking responsibility to delve into our halachic literature in preparation.

From here, I feel mandated to begin exploring options and precedents, consulting with members of the broader community, seeking allies both geographically near and virtually near, gathering information that might be meaningful. I look forward to reporting back to you in the Fall, answering questions as I am able, and proposing some concrete thoughts and ideas for your consideration.

With blessings,

Rabbi Hannah

Click here to read the agenda from April 18 and the compiled notes.