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VA’AD REPORT: PATRILINEAL / MATRILINEAL DESCENT
March 12, 1998
Va’ad Members: Peter Ballin, Leo DaCosta, Naomi Ehren-Lis, Carol Ann Fried, Ruth Hershler, David Mivasair, Leah Rankin, Sheryl Sorokin
1. The Question
Should children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers be considered Jewish at Or Shalom?
2. Decision Rule
The va’ad agreed to reach its decision by consensus.
We did not achieve consensus. After our considerations and deliberations, four of us support maintaining the tradition of matrilineal descent only, and four of us support accepting patrilineal descent as well. A major source of our impasse has been our differing priorities in weighting tradition and Jewish unity versus equity and inclusivity.
4. The Process
We engaged in a year-long process which included:
-educating ourselves about historical and halachic traditions around the determination of Jewish status
– organizing a number of forums, in which we heard several rabbinic perspectives and from many people within and outside of our community their opinions, their experiences, their feelings
– extensive exploration and mediated discussion among ourselves
Given that we did not achieve consensus, we cannot make a recommendation to the board supporting Jewish status at Or Shalom for children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers.
Nonetheless, we do make the following recommendations to the Board. Our recommendations are based on these shared values: compassion, respect, inclusivity, and fairness.
1. We affirm as a community 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. However, if the Board resolves to maintain the tradition of only matrilineal Jewish descent, then 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. (We would consider this a “low-threshold policy“.)
3. If the Board resolves to adopt patrilineal descent also, we recommend that specific policies and practices be developed based on in-depth research, and that their implications be thoroughly explored.
7. Implications of Maintaining Matrilineal Descent
The Board has asked the va’ad to explain the practical application of its recommendations. If the Board resolves to maintain Or Shalom’s practice of matrilineal descent, the practical implications for those of patrilineal descent would be the following:
a) Or Shalom will continue the practice that we have had throughout our history. As a community we are quite open to all who 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.
Practically speaking, 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 brachas 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 who they are leading. 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 fulfiling the mitzva of mikva and, for a man or boy, having fulfilled the mitzva of brit mila or hatafat dam. In practical terms, 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, they will be welcomed and accepted in that role by our whole community.
c) We will continue to welcome people of matrilineal descent to join in group aliyot and to offer their wisdom and learning through divrei Torah.
d) We will continue to allow the rabbi to exercise discretion in guiding and supporting anyone who is celebrating or observing personal lifecycle passages.
8. Implications of Implementing Patrilineal Descent
Since this implementation would require in-depth research, and since we have not at this writing undergone such research, we are unable to detail these implications in this report.
IN SUPPORT OF PATRILINEAL DESCENT
1. Or Shalom embraces diversity and egalitarianism. Accepting only matrilineal descent violates these values.
2. With today’s high rate of intermarriage and assimilation, accepting people of patrilineal descent and including them within the community contributes to the survival of the Jewish people.
3. Patrilineally descended people should be able to make their own decisions on how to resolve their Jewish identity, rather than have it decided by others. If we accept their decisions, we will better support their Jewish identity, feelings, and involvement. At the same time we would be clear to them that this acceptance may not be the same in the broader Jewish community and that affirmation of their Jewishness in a tradional way can be achieved by a simple mikva and, for men, fulfilling hatafat dam.
4. Accepting patrilineal descent would avoid the hurt and rejection that some intermarried couples feel because their children are not accepted as Jews. Given that the children of Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers are accepted without question as Jews, the hurt and sense of injustice deepens.
5. Jewish tradition continuously evolves. It’s not clear that matrilineal descent has always been the tradition. Or Shalom embraces change where it feels this change is just, fair and in keeping with the values of our times . We have made such fundamental changes such as allowing women to read Torah and have an aliyah because it was felt that this was right and just. There is every reason to believe that changing the tradition of matrilineal descent is equally reasonable.
6. It makes no sense to exclude Jewishly active and dedicated people with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, while including non-practising Jews with Jewish mothers.
7. There is already widespread acceptance of patrilineal descent in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements. By adopting patrilineal descent, we encourage a wider acceptance of this point of view in the greater Jewish world. The definition of mainstream Judaism is itself changing, thus there is no reason to fear not being accepted as part of this mainstream. Rather, we can be proud of leading the way.
8. The Jewish Renewal movement’s embrace of innovation and validation of personal religious experience supports our acceptance of patrilineal descent.
9. Not accepting patrilineally descended people as Jews is seen by some people as sexist, condescending, discriminatory, racist.
10. We want to honour equally all people of Jewish descent who want to raise their children Jewishly. Any ambivalence patrilineal Jews feel as to their Jewish identity would be greatly alleviated by their acceptance within our community as Jews.
11. Accepting patrilineal descent is consistent with the principle of doing what is just.
12. We recognize that any person who goes through the mikva with Or Shalom’s rabbis will not necessarily be recognized in some parts of the Orthodox community. Thus even if we were to adopt a “low-threshold policy” for people of patrilineal Jewish descent (as defined in item 6b above), we cannot be sure that their status would be accepted everywhere. Given the above, why not simply accept people of patrilineal descent as Jews within our community?
13. The tradition of matrilineal descent emerged out of a human process; it was not God-given. Our traditions were founded on logic and spirituality that was relevant in its time, and we can respect the spirit of those traditions while making changes today. Halachic tradition has been known to change throughout the ages.
IN SUPPORT OF MATRILINEAL DESCENT
1. Or Shalom embraces diversity and egalitarianism — but, they do not override all other values. Matrilineal descent has been the essential, authentic way of knowing who is a Jew for 2,000 years or more. To accept patrilineal descent violates a deeply-held Jewish self-definition.
2. We want to remain within the historical Jewish mainstream, to uphold the essence of Jewish continuity and tradition. Accepting patrilineal descent would remove us from this mainstream.
3. We support innovation and creativity, however there are some things that we simply cannot change. The fundamental definition of who is a Jew is one of these. It is a different kind of issue than changing a particular practice, like men and women davvening together, or creating new melodies for prayers. It is so fundamental that we cannot change it — even if we say we can.
4. People of patrilineal descent can — and many do — choose to be fully Jewish by simply going to the mikva (and, in the case of most men, fulfilling the mitzvah of hatafat dam). The door is open; at Or Shalom the threshold is very low.
5. Many people of patrilineal descent are precisely those among us who have the most uncertainty about their own Jewish identity and status. Those who go to the mikva (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.
6. Being a Jew comes from being part of a people. It is not an individual matter. So, individuals can not simply decide for themselves whether or not they are Jews. To fully be accepted as member of the group, one accepts the group’s definition of what being a member is.
7. Or Shalom’s keeping matrilineal descent assures that Or Shalom people will be accepted in other parts of the Jewish community. Our accepting patrilineally descended people at Or Shalom will still leave them unaccepted elsewhere in the Jewish community and can lead to even greater hurt and confusion for them.
8. Many of Or Shalom’s own davvening leaders and Torah teachers accept only matrilineal descent. Our rabbi personally supports this position. A community decision to accept patrilineal descent will not change their minds.
9. Accepting patrilineal descent will seriously effect Or Shalom’s standing in the rest of the organized Jewish community in Vancouver and beyond.
10. In Or Shalom, we aim for authenticity, not necessarily for ease. So, while we realize that our stand on matrilineal descent causes pain for some of us and we empathize, we support matrilineal descent because it is authentic and cannot simply be changed.
11. Matrilineal descent provides clarity and agreement about who is a Jew. Accepting patrilineal descent will cause confusion within the community and for the individuals whose lives this touches.
12. Even if we change our practice to accept patrilineal descent, we will still need to make judgments regarding who is a Jew. Establishing a new definition is likely to cause further pain and confusion.
13. The Jewish Renewal movement’s appreciation of the deep wisdom of Jewish tradition supports our acceptance of matrilineal descent.
* Mikva is the Jewish practice of immersing in water in order to help bring about a change in one’s spiritual quality. Mikva is used by Jews in many different circumstances including when one wants to fully become a Jew. In Jewish tradition mikva dates back to the earliest times of our people, when the People of Israel were told to bathe themselves in order to be prepared for the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
**Brit Mila — or bris — is the Jewish practice of circumcizing a boy or man as a sign of his being a member of the covenant between God and the descendents of Abraham. This practice is first mentioned in the Genesis 19 as a commandment from God to Abraham and all his male descendents. It is usually done on the eighth day of a boy’s birth, but if it is not done then it can be done any time later. Since biblical times, it has been one of the rituals required of a man who wishes to join the Jewish people.
***Hatafat dam is how a man who has already been circumcized can become a member of the Covenant of Abraham. The Hebrew term literally means “making a drop of blood.“ A tiny sharp instrument, like that used medically to take a small blood sample, is used on the skin on the shaft of his penis so that a small drop of blood is shed. This blood, along with mikva, fulfills the ritual requirement for a man to fully become a Jew.