Patrilineal Descent – Reb Hillel’s Letter

The content on this page is for historical reference.

A Letter to the Va’ad and the Board

Dear Friends,

I am writing to you with my thoughts and concerns about the discussion around matrilineal and patrilineal descent. Ideally, I’d love to sit down and chat with you, individually or collectively, to share these thoughts and to hear your response. The matter is serious enough that I would do what I can to meet and discuss the issues with you and if you wish to do so, please give me a call or an e-mail and we’ll try to set up a time.

While Nadav’s upcoming Bar Mitzvah has been a distraction from this ongoing discussion, it has also served as a focus for reflecting on what Or Shalom means to me. Or Shalom has been a very special and holy place in my life which has nurtured, supported and embraced my own continuing spiritual development. It has given me the room to express my Judaism and explore it in new and exciting ways. I write out of love and compassion for the community and the individuals in the community. I want to apologize in advance if my words in any way fall harshly on your ears. I do not intend to offend, but to give voice to the thoughts and feelings which course through me.

By way of introduction

A few preliminary comments first. I want to commend the Board for appointing the Va’ad and thank the Va’ad for its incredibly conscientious work on such a difficult question. (Parenthetically, I would suggest that the Board consider recognizing/honoring the Va’ad for their time and work). I also give very high marks to Reb David Mivasair for taking on such an important issue with such a high level of community involvement and input. I think it says a tremendous amount about the quality of rabbinical guidance we have and the heart, soul and compassion that this community manifests. Amen v’amen.

My own views on patrilineal descent are not just academic, historical or textual and they are the result of much discussion with others and within myself. In my rabbinical work in Or Shalom and in other Jewish communities, the question of the Jewish status of children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers has probably been the most pressing and important issue I have had to deal with. Many families in Or Shalom and elsewhere can recall the large amounts of time – in some cases months and years – that have gone into these discussions.

From the beginning I saw the Va’ad’s work as serving a much needed educational purpose. I saw the Va’ad doing research, bringing in knowledgeable speakers and facilitating a community-wide discussion. To me this represents the highest values of Or Shalom: critical and informed inquiry in a context of respect and caring. I saw all of the challenging and sometimes disturbing questions that the matrilineal argument presents, but to be honest, it never occurred to me that Or Shalom might actually take the drastic step of adopting patrilineal descent which would, in my opinion, have very far-reaching implications for our relationships with ‘Klal Yisrael’: our Jewish past, our Jewish future and with the worldwide Jewish community at this time. The principle of “Klal Yisrael“, the community of Jewish peoplehood, is vitally important not just to individual Jews, but to the continuity of Judaism. Our religion is fundamentally one of ‘connections’ – connections to our past, connections to our future and connections to all Jews in the world. A breach with “klal Yisrael“, unlike the problem of matrilineal descent, has no remedy whatsoever.

Identity and status

I find Reb David’s differentiation between Jewish identity and Jewish status very useful. Jewish identity – that is, whether or not a person feels Jewish – is not measurable, definable or verifiable by another person. One person cannot judge Jewish identity. Regarding Jewish identity, Or Shalom has always been wide open and accessible and it is this openness and beauty which constitutes part of my love affair with this community. In our community anyone who feels they have a Jewish identity – regardless of who their mother or father is – can and do take part in our activities, including participation in group aliyot to the Torah. The specific issue here is the formal Jewish status required for a very narrow range of activities: to lead davening, read Torah and have a personal aliya. In my view it is a small, meaningful and beautiful step from Jewish identity to the unquestioned, universally accepted Jewish status which brings one into positions of leadership in Jewish ritual practice.

The principle of equity and the value of Klal Yisrael

I thank the Va’ad for laying out so clearly what it sees as the arguments in favor of patrilineal descent. As I understand them, the arguments in favour of patrilineal descent focus upon: inequitable treatment of men and women; the acceptance of gender equity in other areas of Or Shalom life; the hurt and rejection felt by families in this situation; the importance for change and innovation in Jewish religious life. Let me try to listen and to respond to these issues.

Equity is an important principle and if this were a one-dimensional puzzle, if it were merely a glitch in the system that could easily fixed by going patrilineal, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. But it is not one-dimensional, it is a Rubik’s cube and ‘fixing’ the patrilineal descent issue on one side can and will throw the other 3 dimensional sides of Yiddishkeit into even greater turbulence. With all due respect to those who argue differently, I feel that in this clash of principles – between equity and Klal Yisrael – the principle of Klal Yisrael is of greater importance. Patrilineal descent is an equity problem with an accessible remedy. Klal Yisrael is a fundamental principle of the whole Jewish trip and a breach with Klal Yisrael has no remedy. And this is why we have to look at the issue in all of its complexity. And this is where, in my view, the principle of Klal Yisrael takes precedence.

I have heard the argument that we should change to patrilineal descent because this is the only just decision we can possibly take even if it causes “others“ in the Jewish community to think badly of us, to distance themselves from us or to reject us. The argument is made that the the adoption of patrilineal descent is exactly like other changes we have made in gender equity. I strongly disagree: this change is different in kind andis different in magnitude. Orthodox Jews might disagree with us calling women to the Torah, but they would not question our collective membership in the Jewish people over this. They would simply say we are bad Jews, but Jews none the less. Changing to patrilineal descent would cause many to seriously doubt our place in Klal Yisrael, would cause many friends and supporters of Or Shalom to distance themselves from our community, as they would if decided to change Shabbat to Wednesday. I have also heard the argument that even if the “others“ do have a negative reaction to our adoption of patrilineal descent, that we shouldn’t mind because this would be “their problem.“ I strongly disagree. By taking this drastic step it is our very own problem and it will impact negatively on our community as a whole and the individuals within the community.

Breaches and remedies

Some feel that matrilineal descent is an unfair and offensive barrier to Jewish status. I certainly cannot judge the validity or depth of someone else’s feelings, but my own feelings on this and my knowledge of Jewish sources tell me that matrilineal descent is not a barrier but, as Reb Nahman would say, a narrow bridge in life, a bridge requiring a somewhat more deliberate driving strategy than the driving on the open highway. For those who wish to take on formal Jewish status, the Or Shalom response has always been to open the doorway as widely as possible, to put out the world’s biggest welcome mat and to be as gracious and non-judgmental and accepting as we can possibly can be. Those who have acquired full, formal, universal and unquestioned Jewish status through Or Shalom are not presented with a list of demanding ‘requirements’ such as those used by other movements. These usually include the demand that the non-Jewish mother undergo conversion to Judaism, that the family commit to keeping certain standards of Shabbat and kashrut and that the children will all attend Jewish day school education . Or Shalom has always opened the doors for anyone who wished to say “Shma Yisrael“ and thereby affirm his or her Jewish identity.

One of the real beauties of the Or Shalom approach to affirmations through mikvah and bet din is that we have been blessed with the cooperation, support and endorsement by rabbis from across the denominational continuum: Orthodox, Hasidic and non-Hasidic rabbis; the left wing and right wings rabbis in the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements. Rabbis who don’t necessarily approve of our style of davening, nonetheless, participate readily and actively in our requests for a bet din and mikva. They might disagree with some of our practices, but they do not question our inclusion in Klal Yisrael. The adoption of patrilineal descent will result in these rabbis withdrawing their services from Or Shalom for this and, I am certain, all other aspects of our religous practice.

In my view and in my experience, our mikva and bet din is recognized universally including the State of Israel where all non-Orthodox are recognized. (Note: The current controversy is over non-Orthodox conversion IN Israel. Does this mean that every black hat in the Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods would let their sons or daughters marry us or our children? No, but most of those folks wouldn’t let anyone who didn’t speak their dialect of Yiddish marry into their community their sons or daughters either.) When I have the privilege of accompanying families through this ritual, I am moved by the ways in which the ritual moves them. I cannot speak for others, but I have witnessed the ways in which the Jewish and non-Jewish sides of family have supported and embraced the occasion with their presence, their hugs, their poems and their expressions of security and relief in knowing that they are moving into a place of unquestioned and universally accepted Jewish status. A close friend who went through mikva and bet din in order to affirm her Jewish identity and status used to refer to me derogatorily as a “cradle Jew“ and teased me that she had gone through the most unbelievable spiritual experience in the world, an experience I would never ever have in my life.

We have a remedy for the equity problem: Mikvah and bet din work. We have no remedy for causing a fundamental break with the Jewish people.

There has been some discusion on “compromise“ positions, such as requiring all children who have one Jewish parent (father or mother) to go through mikvah, thus equalizing their status. First, this kind of revision of ritual no precedent or justification in Judaism. Second, such a policy would create new inequities in place of the previous ones and it would also be impossible, in a practical sense, to monitor or enforce compliance with this procedure. Third, I strongly feel that the adoption of this policy would turn many prospective member families away from Or Shalom as it would future rabbinical applicants.

We have a remedy for the equity problem. Creating a new “remedy“ would create far more major problems of equity, identify and integrity.

The possible impact of adopting patrilineal descent The status quo at Or Shalom tells its members that anyone with Jewish identity can , aside from a few leadership roles, participate in all Or Shalom activities. The status quo at Or Shalom also tells its members that anyone who wants to affirm their Jewish status (or their children’s) can do so through the most open and accessible mikvah and bet procedure in the world. And the status quo tells its members that this will give them unquestioned, universal acceptance in Klal Yisrael.

Adopting patrilineal descent will tell Or Shalom families with a Jewish father and non-Jewish that their child has Jewish status at the corner of 10th and Fraser and at certain selected franchises in the world. No synagogue in Vancouver and very few synagogues in Canada would acknowledge their Jewish status. No Orthodox or Conservative synagogues anywhere in the world would recognize their Jewish status. It is unclear which Reform or Reconstructionist synagogues would and would not recognize this very unclear form of Jewish status. It would mean that an Or Shalom child could have a bar or bat mitzvah and aliya to the Torah at Or Shalom, but would not be called to the Torah in any other synagogue in Vancouver. The argument that we are doing this as a statement for justice and equity loses much of its appeal when the consequences of this decision would result in Or Shalom members experiencing injustice and inequity in the rest of Klal Yisrael.

My very strong sense is that we would be isolating ourselves from the communal and religious Jewish community agencies in Vancouver who will no longer see us as an interesting and beautiful star in our collective constellation, but as some kind of shooting comet, going from one galaxy into another. I feel strongly that we would be deluding ourselves to think that the rest of the Jewish community will just go on treating us as usual and we will be deluding ourselves if we say “so what?“ and pretend that we can just on doing what we do. I believe that as the only synagogue in Vancouver to recognize patrilineal descent we will be marginalized in this community. I believe we will lose the our access the only mikvahs in Vancouver – for anyone, at anytime – because to do so would be seen as recognizing our policy on Jewish status. I believe that the involvement and participation of Or Shalom rabbis in community life will be seriously diminished if not completely rejected. Our current status as “the lively alternative“ will be replaced with an off-limits sign. I believe that adopting patrilineal descent will have a very negative impact on new families checking out and considering different synagogues for membership. It will hurt individuals, it will hurt the community.

I need to make a personal statement about what the adoption of patrilineal descent would mean for me, as a rabbi. This is the most “kishka-twisting“ issue as Or Shalom has been the spiritual home which has nourished, supported and challenged me. It has given me so much and I have tried to give back what I can. As a rabbi, I seriously doubt that I could continue to offer rabbinical services in a community with which I feel such a fundamental difference in values. I could not participate in any Or Shalom mikvahs and batei din for anyone because I would have no understanding what this ceremony truly means to the community and what Jewish status means to the community. Since I myself would not participate, I would certainly not be able to invite any of the rabbis who have joined us in the past for this ceremonies.

The Or Shalom which I love, which has nourished me, fed my soul, stimulated my intellect, and aroused my heart is a precious and rare Jewish community. I have belonged and felt comfortable because it has been firmly grounded in our tradition while growing branches which lead far and wide in different directions but which always unquestionably connected to our roots which brought us here. A change in our policy would be, in my mind, not a pruning or a shaping, but the severing of a vital connection. I don’t know that that the community could continue to offer its unique gifts and presence to the world, and I don’t know that I could continue in this community if this drastic change of policy goes forward.

With great respect and so much love,


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