September 11, 2007

Who is A Jew

Sticky post- New Content is found below.

Joe Settler has a guest post at The Muqata that made me think about an ongoing debate I have had with some friends. Actually it is a discussion that has been ongoing for years. In simple terms you could say that the topic of the discussion is matrilineal versus patrilineal descent.

For my non-Jewish readers if you want some background on this topic you might want to try reading this and potentially you might also look at this. And don't forget that two Jews equals three opinions.

Years ago I was very much against recognizing patrilineal descent. It made me uncomfortable. I didn't like it at all. To be honest, I didn't really spend any time thinking about it. All I did was accept the position that had been spoonfed to me by others.

However after some consideration I reversed my position on this. In part I base this upon experiences I shared with my own family. For the purpose of clarity my family consists of Orthodox (Both MO and Black Hat), Conservative and Reform Jews as well as those who have intermarried and are raising the children outside of Judaism.

At a family gathering some years ago I had a conversation with a cousin who had become a BT. I grew up on the West Coast and he on the East so we didn't get to see each other too often. What I did know was that while both parents are Jewish he wasn't given any sort of religious training. No Bar Mitzvah, just a couple of summers at a Jewish camp.

Not unlike many BTs he came at me with a lot of energy and fervor as to why falling off of the derech was nothing more than a temporary position and how he could help me get back on. During the course of this conversation we landed upon the question of denominations, authentic Judaism and who was right about this and that.

He didn't like patrilineal descent. He parroted the opinions of some others about watered down Judaism and told me that we couldn't pick and choose. I disagreed on all accounts. In regard to the topic of the post I found myself arguing in favor of patrilineal descent because of its inclusivity.

Sixty years after the Holocaust I look around and think that there is no reason for us not to try and embrace all Jews and bring them into the fold. I know so many people whose mother may not be Jewish but father is. What does it hurt to encourage them to look at their heritage and to try and bring them home.

Orthodox Judaism is never going to be for everyone. But it is not the only way. Why shouldn't we make it clear that we would be happy if they were Conservative or Reform. With all the people out there targeting us for conversion I want to get to our own people first because if we do not we know that someone else will be waiting for them with open arms.

26 comments:

Stacey said...

Exactly. Half of our chromosomes are our mothers and half, our fathers. We are a Jew through either parent.

fashionista cat in a zero gravity shoe-store said...

I agree with you and Stacey. My professor of exegesis used to say that the sole reason behind the emphasis on the maternal line in was that the mother was always known; nowadays there are paternity tests in case there should be any doubt regarding a child's father.
On a funny note, a friend of mine once stated he didn't believe in conversion as nobody could truly be Jewish if they hadn't been brought up with the constant nagging by a Jewish mother and grandmother.

JoeSettler said...

Do you actually think you will trick me into getting into this discussion?

Not for all the waffles in the world.

fashionista cat in a zero gravity shoe-store said...

Joe, homemade waffles with Nutella?

Mark said...

Considering that the reason for matrilineal recognition is that, pre-DNA testing, it was the only way to ensure lineage, now that we can test lineage through DNA that is pretty much an outdated reason.

Okay, that comment was really screwy, but you get my drift.

Besides, as my father once said, the rest of the world will consider you a Jew even though your mother is a convert, so you might as well embrace it.

I don't think the anti-Semites among us give a rat's ass which of our parents were Jewish.

Jack's Shack said...

Half of our chromosomes

I want the bigger half. ;)

FC,

I hear you.

Joe,

No trickery is involved. If you do not get involved everyone will know that you agree with my position. ;)

FC,

Not a big fan of Nutella.


I don't think the anti-Semites among us give a rat's ass which of our parents were Jewish.


I wouldn't think so.

The Misanthrope said...

I have always been pleased that my maternal side is Jewish while the father's side is Baptist or something.

JoeSettler said...

Lately, Mensa has been noticing sagging membership. Old members aren't renewing, new member aren't signing up.

Do they?

1) Initiate an open door policy so anyway with an IQ above 100 can enter, in order to fill the ranks and get the dues money, or...

2) Do they make Mensa more interesting and relevant for people who meet their current criteria?

Jack's Shack said...

Misnanthrope,

Great. We'll see you at shul on Thursday. Don't forget to fill out your pledge card. ;)

Joe,

Most of the Mensa members I know are in dire need of a severe thrashing. That being said it is not a great analogy.

Let's go back to the reason for matrilineal descent. The purpose has been served and isn't needed any more. It is similar to the appendix. What do you need it for.

As for the second part of your comment we should always work on making things relevant and interesting.

JoeSettler said...

1)
I think the Mensa analogy is perfect.

The biggest issue facing the non-Orthodox denominations is intermarriage. They are losing members at incredible rates for all the obvious reasons.

Changing the rules to be more "inclusive" isn't going to create a sustainable long-term future, but in the short term it does bring in more dues to the Temples and Sunday Schools (even though those have shown to have little, or even negative affect in retention).

2)
Whether you like it or not, the Keys to Judaism are in the hands of the "Keepers of Judaism" - the faction who keep, study and implement it full-time 24/7.

Reform Judaism (just to use the more extreme example) can continue to try to demand recognition and legitimacy by attempting to force legislation in Israel to recognize it, but (a) it won't happen, and (b) the backlash will be even greater than they can imagine if they did succeed in getting some sort of legislation passed (i.e. blacklists of who is and who isn’t a Jew).

Ultimately the Reform movement requires legitimization from the Orthodox (and not vice versa), while from the Orthodox PoV their converts aren't Jewish, and their non-Jewish spouses aren't Jewish, and their non-Jewish children aren't Jewish. Period. That isn’t about to change.

From the Orthodox PoV, the Reform isn't passing the baton, but extinguishing it.

The Movement (not the Jewish members) has been written off as a dead end, or more accurately, a divergent track that will end up just causing problems until it either dies off or becomes a new religion like Christianity.

The Orthodox aren’t about to dilute their religion, standards, culture and values in order to accommodate alternative movements who aren’t traveling down the same road and towards the same goals.

In the end, implementing full-scale patrilineal descent will simply split the nation into two separate ones.


3)
To be honest, while intermarriage is a problem for the Jewish community as a whole, the Orthodox community is growing and is self-sustaining.

For the Orthodox the problem is at best incidental, when there will be a few million non-Jews calling themselves Jewish promoting non-Jewish value systems (such as Secularism or Humanism) under the Jewish™ brand name – a problem that the Reform movement has created.

But the problem and need to be more inclusive is specifically with the movements who recognize that their movement is failing at being self-sustaining – again for all the obvious reasons.

4)
The model that people should be looking at is NOT the Reform or Conservative model.

They should be looking at the traditional Sephardi model.

Sephardim as a whole are very accepting of individual religious behaviors (or non-religious behaviors), but recognize only Torah/Rambam-based Judaism as authentic and the only path, whether they fully adhere to it or not.

The shuls that a non religious Sephardi drives to (and get an Aliyah in) are the same shuls that a religious Sephardi walks to.

But they all recognize the same definition of “Who is a Jew” and what it means to be Jewish.

That is why the Reform movement never took off in the Sephardi world, and isn’t really making head roads into Israel outside the upper-middle class secular Ashkenazim.

Sephardi Judaism is inclusive as everyone accepts the same rulebook, whether they play or not.

JoeSettler said...

Considering that the reason for matrilineal recognition is that, pre-DNA testing, it was the only way to ensure lineage

It could be one reason, but following the logic of that explanation, tribal affiliation should perhaps also have followed the mother’s tribe as the mother is always known, whereas tribal affiliation is solely patrilineal.

Jack's Shack said...

Joe,

Orthodox Judaism is losing members as well. It is still substantially smaller than the other branches.

Whether you like it or not, the Keys to Judaism are in the hands of the "Keepers of Judaism" - the faction who keep, study and implement it full-time 24/7.

Really. Which part of Orthodox Judaism would you give that to. Does that include the MO world or are we talking about Satmar. I have seen and participated in more than one conversation that makes that a questionable statement.

As I mentioned above it is not like Orthodox Judaism is retaining all of its members either.


Reform Judaism (just to use the more extreme example) can continue to try to demand recognition and legitimacy by attempting to force legislation in Israel to recognize it, but (a) it won't happen, and (b) the backlash will be even greater than they can imagine if they did succeed in getting some sort of legislation passed (i.e. blacklists of who is and who isn’t a Jew).

Joe,

The backlash. I don't think that anyone is going to be afraid of any sort of backlash. The elements of the backlash that you refer to already exist and that can easily go both directions.

Some of my Frum friends have already expressed dismay over Taliban like behavior, ie Miriam Shear.

Midnight torching of stores and muttered threats aren't going to stop this. If anything they will create a greater desire and will to push things through.

Blacklists are only effective if people care. Outside of certain communities that will be nothing more than words.

Ultimately the Reform movement requires legitimization from the Orthodox (and not vice versa),

That is only partially true and only within certain circumstances. Outside of places in which the Orthodox run things no one is interested in the approval of Orthodoxy.

The overwhelming majority of world Jewry now isn't Orthodox and isn't looking for a hechsher from Orthodoxy.

The Movement (not the Jewish members) has been written off as a dead end, or more accurately, a divergent track that will end up just causing problems until it either dies off or becomes a new religion like Christianity.

The movement has been written off by some people. That is quite true. However it has been around for about 120 years or so. If you look at the size of the membership it will likely be around for several hundred more, if not longer.

But let's say that it only has another 50 years. What is Orthodoxy going to look like then. We already know that it doesn't look like it did 120 years ago.

In the end, implementing full-scale patrilineal descent will simply split the nation into two separate ones.

Is that really any different than now. How much interaction is there between the Orthodox and Non-Orthodox worlds.

You still have some people who claim that Reform/Conservative are not real Jews but that is not something that bothers Reform/Conservative Jews. What impact does the recognition or lack thereof have on their lives.

JoeSettler said...

Orthodox Judaism is losing members as well. It is still substantially smaller than the other branches.

Hardly, while OJ has dropouts, it is growing.

Check out this chart for numbers: http://www.simpletoremember.com/vitals/will-your-grandchild-be-jewish-chart-graph.htm

and

http://www.simpletoremember.com/vitals/WillYourGrandchildrenBeJews.htm

Really. Which part of Orthodox Judaism would you give that to. Does that include the MO world or are we talking about Satmar.

All of them together. There are plenty of streams within Orthodoxy.


The backlash. I don't think that anyone is going to be afraid of any sort of backlash. The elements of the backlash that you refer to already exist and that can easily go both directions.

The backlash is when Reform Jews will automatically be assumed to be non-Jews. It is a very serious issue, and perhaps the Reform aren’t taking it seriously enough.

Some of my Frum friends have already expressed dismay over Taliban like behavior, ie Miriam Shear.

Acts by individuals don’t define the movement.

Blacklists are only effective if people care. Outside of certain communities that will be nothing more than words.

When they are clearly a separate religion (just using the same name) then that statement is true, they won’t care.


The overwhelming majority of world Jewry now isn't Orthodox and isn't looking for a hechsher from Orthodoxy.

The majority aren’t interested in Judaism except for Bar Mitzvas parties, High Holidays, and matza ball soup.

The movement has been written off by some people. That is quite true. However it has been around for about 120 years or so. If you look at the size of the membership it will likely be around for several hundred more, if not longer.

But not necessarily as Jews.

But let's say that it only has another 50 years. What is Orthodoxy going to look like then. We already know that it doesn't look like it did 120 years ago.

B”H Orthodox Judaism is quite dynamic and offers plenty of internal streams.

In the end, implementing full-scale patrilineal descent will simply split the nation into two separate ones.

Is that really any different than now. How much interaction is there between the Orthodox and Non-Orthodox worlds.

In religious matters very little, and in the end all Reform Jews will not be able to accepted by Orthodox Jews, and eventually Reform Judaism will simply take the next step and be a different religion.

You still have some people who claim that Reform/Conservative are not real Jews but that is not something that bothers Reform/Conservative Jews.

I have only ever heard that statement come from Reform and Conservative Jews. I have never heard an Orthodox Jew say that (they may have, but I have personally never heard an Orthodox Jew say it).


What impact does the recognition or lack thereof have on their lives.

How much impact can it have, when Judaism is far from central from their lives and most don’t have a problem marrying out.

Jack's Shack said...

Hardly, while OJ has dropouts, it is growing.

It is still nothing compared to the number of non-Orthodox. It is like me comparing my daughter to Shaquille O'Neal. He is 7 feet tall. She is 3 feet tall. It is a huge difference, but she is still growing, so maybe, just maybe she'll be his height or taller.

That was an interesting chart, assuming that the numbers are accurate and that there are no major changes in the next few years.

All of them together. There are plenty of streams within Orthodoxy.

So you consider them all to be authentic.

The backlash is when Reform Jews will automatically be assumed to be non-Jews. It is a very serious issue, and perhaps the Reform aren't taking it seriously enough.

That is still kind of vague. Let's say that a Reform Jew walks into a minyan to daven. Is someone going to kick him out. Is he not going to get an aliyah. How are you going to identify him as being a Reform Jew. The mohels do the same work on them.

I am not trying to be cute or clever, just looking for specifics.

Acts by individuals don't define the movement.

No, they do not. But you are suggesting that non-acceptance of non-Orthodox Judaism is going to be widespread. That is no longer an individual act.

The majority aren't interested in Judaism except for Bar Mitzvas parties, High Holidays, and matza ball soup.

And how do you know this? Do you interact with them? Am I wrong in saying that you do not attend their shuls?

How do you explain the shiurim with the rabbi and the lectures about Judaism that people attend.

B”H Orthodox Judaism is quite dynamic and offers plenty of internal streams.

That doesn't mean that they will look anything like they do now. Within twenty years you very well might see women layning Torah at Orthodox shuls.

How much impact can it have, when Judaism is far from central from their lives and most don’t have a problem marrying out.

Same response as above. What sort of interaction do you have with Reform and Conservative Jews.

But this brings me to another point. We are in agreement that there are a lot of Jews on paper, meaning there are a lot of people who identify themselves as being Jewish but are unaffiliated.

Why would you let them walk away. Why wouldn't you do everything you could to try and keep them close.

Wouldn't you rather see them in a Reform shul than potentially within a church.

JoeSettler said...

It's too late to answer each item, so I'll go for the main point.


I'd like to see the Jews stay as Jews, and the non-Jews who wish to join convert ki'Halacha.

I don't want a situation, which the Reform is creating, where the majority of their members aren't Jewish.

Consider this.

Even the Conservative movement has tremendous problems with Reform conversions, and Reform's acceptance of Patrilineal descent.

In fact, Conservative Judaism simply doesn't accept as Jews people that Reform accepts as Jews, perhaps because they recognize the ramifications of doing such.


(I'll tell you my interactions off-line).

As I wrote this I just found this post:

Sweettooth120 said...

Excellent post Jack.

Recently at work we were discussing Rosh Hashana and a coworker of mine was talking about jewish dishes that his grandmother would make, that his father is Jewish. So I ask if he will be observing Rosh Hashana and he said no, that he wasn't Jewish. That only his father is Jewish, therefore he isn't.

Can we really afford as Jews to be exclusive of our own blood because it's genes coming from the X & Y?

Shanah Tova,

Sweettooth120 said...

Joe,

Admittedly, I haven't read through the full thread that you and Jack have written. BUT, I disagree in the thinking that its watering down Judiasm by redefining who is Jew purely through patrilineal identification.

I also find fault in the thinking that if one isn't orthodox then they are equal to being Reform. Not that you said that specifically, but it seems to be the mentality of the orthodox community, well most of them (not my shul, but its a very liberal orthodox synagogue - a true oxymoron).

JoeSettler said...

Shanah Tova!

Mark said...

It could be one reason, but following the logic of that explanation, tribal affiliation should perhaps also have followed the mother’s tribe as the mother is always known, whereas tribal affiliation is solely patrilineal."

Not at all. The point is that, pre-DNA one could never sure who the father was for certain. The mother was never in question as she was the one actually giving birth. What that has to do with the tribal affiliation is beyond me. I think the two are mutually exclusive. Speaking of exclusive, Sweettooth makes an excellent point and I totally agree:

"Can we really afford as Jews to be exclusive of our own blood because it's genes coming from the X & Y?"

Further, my father put his life on the line for the fledgling state of Israel while many Orthodox Jews did bupkis in 1948. Who the hell are they to decide whether his son is a Jew? As far as I'm concerned, my father has more right to decide I am a Jew, and raise me accordingly, than many "real" Jews enjoying the benefits of living in Israel today. Which brings me to another point of contention, that of the fact that those who don't meet this ridiculous criteria but die in the service of the IDF are separated out for burial from the "real" Jews. That, to me, is dishonorable.

Last, I find the attitude of Orthodox Jews WRT who is a Jew to be archaic and not in keeping with the Judaism I was raised with, which is progressive. But then, my mother's a convert so WTF do I know?

L'shana Tovah.

benning said...

Matrilineal descent has been the benchmark for how long, Jack? When was it instituted and why?

As a Christian I have the Big Tent philosophy: Come one, come all. Jews are a tiny minority around the world. To push some away because eema wasn't a Jew seems silly, and sad.

Stacey said...

Joe,

Your ideas about Reform Judaism are misguided.

Reform Judaism accounts for the largest % of American Jews and is a vibrant movement, whose members are active in all facets of synagogue and Jewish life, not just High Holy Days and bar mitzvah. Your comments are just ignorant.

Many would argue that the Orthodox have lost touch with the essence of what Judaism is all about, that they put their brains on a shelf and follow what seems to many to be cult-ish practices.

Reform and proud,
Stacey

Mark said...

This is interesting:


I am a little confused about the Halakha surrounding matrilineal descent. This is the deciding factor on whether or not one's son or daughter is a Jew (in Orthodox circles and also many Reform).

Judaism introduced matrilineal descent somewhere in the period of the Second Temple and the Roman occupation according to Prof. Shaye Cohen, now at Harvard, and he wrote an historical review of the change in "Conservative Judaism" among other journals. His presentation was historical and not intended to effect changes in Jewish law as it affects us today.

The reason that I have been given (most often) for this law is that one can always be certain of the mother's identity but not the father's. Is this really the reason?

I recall that it was less the issue of being certain of the father's identity than it was to bring Jewish law into somewhat coherence with Roman law regarding "citizenship" and "nationality" and rights and privileges within society. Had the Rabbis not done so, if I recall the discussion correctly, many children would have become social outcasts and society itself would have become shattered and torn, not unlike the consequences of bi-racial children in Vietnam following the American presence and the tens of thousands of children who were ignored if not deliberately discriminated against by "pure" and thereby "superior" Vietnamese.

Jack's Shack said...

It's too late to answer each item, so I'll go for the main point.

All this from the man who said that he wasn't going to get sucked into this post. ;)

I'd like to see the Jews stay as Jews, and the non-Jews who wish to join convert ki'Halacha.

So would I. Something tells me that the the difference is in the details.

Even the Conservative movement has tremendous problems with Reform conversions, and Reform's acceptance of Patrilineal descent.

In fact, Conservative Judaism simply doesn't accept as Jews people that Reform accepts as Jews, perhaps because they recognize the ramifications of doing such.


There is an ongoing discussion about that.

As for the Cross Currents post, I don't give much credence to much of what is written there.

The bottom line is still the same. No one is ever going to ask to see if I had a Kosher bris. If I am called upon to layn Torah or a simple Aliyah no one is going to say one word about what they think my background is unless I provide it in advance.

Hi Sweet,

Shana Tova.

Mark,

Thanks for that.

As a Christian I have the Big Tent philosophy: Come one, come all. Jews are a tiny minority around the world. To push some away because eema wasn't a Jew seems silly, and sad.

Benning,

I agree. And in truth I understand why some of my Orthodox friends are uncomfortable with some of these things.

I won't stop being their friend because of misguided and or foolish beliefs.

The thing with religious faith is that there are always going to be contradictions and debates about issues.

Alice said...

Non-jews are welcome to convert to Judaism. They just don't make it super easy because the stakes for that individual are way too high. The stakes are also too high for the Jewish community. Conversion is very serious. Once you are Jewish, it's for life. And it's much more a religion of the home, so conversion isn't about going to synagogue once per week- sort of like checking in. It's about the way you do just about everything.

I asked two Orthodox rabbis from whom I was taking courses last year about this issue. They both said it's matrilinear because the Torah says so. From their perspective we can't understand why.

It seems to me that there are a zillion Torah issues that we can't understand, so if we begin making up reasons for this and that- and it's so tempting to do so- then we are heading down the slippery slope. I'm sure there are many Jews who don't see why a guy should be circumsized or why pork is forbidden, etc.

Alice said...

joesettler: I think your point about sephardim is interesting and have noticed it, even in my limited experience. Do you think the 'more observant' raise up the 'less observant'? Or the other way around?

(I'm not saying less observant people are inferior- don't get me wrong.)

BarbaraFromCalifornia said...

I agree with many of the points you have written.

It is more important that we stay united than divided, as appears to be the trend these days.

As a side note, I think the rule of tracing religion threw the mother preceeded DNA testing, which can be done now, with certainty, and include fathers as well.