Sunday, December 24, 2006

A Conservative Jew's News and Views: On the (non-)connection between the gay-rights and patrilineal-descent issues (?)

According to the New York Jewish Week, some Israelis are wondering how a rabbi could marry two men or two women, but not a man and woman at least one of whom has a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. I don't see the connection. Halachah/Jewish religious law states that a person's religion is determined by the religion of the mother. Therefore, a person claiming to be Jewish through patrilineal descent--that is, because his/her father or grandfather is/was Jewish--is not Jewish according to Orthodox and (current) Conservative interpretations of halachah. But a non-Jew can convert to Judaism and solve the problem, while it's highly unlikely that a homosexual could "convert" to heterosexuality.

Monday, December 25, 2006 update:

Here's a relevant comment by Rahel to my previous post on the ordination of homosexuals:

“this ruling raises questions concerning intermarriage. There is a minority oppinion, (albeit a decidedly minor one), that states that Devarim 7:4 applies specifically to those nations listed, and not to all Gentiles. I don't have the source off the top of my head, but I'll find it and leave it here as a comment. At any rate, it can be argued that, if we're going to allow something which is specifically prohibited by the written Torah, then are we going to allow something else which is not only ambiguous in the written Torah, but has minority support within the rabbinic tradition? Just my two-cents, and, I'm not advocating for the Halachic sanction of intermarriage. I'm just raising the question.

Sun Dec 24, 04:45:04 PM 2006

Okay, now I see the problem. While it's true that being non-Jewish can be "cured" and being homosexual cannot be "cured," the law against anal sex between men comes directly from the Torah sheh-Bichtav/Written Torah/Bible, whereas the definition of Jewish identity comes from the Torah sheh-B'al Peh/Oral Torah/rabbinic law. So, if the Rabbinical Assembly has given congregations the option of nullifying (not the Written Law against anal sex between men but) the (additional) rabbinic laws against homosexuality, one could make a case that the rabbinic law defining Jewish identity is also fair game.

My gut instinct is to agree with my first rabbi in New York on this one--if we can't even agree on who's born Jewish, where does that leave (what's left of) Jewish unity? Is it fair to ask the children of Jewish father and non-Jewish mothers to convert? No. But is it the right thing to do? I still think it is.


Blogger Tzipporah said...

Halachah/Jewish religious law states that a person's religion is determined by the religion of the mother.

Mmmm, mmhhmm, mhmmm... except that this law itself is historical, not eternal: Was Tzipporah Jewish? Was Asneth? Were Bilchah and Zilpah?

Originally, as a tribal religion, Judaism was passed from father to son. It's only with Ezra that we get a universal statement about Jewish mothers. So, given that mothers no longer stay home with their children and provide the majority of early-childhood eduication (we have day-schools for that), WHY do we continue to insist on the matrilineal-only descent?

Wed Dec 27, 12:42:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

I guess I see identity as a defining issue. There's so much else that separates non-Orthodox Jews from Orthodox Jews, it would be nice if we could agree on *something.*

Wed Dec 27, 10:43:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree. So why don't the orthodox simply change their rulings to agree with the liberal movements?

Tue Jan 02, 04:06:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

'cause then they would be liberal, not Orthodox. There are certain bedrock issues about which the Orthodox will probably never change their minds. This is probably one of them.

By the way, one of the theories as to why Judaism went "matrilineal" is that, in ancient days when soldiers had their way with Jewish women, there was no real way of knowing who the father was, so the switch-over to basing the religion of the child on the religion of the mother, rather than the father, was a matter of practicality, and possibly even survival.

Tue Jan 02, 10:33:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'cause then they would be liberal, not Orthodox.

Ah, but you're perfectly happy to ask the liberal movements to become Orthodox...

Do you realize that the "reason" you cited for instituting martilineality is now an anachronism, with DNA testing, etc.? That it works against your argument?

Wed Jan 03, 02:33:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


The reason we don't change is that we don't much care for unity on halachic issues where the heterodox movements have drifted from halacha. We're not asking for agreement. We're slowly, but surely, moving to the point where all non-Orthodox Jews will be required to convert just to ensure they are Jewish if they weren't raised orthodox. (I suspect we're still several generations from that happening, but I think it will happen late in my lifetime.) It's sad, but it's the Reform that introduced this as a problem. I suspect, given how the Conservative movement caved on an issue most of the laity couldn't care about, that they will eventually cave on patrilineal descent. At that point, there will be no Jewish people. There will be at least 2, maybe more.

But unity simply for the sake of unity, where halacha is being sacrificed? no, ain't gonna happen.

Thu Jan 04, 03:33:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Tzippora, it may be an anachronism at this point, but the definition's been standing for roughly a couple thousand years, and the Orthodox aren't in any hurry to change it. So what's it gonna be, evening things out, or preserving what's left of Jewish unity? Some choice, huh? But I think jdub is right--there may very well come a point at which the Orthodox community simply writes off the non-Orthodox community as not verifiably Jewish without conversion. I'm not willing to be a party to a permanent division of the Jewish people.

Fri Jan 05, 08:44:00 AM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

jumping in very late on this, but...

The Orthodox establishment is already making it difficult for unaffiliated Jews to be counted as Jews. I'm running into this looking for a Jewish cemetery that will take me... My mother was an unaffiliated Jew whose parents emigrated from Poland -- in her father's case to get out from under the thumbs of the Czar's armies *and* the rabbis -- and my father is Christian. I have a very non-Jewish surname and do not "look Jewish." The cemeteries are asking for all sorts of documentation that I may not be able to get, because of the Holocaust, and because any rabbis who knew my Jewish grandparents have been dead for at least 30 years. My mother's birth certificate, which lists her race as Jewish, isn't acceptable because it's a secular document.

My husband and I wish to be buried side by side when the time comes. He is more identifiably Jewish and has a typical Jewish surname. He insists on a Jewish cemetery but it is proving very difficult to find one that will accept me.

Sat Jan 06, 11:31:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Ouch. Trying to prove that one is Jewish can be a real challenge. Best of luck.

Sun Jan 07, 01:09:00 AM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

jdub said:
The reason we don't change is that we don't much care for unity on halachic issues where the heterodox movements have drifted from halacha. We're not asking for agreement.

But that's exactly what Shira IS asking for - that heterodox movements give up their own halacha (and yes, most of them think they ARE following and making halacha) in favor of the Orthodox view, to preserve Jewish unity:

From the original post:
Is it fair to ask the children of Jewish father and non-Jewish mothers to convert? No. But is it the right thing to do? I still think it is.

Wed Jan 10, 12:36:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Yeah, that is pretty much what I'm asking for. We can agree to disagree on many things, such as the ordination of women and gays, because they don't change our religious identity--we're all still Jews. But when we start messing around with something so fundamental as who's *born* a Jew--we have enough disagreement on who's a Jew by choice--we're just asking for (more) trouble, in terms of Jewish unity.

Wed Jan 10, 08:55:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

we have enough disagreement on who's a Jew by choice--we're just asking for (more) trouble, in terms of Jewish unity.

Agreed. But you're writing about it as if there's some chance to stop this process - Reform and Recon Jews have been acknowledging children of Jewish fathers being raised Jewish as Jews for years now. The cat's out of the bag. Orthodoxy can disagree with this decision, but there are plenty of people out there living this (old? new?) paradigm, and complaining about how difficult this makes things won't stop it.

Fri Jan 12, 02:43:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Tzipporah, maybe that's so, but I guess I count on the Conservative Movement to concern itself with matters that affect Jewish unity.

In my opinion, the refusal to accept patrilineal descent is one of the chief matters of interpretation of Jewish law that separates the Conservative Movement from the Reconstructionist and Reform Movements.

Sat Jan 13, 07:11:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting that this is where you see a line in the sand. I guess I see Reform as opposed to all other movements in leaving halachic decisions up to individuals, rather than communal decision-making processes, as much more where the line is drawn. And Reconstructionist as often more aligned with Conservative (or even Orthodox) than Reform, despite the prevalence of English instead of Hebrew, etc.

Mon Jan 15, 03:20:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

That depends largely on whether you're talking about theory or about practice. I used to belong to a dual-affiliated Conservative/Reconstructionist synagogue, and now belong to a Conservative one. My own personal experience in Conservative and Reconstructionist circles has been that, whatever the *rabbinate* may decide, many lay individuals pretty much pick and choose what to observe. In terms of personal practice by laypeople, I think that Conservs. & Recons. are often as likely to reserve the right to make our own halachic decisions as the Reform are.

Mon Jan 15, 07:38:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

possibly. But at least we'll consider them questions of *halacha* and not just personal preference.

Tue Jan 16, 07:06:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Tzipporah, perhaps I didn't phrase my previous comment clearly enough. I guess I'm a bit more skeptical than you are about whether many Conservative Jews think of their decisions as questions of halachah. Undoubtedly, some do, but what's the percentage?

Tue Jan 16, 07:51:00 PM 2007  

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