Synagogue in Mád, Hungary (Photo/JTA-Getty)
Synagogue in Mád, Hungary (Photo/JTA-Getty)

Issue of patrilineal descent raises some more questions

I was delighted by the many responses to my April column, “At a loss after my rabbi said I’m not allowed to read Torah.”

Let’s walk through the concerns that were raised.

One man wrote, “You need to tell the Conservative Jews to accept patrilineal children!”

Sir, I’m sure you have told them, and did they change for you? I think it is more productive to figure out how to live in the here and now, even while working to improve the world. I certainly am not going to change my mind. Why should they?

Another person wrote, “I have read your articles and comments regarding Reform Jews. Please use ‘American Reform Jews’ when you speak about Reform Jews. You are doing a disservice to the countless Reform Jews outside of the United States whose fathers were Jews and had to undergo a full Jewish conversion, including circumcision and mikvah submersion … If you continue with this way of labeling all Reform Jews as equal and do not distinguish that it is American Reform Jews that you are referring to, then you may end up in court. I must remind you that the internet is worldwide.”

Dear readers, don’t be upset that he’s threatening I might be sued. What he really means is, “I need for you to take this seriously.”

He raises an important point. Acceptance of patrilineal children as Jews is limited to American Reform Judaism. This is one of the reasons I encourage parents — and rabbis — to have frank conversations with patrilineal kids. Should that child decide to live outside the United States, their Jewish status will instantly change.

Another person wrote in with the following, which I’ve made my question of the week.

Dear Dawn: I read with interest about the patrilineal Jew not allowed to read Torah in a Conservative synagogue, and I have a related question. I am married to a Jewish man, and we belonged to a Reform synagogue for many years before I decided to convert. We raised our son there. He had a bar mitzvah and read Torah. I converted around this time and asked our rabbi if I needed to take my son to the mikvah, too, since now his mother was a Jew. The rabbi did not think it was a good idea; he thought that it would be confusing. He said that my son is recognized as Jewish by the Reform movement. If my son wants to do something in the future in the Conservative movement, for example, marry a Conservative Jew in a ceremony with a Conservative rabbi, then he would need to go to the mikvah. And he could do it at that point; it would be his decision. Later when my son was in college, I explained to him his status in regard to non-Reform Judaism. I am now a member of both a Reform and a Conservative synagogue. I am welcome to chant Torah at both. So is it correct that a child born to a Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman and raised as a Reform Jew cannot be called to chant Torah in a Conservative synagogue, even though his later-a-Reform-convert mother can? Why would it be OK for a Reform convert to read Torah in a Conservative synagogue but not a patrilineal Jew? Just Wondering

Dear Wondering: I love this question! This is an important aspect of Jewish life and law. Because you converted you changed your status from non-Jew to Jew. Your Jewish identity is based on the rabbi who converted you; therefore, you are technically a Reform Jew.

This is unique to converts.

The identity of born Jews is not in any way determined by their rabbi — or lack of a rabbi. Many if not most American Conservative synagogues accept Reform conversions. Therefore, you are a Jew in both synagogues and welcome to chant Torah.

Recognition of patrilineal Jews has only come about with the Reform (and other liberal branches of American Jewry) in the last 40 or so years. This is a very new idea in the long history of Judaism.

It is also an American phenomenon. What I call a patrilineal Jew is not considered a Jew by most of the Jews around the world. Therefore, a child of a Jewish man cannot be called to chant Torah, but a convert to Judaism can.

Finally, I strongly believe that the child of a female convert should be taken to the mikvah, thereby acquiring the halachic status of the mother. However, the preteen and teen years can be fraught, and I, too, have recommended not introducing doubt into a child’s Jewish identity at that time. However, you were very wise to explain your son’s situation to him when he was in college. He will not be taken unaware. Good job!

Dawn Kepler

Dawn Kepler leads Building Jewish Bridges, a program that embraces Bay Area interfaith families. “Mixed & Matched” offers advice for Jews in interfaith relationships and families. Send letters to [email protected].