The orthodox dividing line.
March 22, 2007
A mamzer who is a scholar takes precedence over a High Priest who is an ignoramus. — Babylonian Talmud, Horayot 13a
Since I became involved in Jewish life about seven years ago, I have had the pleasure of meeting a number of Jews who, like me, are the children of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. Aside from the feelings of anger and alienation caused by our inequitable treatment within the Jewish community — treatment that many Jews with two Jewish parents fail to notice — the problems we experience goes far beyond being denied ritual honors or formal membership in an Orthodox or Conservative synagogue.
What I have most often noticed in other “patrilineal” Jews is a profound perplexity at our exclusion. Why, we often wonder, are segments of the Jewish community compelled to treat children of intermarriage in such an insensitive, cookie-cutter way — deciding that whether we are considered part of the Jewish family depends on the arbitrary fact of our being the fruit of Jewish sperm or a Jewish egg?
Having majored in religion in college, I have had the opportunity to examine the sources of matrilineal descent in Judaism in a way that few other patrilineal Jews have. In the hopes of lessening the confusion many patrilineal Jews feel about their situation, and of helping us all to achieve some measure of justice from the organized Jewish community, I want to give all patrilineal Jews the facts — scriptural, halakhic (Jewish legal), and sociological — they need to counter the arguments for our exclusion. When we come to those who would exclude us with the real facts in hand, I firmly believe, the wider Jewish community will be forced to admit that there is not a single argument given for reckoning Jewish descent matrilineally that can withstand the heat of serious scrutiny.
While it is impossible to treat this topic fully within the limits of a short article, I hope that what I can provide will prompt others who have been wrongfully denied their birthright to investigate the sources further and thereby be able to challenge this entrenched form of discrimination within Judaism.
The most commonly given rationales for matrilineal descent are:
As I will show, all of these rationales are inadequate, and some are ethically dubious.
"When you awake in the morning, learn something to inspire you and mediate upon it, then plunge forward full of light with which to illuminate the darkness." -Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Jewish adventures in the diaspora.
Scripture, ethics and spiritual formation