Traditional Jewish doctrine is straightforward: a child is Jewish only if his mother is Jewish. But when North American rabbis of the Reform movement, Jewry’s most progressive faction, emerge from a three-day meeting in Los Angeles this week, the 3,600-year-old dogma will likely change, and the child of a Reform Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother will be embraced as Jewish too. The Reform group, which represents an estimated one million of the six million North American Jews, believes that the change would acknowledge modern-day realities. But the amendment, which is almost certain to be endorsed, could widen the existing rift between the Reform and the more traditional factions of Conservative and Orthodox Jews. “This is a regression from Jewish law,” charges Rabbi Benjamin Friedberg of Toronto’s Conservative Beth Tzedec Synagogue.
“I think it is a dangerous step. It may create a real schism.”
The notion that the father’s religion is sufficient to determine the religion of the child —or “patrilineal lineage”— emerged from the compelling realities that the birth rate among North American Jews is declining and that the rate of mixed marriage has reached 40 per cent in North America. In 1979 Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the New Yorkbased Union of American Hebrew Congregations, approached his group to consider the change. A subsequent task force implemented the proposal, with the stipulation that the child would have to be raised as a Jew in an exclusively Jewish environment. Schindler argued that the old law of maternal descent was introduced because of polygamous practices during ancient times. “Today,” he said,
“the religion of the father must count for something.” Adds Rabbi Gunther Plaut of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple and president of the conference: “What this proposal tries to do is to recognize a reality and the desire of many children of mixed marriages to have an unequivocal status.”
The reaction of the rest of the Jewish community promises to be divisive. Or-
thodox and Conservative Jews believe that talmudic law cannot, under any circumstances, be changed and that the integrity of the tradition is far more important than the actual number of Jews. Orthodox Rabbi Henry Hoschander of Toronto’s Shaarei Shomayim synagogue worries that the change may do even more harm by encouraging mixed marriage. As well, it may create
identity problems for the children of those marriages. Orthodox and Conservative rabbis insist that they would never consider the child Jewish no matter how much religious training he or she had received. Hoschander believes that if the Reform rabbis actually go through with this proposal, “they will automatically exclude the child from two-thirds of the Jewish population.”
What is more, children of non-Jewish mothers—after considering themselves Jewish all their lives—would be required to undergo a formal conversion if they married a Conservative or Orthodox mate. And, according to Hoschander, the Law of Return—whereby a Jew can obtain automatic Israeli citizenship—would not apply to those children unless they converted. Indeed, even
some Reform congregations may not recognize the change. Says Reform Rabbi Philip Bregman of Vancouver’s Temple Shalom: “Even if it passes, it will not affect my life or my congregation.” For their part, the small number of Reform Jews in Israel have indicated that they will not endorse the change.
Among male Jews in mixed marriages the reaction to the proposal is varied. The change may solve a dilemma for some by enabling a Jewish man to marry a woman of any faith and still have Jewish children. To others, however, the proposal will have no effect—in marrying a non-Jew, a Jewish man has often already resigned himself to the fact that he cannot pass on his religion to his children. But Toronto lawyer Michael Eisen, 33, and his Anglican wife, Marjorie Nichol, 30, had their 23month-old daughter, Jessica, converted when she was three months old. Says Eisen: “It would not make a difference to me. I’m not satisfied or certain that a meeting of Reform rabbis has the jurisdiction to alter traditional Jewish law regarding the religious status of a child.”
If the change formally comes into practice, the Reform movement will be taking a large theological step in a religion that cherishes its past. The liberal but lesser-known Reconstructionist movement of some 12,000 Jews was the first to adopt the
patrilineal amendment in 1980. Says Toronto Reconstructionist Rabbi Richard Hirsh: “Every time one of the progressive denominations takes a step, there is usually a negative reaction.” Plaut defends the move: “The whole discussion is being done with profound respect. We want to make sure that what we do has ample precedent in Jewish tradition.”
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