Patrilineal Descent and the UK Reform Movement


The MRJ – the UK Movement for Reform Judaism recently launched a 15-month consultation on its policy on Jewish status. The question under discussion is whether to move to an acceptance of patrilineal – or, as some style it ‘equalineal’ – descent in determining who it considers a Jew. Not that anyone seems to know about it. Despite the movement’s rabbinic assembly having decided to embark upon the consultation a month ago, there has been no media coverage whatsoever. The story deserves coverage as it would be a big move;   equalineal descent (anyone with a Jewish parent is considered Jewish) would be a massive step forward – but would ultimately be insufficient.

It’s worth clarifying the status quo – once again, few people have much of a clue about it. The policy of the UK Liberal movement (which is often seen as broadly similar to US reform) states that anyone with only one Jewish parent and a Jewish upbringing is considered Jewish. In practice this tends to mean that matrilineal Jews are automatically accepted, regardless of Jewish knowledge, whereas patrilineals have to prove some level of Jewish upbringing, ideally, but not necessarily, including a bar/batmitzvah. The result of the policy is that that many members of Liberal synagogues are patrilineal Jews. This has a bizarre, and little known knock-on effect in the Reform Movement (often viewed as similar to the left-wing of the US Conservative movement). Because the Reform and Liberal movement are very close allies, with rabbis and synagogue members frequently moving between the two, there exists a so-called ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ in which any member of a Liberal synagogue is entitled to become a member of a Reform one, and thus gain all the privileges of membership. This creates a two-tier system –  if a patrilineal Jew has previously been a member of a Liberal synagogue he/she can join a Reform one, if he wasn’t, he can’t. Such a policy is clearly absurd, and has probably continued for so long only because so few people realise it exists.

All of this, to the outside eye, might seem an absurdity. Why don’t synagogues simply welcome anyone that wants to join? Are they so over subscribed that they can afford to turn people away? There is of course, history here. While Jewish descent was utterly patrilineal throughout the biblical period, sometime around the codification of the Mishnah (200CE) descent switched to matrilineal for reasons that nobody is entirely sure of (see Shaye Cohen’s The Beginnings of Jewishness). While a few talmudic rabbis continued to uphold the patrilineal principle and while some Jews without a Jewish father were treated as requiring conversion (examples for both are provided in Rabbi Ethan Tucker’s lectures) the overwhelming norm became that the child of a Jewish mother and a gentile father was considered a Jew while the child of a Jewish father and a gentile mother was considered a gentile.

The big institutional change to this norm came in 1983 when the US Reform accepted as Jews those with a Jewish father who had a Jewish education and upbringing. The controversial policy has been simultaneously credited with saving the Reform movement and undermining the entirety of US Jewry. On the positive side the policy it is said to acknowledge that at least 50% of US Jews are in relationships with non-Jews, on the negative it has been accused of destroying Jewish unity by creating a group of Jews that other Jews are not willing to marry.  No other Reform movement in any other country has followed suit, leaving US Reform somewhat isolated – so were the UK Reform to change its position it would be be a major boost for the equalineal cause.

There will of course, be plenty of conservative voices arguing against change. Their trump card will no doubt be about damaging ties with other denominations, the United Synagogue in particular. But in reality those ties are already severed; the US treats the non-orthodox movements pretty contemptuously, and co-operates with them only when it has little choice in the matter. The MRJ should pay rather more heed to the voices of mixed-faith couples who, at present are faced with the unedifying choice between the woman engaging in a conversion she may not really want or seeing their children unrecognised as Jews in a movement which has otherwise accepted principles of liberalism and inclusion. If the MRJ do change policy it will be a brave and commendable step, one that puts principle before political convenience and gender equality before unthinking halakhah worship.

But this alone would not be enough – it might have been in 1983 but now we need to go much further. We have to accept the reality of self definition – in the contemporary western world it is the accepted social condition. Our identities cannot be imposed from above by gatekeepers – every individual defines freely and may  choose a hybrid identity, to change identity over the course of their lifetime or to hold an identity which is constantly in flux. There is something offensive about defining people, without their consent, as one of two binary options: Jew or gentile, and allowing only the former a range of privileges (children’s education/leadership of services/ability to wed/burial etc.) within the community. The ethical way forward is to say that a Jew is one who self-defines as one, and that membership of synagogues is open to all who want to join. Synagogues might be anxious about the loss of an opportunity to educate as a result of abolishing of the need to convert – but the answer is to make education an ongoing ideal for all in the community, regardless of background. Such an approach is already the (unarticulated) in institutions like JW3, Limmud, Moishe House, Jewish Book Week etc, where all events are open to all and no-one asks any questions about Jewish status. Will synagogues take the same approach? Probably not quite yet. But eventually, due to the demands of our open society, a move to self-definition will prove irresistible and inevitable.

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1 Comment
  1. imnrgh says

    Ben Gurion allegedly remarked when discussing the “who is a jew” issue, that in view of our history, anyone who is meshuggena enough to call himself a jew, IS a jew.

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