Patrilineal Descent

The Reform movement's watershed resolution of 1983.

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On March 15, 1983, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the Reform movement's body of rabbis, passed a resolution prepared by a committee on patrilineal descent entitled "The Status of Children of Mixed Marriages." The CCAR resolution stated that "we face, today, an unprecedented situation due to the changed conditions in which decisions concerning the status of the child of a mixed marriage are to be made." Contrary to nearly 2000 years of tradition, the resolution accepted the Jewish identity of children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers under certain circumstances. 

patrilineal descentThere was a great deal of controversy about this resolution, both before and after its adoption. Some saw it as a radical and unwarranted departure from tradition, while others hailed it as a productive and inclusive approach to increasingly-common interfaith families.

Who is a Jew?

Although the Hebrew Bible defines Jewish identity in patrilineal terms, the Mishnah states that the offspring of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father is recognized as a Jew, while the offspring of a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father is considered a non-Jew. This Talmudic position became normative in Jewish law.

But the 1983 resolution was not the first attempt to reconsider patrilineality. Already in the 19th century, many Reform rabbis quietly integrated the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers into their religious schools and confirmed them into the Jewish faith along with their peer group in lieu of conversion. In 1947, the CCAR adopted a resolution that stated that if a Jewish father and a gentile mother wanted to raise their children as Jewish, "the declaration of the parents to raise them as Jews shall be deemed sufficient for conversion."

This recommendation had a somewhat different implication then the 1983 resolution in that the parents were "converting" their children, but the social impact was virtually identical. The insistence on a "conversion" was dropped completely in the 1961 CCAR Rabbi's Manual. "Reform Judaism accepts a child... as Jewish without a formal conversion if he attends a Jewish school and follows a course of study leading to confirmation." However, the manual simply offered guidance to rabbis and did not carry the weight of full-fledged resolution.

A Pivotal Change

By 1983, the CCAR was ready to spell out the patrilineal descent resolution in greater detail. By this time there was a broad based commitment to egalitarianism. To many, it seemed unnecessarily biased to accept the child of a Jewish mother and a gentile father as Jewish while rejecting the child of a Jewish father and a gentile mother. It seemed unfair that children of Jewish mothers who had no Jewish education were being given automatic recognition while children of Jewish fathers who received intense Jewish upbringings were not.  Even more importantly, the rising intermarriage rate made it imperative that the net of Jewish identity be cast as widely as possible.

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Dana Evan Kaplan

Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan is the spiritual leader of congregation B'nai Israel in Albany, Georgia. His books include The Cambridge Companion to American Judaism, American Reform Judaism: An Introduction, Platforms and Prayer Books, and Contemporary Debates in American Reform Judaism.