Patrilineal Descent

The Reform movement's watershed resolution of 1983.

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Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), decided that the Reform movement needed to act, and he urged his fellow Reform rabbis to pass a resolution accepting patrilineal children as Jewish. He believed this would preserve Jewish continuity in the face of escalating intermarriage rates. Schindler argued that most Jews wanted their children and grandchildren to be Jewish, but that if they were told that this required conversion, substantial numbers would give up and raise their children as non-Jewish.

Schindler initiated a process which eventually led to the CCAR voting in favor of what became known as the Patrilineal Descent Resolution. The resolution declared that "the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption of the Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people."

What this meant was that if a child was born of either a Jewish father or a Jewish mother, and was raised as Jewish, that child would be regarded by the Reform movement as Jewish. They were, however, expected to participate in the various Jewish life-cycle ceremonies which usually mark the life stages of a Jewish person.

Interestingly, this created the possibility that someone who had a Jewish mother, but had not been raised Jewish and had not had any public religious acts of identification such as a Jewish baby-naming ceremony, a bar or bat mitzvah, or a Jewish confirmation service could theoretically be regarded as a non-Jew despite his or her lineage. However, many rabbis recognize lineage alone.

Reactions and Repercussions

Although the general idea of the resolution was widely accepted within the Reform movement, there was considerable dissatisfaction with the wording of the resolution and confusion over its implications.  In 1996, the CCAR created an 11-member task force to interpret and develop guidelines for the successful implementation of the patrilineal descent policy. The task force recommended that the resolution be referred to as "equilineal descent" or simply "Jewish descent" rather than patrilineal descent since the resolution accepted descent from either the mother or the father.

The patrilineal descent resolution provided a viable solution for couples who felt comfortable with their personal religious differences but wanted to raise their children with a singular religious faith.

Furthermore, Jewish identity was now something one chose rather than something that simply "was." Children with one Jewish parent were being asked to voluntarily undergo significant religious acts of identification as a way of showing their commitment to Judaism and to the Jewish people.

While Jewish children had always been asked to prepare for their bar and bat mitzvahs, their Jewishness was never contingent upon successful completion of that ceremony or any other.  The Patrilineal Descent Resolution shifted the emphasis from birth to conscious choice.

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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.