Patrilineal Descent

The Reform movement's watershed resolution of 1983.

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The Broader Implications

Tens of thousands of people have been raised as Jews because of the legitimacy accorded them as a result of this resolution. However, patrilineal Jews are likely to encounter problems later in life if they decide to become more traditional in their observance. A problem arises if Reform Jews who are Jewish by patrilineal descent choose to participate in ritual or celebrations at more observant synagogues. Can they be called up for an aliyah? Can they help to form a minyan? In most cases, the answer would be no.

Conservative and Orthodox Jews do not recognize patrilineal descent as a valid means of passing on Judaism. "Who is a Jew?" has been a controversial issue for several decades, and the Patrilineal Descent Resolution deepened the division between the opposing viewpoints. There already existed a split between American and Israeli Jews as only specific Orthodox conversions were recognized in Israel by the (Orthodox) Chief Rabbinate.

The eventual sociological implications of patrilineal descent are still unknown. As the first generation of Jews recognized under this resolution begins to have children, Jewish identity and status will only become more complicated. The continued acceptance of intermarriage and the many new strategies being experimented with to make Judaism more welcoming add to the matter. However, as with any drastic change in Jewish law, it is clear that the discussion of patrilineal descent is far from finished.

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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.