There’s an article at JTA by Sue Fiskoff from a few days ago about the debate over patrilineal descent that took place at the World Union for Progressive Judaism conference in San Francisco last week.
I’ll summarize the reasons international Reform Jews cite for rejecting patrilineal descent, then I’ll assess each of these arguments for signs of silliness.
1. It would put them at odds with the wider Jewish community and would endanger Reform shuls financially.
This is actually the most persuasive reason given. In many Western countries (I include in this category South Africa, European countries, Latin America and Australia and New Zealand), there is a central Jewish body that dispenses money to smaller Jewish bodies. These groups are sometimes dominated by the Orthodox. That this reason exists is unfortunate, but if it’s believed that patrilineal descent would be the last straw, it makes sense.
2. It might be a problem if a patrilineal Reform Jew wants to marry a Jew from another stream.
This is a troubling assault by Reform authority on the autonomy of Reform individuals.
In the US, if a Reform Jew of patrilineal descent wishes to marry a Jew of another stream, and to please that person–or their parents–the Reform Jew of patrilneal descent agrees to a conversion, the CCAR and the URJ have no interests in the issue. It is the problem and decision of the Reform Jew of patrilineal descent who may undergo conversion, not the problem or the decision of the organized Reform community.
Given that none of the international Reform Jews in the article give internal reasons for not recognizing patrilineal Jews, let’s assume that they have none. Rather, all of their reasons, like this marriage reason, are based on external reasons–essentially, “If we allow this, what will the other Jews think?”
So–based, admittedly, on a whole lot of assumptions–let’s assume that they actually desire patrilineal descent and that they would allow it if the external impediments were removed. In that case, the marriage thing is a red herring! It is only a problem for individuals, as we determined when discussing how this occurs in the US. If the marriage reason isn’t a communal one, but a potential individual problem, then Reform communities have no business making decisions based on this reason.
And if all of this is true, this reason would not stand on its own. And if it can’t stand on its own, then it’s not reason at all.
3. It might be a problem if a patrilineal Reform Jew wants to make Aliyah.
This one fails for the same reasons as the marriage reason.
But it actually goes farther than that. In Israeli laws that are determined by the Chareidi-dominated state rabbinate, what makes these people think that a patrilineal Jew who undergoes a Reform conversion in, say South Africa, will be any more acceptable than a patrilineal Jews who has not undergone a Reform conversion?
4. If a community allows patrilineal Jews, it might jeopardize the ability of other members of the community to make Aliyah.
If someone has a Jewish mother, they are kosher in the eyes of Israeli rabbinate. So the Jewish identity of members of the Reform community with Jewish mothers is not in question, despite their involvement in the Reform community. However, in the eyes of the Israeli rabbinate, if a child of a patrilineal Jew–or anyone else for that matter–converts under the auspices of a Reform rabbi, they will not be considered a Jew.
So, this reason, too, is poppycock. Refusing to recognize patrilneal Jews as Jews has no effect on anyone’s ability to make Aliyah, including the patrilineal Jews themselves as well as other Reform Jews. The proof of this is in the successful Aliyah of many American Reform Jews.
5. In El Salvador, the Reform community was accepting patrilineal Jews, but has stopped doing so. According to the article, they were accepting patrilineal Jews “during the country’s civil war, when the congregation was lay-led and desperate for members. When the conflict ended, so did the practice.”
I am 100 percent bewildered by this one. Why would a civil war have any effect on any of this? Given the mention of the fact that community was lay-led, I imagine that it may have something to do with the arrival of a rabbi who was not amenable to the recognition of patrilineal Jews–like the next reason given. But it’s quite unclear what’s going on here.
6. According to the article: “The Reform congregations in Costa Rica and Panama stopping embracing patrilineal Jews when they hired Conservative pulpit rabbis.” Apparently, it was more important to them to have Conservative rabbis who spoke Spanish than to hire Reform rabbis from the U.S.
This is an interesting one, and totally understandable. I can see that having a rabbi who comes from a similar cultural idiom might be an important thing. However, it is odd to hear about Reform communities that are OK with absolute rabbinic authority of this kind.
The article also mentions that Canadian Reform rabbis, who are members of CCAR, the same rabbinic body as their US counterparts, rejected the CCAR’s adoption of patrilineal descent in 1983, though it does not say why they rejected it. It also notes that the resolution is not binding on any Reform rabbis, anywhere. All of them have autonomy, despite the resolution.