A few years ago, Rabbi Cory Weiss of Temple Har Zion in Thornhill, Ont., took a call from a family who are members of his congregation.
They are an interfaith couple, the man Jewish, the woman not, and their son was closing in on bar mitzvah age.
The boy had been raised as a Jew. The family attended services and everything about their lifestyle screamed “Jewish.” But the mother was not born Jewish. Nor had she converted.
It’s a situation the Reform temple and other Reform congregations occasionally have to deal with, Rabbi Weiss said. Usually when there is an interfaith couple in which it’s the husband who is Jewish, their child is converted at a very young age.
But there are occasions when that doesn’t happen. And even though the Reform movement has made it well known that it is open and welcoming, the rules relating to patrilineal descent would prevent the temple from performing a bar mitzvah for a child of that marriage.
Similarly, being called to recite blessings over the Torah or the congregation, or anything in which the member would recite the Hebrew invocation, “asher bachar banu” (“who has chosen us”), would not be permitted for someone who descends from a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, Rabbi Weiss said.
The practice and acceptance of patrilineal descent is somewhat different in the United States, and has been since 1983, but the Canadian Reform movement adheres to the traditional approach to Jewish status: one is a Jew if he or she is born to a Jewish mother, or if that person converts to Judaism.
So what is to be done for a child who grew up in a Jewish-identifying household and whose parents – and the child – are expecting to host a bar mitzvah?
There is an accommodation that can be offered, explained Rabbi Weiss, who serves as chair of Reform Rabbis of Greater Toronto (RRGT).
Because the family lived a Jewish lifestyle, attended services and identified as Jewish, a somewhat abridged conversion procedure was offered. Once the youngster went through the educational portion of the conversion and underwent the ceremonial blood-letting given that the boy was already circumcised, he was then immersed in a mikveh, or ritual bath.
After that, the bar mitzvah went ahead as planned.
Rabbi Weiss said that in his 13 years at Temple Har Zion, there have been only a few situations in which questions over patrilineal descent have arisen.
South of the border, however, it’s a different story. Since the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) adopted the position in 1983 that the offspring of a Jewish father and a gentile mother would be considered Jewish, many more people have been accepted into the Jewish fold, or more specifically, the Reform fold.
In announcing its decision, the Reform movement noted 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.
“There are tens of thousands of mixed marriages. In a vast majority of these cases the non-Jewish extended family is a functioning part of the child’s world, and may be decisive in shaping the life of the child. It can no longer be assumed a priori, therefore, that the child of a Jewish mother will be Jewish any more than the child of a non-Jewish mother will not be.”
The decision marked a break from traditional Jewish practice. Since Talmudic times, Jewish communities have followed a matrilineal approach to Jewish status. The child of a Jewish mother is considered Jewish, even if the father is not. Conversely, the child of a Jewish father is not considered Jewish unless the mother is Jewish, by birth or conversion.
But this wasn’t always the case. In biblical times, before the Roman occupation, Jewish status flowed through the father. Moses, Rabbi Weiss pointed out, married a Midianite woman, but his children were Jewish. And even today, one’s status as a Cohen (a descendant of the priestly caste) or a Levi (those who served in the Temple) is determined by the father’s status (though the male child of a male Cohen or Levi and a non-Jewish female would not automatically become Jewish).
But Jewish law changed in the Roman period, Rabbi Weiss explained. The predominant Greco-Roman culture of the time traced lineage through the mother’s side, and it could be that the ancient Jews adopted that tradition. What’s more, under the oppression of the Romans, rape was not uncommon, so there was a reason to ensure that the offspring of such atrocities would be accepted as Jews.
And that’s the way it has been for some 2,000 years. It’s still the standard throughout the Jewish world, except among a substantial number of rabbis and congregations in the American Reform movement.
Weiss said the 1983 decision reflected “the idea of outreach to welcome as many interfaith people as possible.”
That step was controversial among Reform Jews in the U.S. and barely accepted by Reform congregations anywhere else in the world, let alone by the other streams of Judaism.
Nevertheless, in the United States, there is “a large number of patrilineal Jews who are only Jewish to the Reform movement,” Rabbi Weiss said.
In Canada, Reform Jewry looked at the developments south of the border and rejected them.
There are probably some members of Reform congregations who would favour such a change, and perhaps some Reform rabbis, as well. But those in the mainstream Reform movement in Canada don’t see things in the same way as their colleagues in the United States, he said.
Americans have a greater sense of personal independence, the idea that “no one tells me what to do,” Rabbi Weiss said.
As for the approach taken toward people who move here from south of the border, the RRGT issued the following policy statement: “Regarding converted or patrilineal adults who come from another community and join our congregations, and whose Jewish status has been authenticated by a CCAR colleague, but who have not undergone milah (circumcision) and t’vilah (immersion in a mikveh), we will recommend, but not require, formal conversion by the standards of the RRGT.”
Michael Brown, professor emeritus and senior scholar at the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York University, said that in the traditional Jewish approach, “Jewish status is conferred by the mother’s status.”
That is widely accepted in the Orthodox and Conservative movements, and neither would accept as Jewish someone whose mother is not, even if his or her father is a Jew.
“That’s always the way it’s been,” he said. “In the early years of an infant’s life, he or she is more nurtured and cared for by the mother than the father. And if a woman is raped, in unsettled times, war for example, or has relations with more than one male and then gives birth, we may not know who the father was, but we always know who the mother is.”
As for accepting those with a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother as Jews, “We want to be as open as possible, as accepting as possible, but if you want to join the club, you have to follow the rules,” he said.
Rabbi Aaron Flanzreich, the senior rabbi at Toronto’s Beth Sholom Synagogue, which is part of the Conservative movement, said “the idea of matrilineal descent is so deeply embedded in the Jewish identity and the way the religion operates, it seems concrete at this time.”
Adopting a patrilineal approach today, in the absence of universal Jewish acceptance of that principle, would only create division and affect Jewish unity, he said.
Rabbi Flanzreich acknowledged that there are interfaith couples who wish to be part of the wider Jewish world. The solution, he suggested, was not through patrilineality.
“If someone has a clear orientation to a Jewish identity, there’s an opportunity not to create a cleavage, but a bonding with the greater whole,” he said. And that is through conversion.
In his 26 years as a rabbi, Rabbi Flanzreich has experienced about a dozen instances in which a couple’s connection to the Jewish people is through the father.
“We discussed conversion and in every one of those cases, the person happily accepted the option of resolving that identity crisis,” he noted.
Rabbi Jarrod Grover, the spiritual leader of Toronto’s Beth Tikvah Synagogue, said he has counselled dozens of people in similar situations.
Sometimes it comes up when they are to be married. On other occasions, “people get scared when they realized they can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery. These situations have to be handled with extreme care and empathy,” he said.
“You’re telling somebody that their religious identity and a core part of who they are is not as legitimate as they thought. You can say the wrong thing and you’ll never see them again.”
Rabbi Grover said one of his good friends when he was growing up in Montreal was brought up Jewish and was accepted as such by the local Reform temple. He also had a bar mitzvah.
His friend, John, who wished to remain anonymous, said that growing up, his family attended synagogue and observed the Jewish holidays, even though his mother never converted. Most of his friends were Jewish and he attended a Jewish summer camp.
After he moved to Toronto and wanted to get married, he discovered that the Jewish status he took for granted had become an issue.
“We knew we wanted to have a Jewish wedding,” he said. Given his close relationship with Rabbi Grover, he consulted with him to determine “what was needed for him to feel comfortable to marry us.”
Rabbi Grover explained the necessity for conversion, as well as the reasoning behind it.
“I guess maybe I was a little surprised, given my history of being bar-mitzvahed, having Passover dinners and growing up surrounding myself with Jewish people,” John said.
Nevertheless, he went ahead with the conversion and now feels comfortable knowing that, “If we want to be buried in the same cemetery, we don’t have to worry about that anymore.”
As to whether he felt put off by the requirement of conversion, even though he believed that he was Jewish, John said that, “I didn’t take it personally at all.”
Adina Goldfarb grew up in Thornhill in a secular home. Her father is Jewish; her mother, Christian. But other than having a Christmas tree and celebrating Hanukkah, there were no religious observances in the household.
Nevertheless, “I always felt Jewish. I went to synagogue with friends,” she said. Goldfarb studied religion at university and said that she watches online videos that discuss the truth of the Torah. “I always believed in the Jewish religion,” Goldfarb said.
She began attending services at Beth Tikvah, where she met Rabbi Grover. Her husband, who is gentile and not religious at all, did not object to her exploring her Jewish roots.
When Goldfarb got pregnant, “I wanted to raise my daughter Jewish,” she said. Even though she felt herself Jewish, “I wanted to finalize the conversion so that when she was born, my daughter would be Jewish.”
Under Rabbi Grover’s guidance, she underwent conversion. She has placed a mezuzah on her door, lights Shabbat candles, observes the festivals and plans to bring up her daughter in the Jewish faith.
“I wanted her to have knowledge of her descent, where she came from, and then she can make her own decision,” Goldfarb said.
Rabbi Grover said conversion provides an easy solution for those who have a patrilineal connection to the Jewish people and wish to formalize that status.
The vast majority of people, when given the option, choose to convert, he said. “People realize it’s a serious issue, but the fix is easy.”