I’m not a patrilineal Jew. I didn’t grow up feeling pulled in two directions or uncertain of my Jewish status. In fact, as someone who converted to Judaism as an adult, I think there’s a lot of value in the conversion process as a tool for firmly exploring and establishing a Jewish identity. But as I read through The CJN’s recent cover story on the barriers patrilineal Jews and their families face in affiliating with mainstream Jewish congregations, I was left wondering: how is this good for the Jews? (“Born to a non-Jewish mother,” Aug. 1.)
In our small-town, unaffiliated synagogue in Sudbury, Ont., we’ve been accepting families where the father is Jewish and the mother is not for decades. While the practice long pre-dates my involvement, it stems from the sort of pragmatism that characterizes much of Jewish life in a small city. Many of the problems that seem to preoccupy large communities fall off the table when you’re faced with your own survival. We need the presence of every single Jew in this city who wants to be affiliated with a synagogue – otherwise, we won’t have a synagogue. Turning away an interested family because the husband is married to a woman who isn’t Jewish would be suicide by halakhah.
It would also be just plain mean, frankly. I know several men who live in larger centres who have been turned away by Reform congregations because their wives weren’t Jewish and they weren’t willing to convert their kids (because in their minds, their kids were already Jewish). It turned them off of synagogue involvement entirely, and I can’t say I blame them. Do we want non-Jewish spouses converting just to secure the status of their kids? How genuine is a conversion undertaken under those circumstances?
Hillel’s principle of “that which you find abhorrent, do not do to others” is not upheld by turning someone away just because of the person they fell in love with. Rather, it leads to absurd situations, such as when the cousins in an extended family are either Jewish or not depending on whether their Jewish parent is a brother or a sister. What about the child whose father has two Jewish parents and whose maternal grandfather is Jewish, but his maternal grandmother isn’t? That kid with three Jewish grandparents isn’t Jewish but the child whose maternal grandmother is their only Jewish grandparent is?
Recourse to Jewish law that came out of an era in which the paternity of Jewish children was in question seems hollow. These are not children of unknown paternity. Their fathers are Jewish, their fathers are present, their fathers are involved in their lives and are invested in the continuity of their family’s Jewish identity.
Using halakhah that was created to pragmatically address the religious identity of children conceived through rape to justify the exclusion of children whose Jewish fathers are active parents seeking to foster their Jewish identity is insulting. Intermarriage presents a compelling challenge to our communities, but it should be provoking us to come up with as creative a solution as the rabbis did in Roman times, not simply deferring to them.
I sometimes worry about what will happen when the children of Jewish fathers in our community go out into the wider world and discover that their status is in question. How will they react when they’re told that they’re “not really Jewish”? I hope that by that point, they will have enough confidence in their own identities to push back against that assertion, to state their Jewishness with self-assurance and resilience and to find spaces where they will be accepted. Or maybe they’ll choose to pursue a conversion to secure their status in every context.
Either way, I don’t think we can go on cutting so many potential families out of our synagogue communities. It’s not good for the Jews, no matter how you define that word.