Patrilineal Descent in the Reform Movement

In 1983, leaders of the Reform Movement in America determined the status of individuals born of mixed parentage.  In somewhat revolutionary fashion, they decided that children born of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother would be considered Jewish within Reform communities.  Although they had in mind the greater good of the Jewish world, their decision making process focused more on being “sensitive to the human dimension of the issue” than thoughtful examination of Jewish tradition.  The committee paradoxically justified their decision making by using scriptural references, while rejecting Torah as binding.  Simultaneously, they did not examine the complexities of multi-lineal descent in Jewish tradition.  In addition, by rejecting the Oral Law, Reform leaders withhold knowledge from the laity, who is then not able to make individual decisions regarding Jewish identity, as promoted by Reform Ideology.

Reform ideology holds Jewish texts as special and holy, but rejects centuries old interpretations.  It is therefore, contradictory for Reform leaders to utilize Mishna, Gemara and other texts as proofs.  How would American society react if the major opposition group rejected Supreme Court interpretations of the Constitution, and simultaneously quoted particular rulings that supported their ends?  It would be an outrage.

Furthermore, Reform Judaism has not innovated by making Judaism multi-lineal, this was already the case.  They just changed the rules to support previously held religious conclusions.  Jews have always been multi-lineal, not matrilineal.  Religion is passed through the mother and other qualities are passed through the father (i.e. Cohanim and Levite lineage is passed through the father).  The Reform movement is defined by liberality and therefore must loosen theological regulations as much as possible.  At some point, however, legal traditions that bind the Jewish community become so loosened that Jewish identity is lost in the fray.

Lastly, the Reform Movement stresses individuality and making personal choices about what Judaism and religion mean to each person, but how is this possible when Reform Judaism rejects so much of Jewish tradition.  How can an individual make choices if he does not know what texts to consult, or how to read them?  By taking such a lenient stance on Jewish Law, Reform Judaism has disenabled countless Jews from investigating serious topics with a truly open mind.

Patrilineal descent in the Reform Movement is interesting and complicated, but there is no question their assertions require further analysis.  They reject Oral Law, but simultaneously utilize it for proofs.  They did not truly create a sea change in Jewish thought by integrated patrilineal descent, it was there all along.  Rather, Reform Jewish leaders just rearranged the rules to align with previously held beliefs.  Furthermore, Reform Judaism makes it impossible for the laity to make serious decisions about their Jewish identity by pulling the intellectual carpet out from underneath them.

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1 Response to Patrilineal Descent in the Reform Movement

  1. Laurie says:

    I grew up in a midwestern, small town, traditional Reform congregation–meaning the men wore tallitot/kippot in shul and Yizkor services were held on the chagim. When the Reform Movement adopted patrilineal descent, it lost me as a Reform Jew. At that time, I felt the Reform Movement was monkeying with a core principle of Judaism that united all Jews of all denominations for 1,000’s of years. I felt the covert reason for the change was a number’s game Thanks to this article, I can put valid, intellectual reasons (as opposed to just feelings) as to why I still disagree with the patrilineal descent decision, thus reinforcing my affiliation with the Conservative Movement.

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