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Question

I am a little confused about the Halakha surrounding matrilineal descent. This is the deciding factor on whether or not one's son or daughter is a Jew (in Orthodox circles and also many Reform). The reason that I have been given (most often) for this law is that one can always be certain of the mother's identity but not the father's. Is this really the reason? And how about modern advances in science which would enable us to prove the identity of the father? Is their a Halakhic ruling on this? It seems to me that men are the main targets of this law. Yet within Judaism there remains a tradition of Patrilineal descent for the Kohanim. Could you clear this up for me?

Answer

Interesting questions and somewhat more theoretical than I have dealt with in the past few years. I hope that the following will be helpful.

In general, patrilineal Jewish identity was introduced in the Reform and Reconstructionist movement, IMHO, because of the incredible number of dual-faith families who had joined their congregations and placed their children in their respective movements education and youth programs. In principle, it stated that a child of a Jewish father raised uniquely as a Jew - education, home environment, celebration of life an calendar cycle events, brit milah for a male - would be considered a halachic Jew much as the child of a Jewish mother would be so considered.

As I have understood the principle, in no way was it permitted or intended to permit a dual-faith family to raise the child in both faiths; a choice of religious identity had to be made, and if it were Judaism, then no Gentile rituals, rites, rules, education, etc. was permitted. Of course, being part of a larger family, one would be expected to be respectful of Gentile grandparents, cousins, etc., but not to actually "share" in their religious faith.

I am a little confused about the Halakha surrounding matrilineal descent. This is the deciding factor on whether or not one's son or daughter is a Jew (in Orthodox circles and also many Reform).

Judaism introduced matrilineal descent somewhere in the period of the Second Temple and the Roman occupation according to Prof. Shaye Cohen, now at Harvard, and he wrote an historical review of the change in "Conservative Judaism" among other journals. His presentation was historical and not intended to effect changes in Jewish law as it affects us today.

The reason that I have been given (most often) for this law is that one can always be certain of the mother's identity but not the father's. Is this really the reason?

I recall that it was less the issue of being certain of the father's identity than it was to bring Jewish law into somewhat coherence with Roman law regarding "citizenship" and "nationality" and rights and privileges within society. Had the Rabbis not done so, if I recall the discussion correctly, many children would have become social outcasts and society itself would have become shattered and torn, not unlike the consequences of bi-racial children in Vietnam following the American presence and the tens of thousands of children who were ignored if not deliberately discriminated against by "pure" and thereby "superior" Vietnamese.

And how about modern advances in science which would enable us to prove the identity of the father? Is their a Halakhic ruling on this?

Thus, identity of the father while theoretically possible, is still financially and practically beyond our abilities. And, tragically, the sexual habits of young people today - perhaps no worse than before but it would seem so to me - make it almost impossible for even the mother to line up the men to take the DNA test - if they were willing. To my knowledge, there is no halachic ruling on this matter, or at least in our movement.

It seems to me that men are the main targets of this law.

No, children are being protected as society changed the norm of how "citizenship" and its respective rights and privileges were to be implemented as fairly as possible.

Yet within Judaism there remains a tradition of Patrilineal descent for the Kohanim.

And, a DNA study of Kohanim surprised a lot of people, including me, that there was so much similarity in a DNA marker of Kohanim! Ooops, maybe they have been more careful over the centuries and there is some substance to the notion of one calling himself and his male descendents "Kohanim," if and when that has legal consequences. Best Wishes,

Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner
Foundation for Family Education (FFFE)

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