|Ask Rabbi Lerner|
I am in my 40's. I come from a Jewish father and Catholic mother. At that
time my father wanted his daughters raised Jewish but was told we were not
Jews by a Rabbi because of the mother and his part in our creation did not
count. So began his long hate with his own people.
We began our education into Catholicism (which I have no belief in) but this was not the end of our Jewishness question. My Orthodox Jewish grandmother at every chance would teach us along with my Jewish cousins. She would tell my sisters and I that no matter what anyone said we were Jews. She died when I was 8.
All my life I've heard the same argument of the Rabbi and my grandmother. The question always came up when they looked at me or heard my last name. Some Jews would say I am Jewish and some Jews say I am not.
Now I have 3 daughters who want to know if their grandfather is Jewish why aren't they? I can't convert because my father gets angry and yells "How can you convert to what you are, do I have to take a DNA test to prove you are my children". He's just happy that I teach them the little I know about the reasons behind holidays like Purim, Passover, etc..
My question is, am I wrong to teach my daughters anything about Judaism? Should I deny that part that my father is as the Rabbi so long ago put it or listen to the words of my grandmother who as orthodox as she was would not accept me as anything else but Jewish?
There are those who see Judaism
uniquely as maternal in descent, "matriarchal descent" as you noted. This
follows Jewish law of the past 2000 years. It does seem that before then it
was "patriarchal descent" and we don't really know why there was a change.
My own feeling, based on historical material of several specialist, is that the Rabbis of the first 200 years of the Common Era (0-200 CE or AD) saw how many children were being born of rape, slavery and all forms of sexual abuse of Jewish women. In an act of compassion, and working within the Roman concept of citizenship, they made the law accept the child of a Jewish mother as a Jew by birth. So, what began as compassion and inclusiveness and leniency "then" has made a situation today that they could never contemplate - an open society in which Jews could marry non-Jews - a complicated situation if not a crisis for the family.
There are Rabbis today, mostly Orthodox or Traditional, who feel that if a child is born to a woman who is - on her mother's side - the descendent of 10 generations of mothers, even if raised as Catholics, nonetheless "Jewish" by birth. I would think that we would have to respect at some time the decision of a mother to raise her daughters as Catholic - no matter what the Rabbis might say!
The Reform and Reconstructionist movements, the more liberal movements, have opted to include both matriarchal and patriarchal descent, although the child must be raised uniquely as a Jew. They didn't become so liberal as to provide for a child to be raised as "both" religions. If the child is baptized or taken to church, even if also "raised as a Jew" is considered to be Christian by even the liberal movements. One then understands how the more traditional movements would not accept such a bi-cultural child as Jewish.
In my experience, often the Jewish father was very upset about the reaction of the Jewish community because of his own family's response, and being unable to lash out and criticize them, it was easier to lash out at the Jewish People or the Rabbi. Sometimes the anger or hatred of the Jewish community began then or perhaps the roots were there earlier and account for dating out of the Jewish community.
Let's also understand that in the 50's, inter-faith marriages were still relatively few in number and conversion of the Gentile was more often the case. From that decade until now, the rate of conversion has dropped and the rate of interfaith marriages, based upon where one lives, is roughly 30% in urban centers and in some states in the US as high as 90%. Perhaps that is why the Reform and Reconstructionist movements may have tried to become more inclusive.
Your father has some ideas that others have. There are Jews who feel that it is a blood issue, and they refuse to accept converts to Judaism because they weren't "born" into the Jewish People. Similarly, your father believes that he has given you Jewish blood and no one can take it away. In both cases, I respectfully disagree; Judaism is a religion, a community of faith and identity, and it has nothing to do with "Jewish blood."
If your daughters are truly searching to become Jewish, you and they need to have the above facts and information in hand and consider it seriously. We would welcome you. If you wish to be Jewish and identified as a Jew, I'd urge you to speak with a Rabbi directly and deal with the details with him/her. Please let me know the closest communities/cities to you and I am certain to know the right Rabbi to whom to refer you for a personal relationship.
Whenever I dealt with such a circumstance - and by the 80's and 90's it was very frequent - I would urge a visit to the mikveh, the Jewish equivalent of "immersion" or full body baptism; it is the ancestor of what Christianity created as baptism. In this fashion, there could be no question in the minds of anyone as to the authenticity of identity as a Jew. It isn't as much a conversion as a confirmation of Jewish identity.
I should add that if one doesn't have a solid Jewish education, tragically the beauty and depth of our tradition remains hidden, and after studying for 50 plus years, I still don't know everything or enough! It is a lifetime of study, but there is certainly a minimum amount that ought to be required. :-) Best Wishes,
Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner
Foundation for Family Education (FFFE)