Patrilineal Descent: Should the Baby be Taken to the Mikveh for Conversion?

PregnantDo you know which of the following children would be considered Jewish without going through a conversion according to halacha (traditional Jewish law)?

a)      A child born from the sperm of a Jewish male and the egg of a Jewish female, who was carried by a surrogate who was not Jewish and then raised by her Jewish biological parents.

b)      The child of a biological father who was not Jewish and a biological mother who was not Jewish at the time of conception but who had a traditional Jewish conversion two days before giving birth to the child, who is adopted at birth and raised by parents who are not Jewish.

c)       The biological child of a Jewish father and a mother who is not Jewish at the time she gives birth but later converts to Judaism, who is raised as a Jew by his biological parents.

In fact, only the child in (b) is considered Jewish according to halacha. The only factor that matters in determining the Jewish “status” of a child is the religion of the woman who gives birth to the child at the time she gives birth. Whether the biological father is Jewish; whether adoptive parents are Jewish; whether a biological mother is Jewish if she is not the one who gives birth to the child; even whether the child is raised as a Jew…all of these factors are not relevant in determining whether the child is Jewish according to halacha. (For discussion of this issue by a Conservative Rabbi CLICK HERE.)

The issue of “Who is a Jew?” can be confusing; it can seem illogical, and at times unfair. Due to the traditional Jewish rule of “matrilineal descent,” when a birth-mother is Jewish—regardless of how (or by whom) the child is raised—the child is Jewish according to halacha. But when the father is Jewish (or, in the case of adoption or surrogacy, both parents may be Jewish) but the birth mother is not Jewish, even if the child is raised as a Jew, he is not Jewish according to halacha.

Nancy and Drew (not their real names) were aware of the traditional Jewish requirement of matrilineal descent when they sat in my office recently, Nancy six months pregnant with their first child, a girl. Drew, who is Jewish, and Nancy, a practicing Catholic, had decided that any children they had would be raised as Jews.  “So,” Nancy said to me, her hand resting on top of her growing belly, “how long after the baby is born should we take her to the mikveh (the ritual bath which is used for conversion to Judaism)?”

As a Reform Rabbi, I was somewhat taken aback by Nancy’s question. It has been years since the Reform Movement began recognizing “patrilineal descent” (i.e., the child can be recognized as a Jew if the father is Jewish, even if the mother is not Jewish). Drew grew up in a Reform synagogue, and he and Nancy had even begun to discuss joining a local Reform synagogue, where nobody would ever question the Jewishness of their daughter. Why, I wondered, did they feel a need to convert their daughter to Judaism when she would already be Jewish? To me, a conversion would be not only unnecessary, but problematic, since it would imply that the baby wasn’t “really” Jewish even though Drew was Jewish and she would be raised as a Jew.

And so I asked the couple why they wanted to convert their daughter, since it wasn’t necessary. Their response was simple and practical: “What if we end up at a Conservative synagogue one day, or what if our daughter grows up and wants to be married by a Conservative or Orthodox rabbi? We wouldn’t want her to feel that her being Jewish is in question, so we figured it’s best to ‘cover all of the bases’ while she’s a baby. This way, more people will consider her to be Jewish.”

I understood where they were coming from. After all, if they decided at some point to join a Conservative synagogue—even one that was very welcoming of interfaith families—since “patrilineal descent” isn’t recognized by the Conservative movement, their daughter might be allowed to be enrolled in Religious School without converting, but she would have to convert before being allowed to become a Bat Mitzvah at the synagogue. Wouldn’t it make sense, they reasoned, for them to take her to the mikveh while she was still a baby? Then, if they did join a Conservative synagogue at some point, they wouldn’t have to tell her at the age of 12 that she had to go to the mikveh because she wasn’t “really” Jewish according to the standards of her community.

I understood and respected their motivation to shield their daughter from the potential future pain of having her Jewishness questioned…of being told by others that because her mother wasn’t Jewish, she wasn’t Jewish, even though she’d been living as a Jew her entire life and had always identified as a Jew. My own daughter, simply because she was born to a Jewish mother, will never have to endure such painful questioning of her identity by others; why should Nancy and Drew have to worry that their daughter would have to deal with such questioning?

But still, I felt that by embracing Nancy and Drew’s “solution” to “convert” a child that I would already consider Jewish, I wouldn’t be holding true to my belief in the legitimacy of “patrilineal descent.” And so while I acknowledged the benefits of the couple “converting” their daughter while she was still a baby, I also expressed my concerns.

Whether Nancy or Drew will take their daughter to a mikveh for conversion while she is still a baby is their decision to make, and I will honor whatever decision they come to. But it saddens me that they have to make such a decision: choosing between their own liberal Jewish beliefs and the desire for their daughter to be recognized as a Jew by the larger Jewish community.

What would you do in Nancy and Drew’s situation? Would you take your child to the mikveh? What if the child were adopted and neither of the biological parents were Jewish?

My Name is Shannon, and I’m a Jew

By Shannon Naomi Zaid

My internship with the Jewish United Federation and InterfaithFamily has put me in religious Jewish settings that I wouldn’t have normally found myself in. During one of these times, working an InterfaithFamily booth at an event, an issue was brought to my attention that I’d never thought existed: prejudice based on names. In this day and age it seems so odd to assume something about a person based solely on their name, especially so in the U.S. where the culture is a founded on many different ethnicities and geographical backgrounds. Yet there I was, trying to defend my Judaism to a couple of older Jewish men who thought I was Catholic based off my name.

The River Shannon

River Shannon

The origin of the name Shannon is Irish. Depending on whom you ask it means: small and wise, or river. My name was given to me by my birth mother, and my parents chose to keep it when they adopted me. In some ways I can understand why these men assumed I was Catholic. The southern nation of Ireland has been and remained Catholic for centuries, and the name “Shannon” derives from Ireland’s longest river, River Shannon. That being said, I was upset that they couldn’t picture a Jew having my name, and it was only after I explained to them my family background, that they acknowledged me as Jewish.

I understand that in Judaism a name carries weight. Historically, there were three groupings of Jews: the Levites, Kohens and Israelites. Descendants of the Levites and Kohens were tasked with special religious duties (e.g. Kohens were priests and Levites served directly under the Kohens), while the Israelites (i.e. everyone else) held the lowest standing. At some synagogues, Kohens and Levites are still treated differently from everyone else. For example, Kohens can be called up to read from the Torah first, followed by Levites. Even outside the biblical context, a family’s name identifies a person. The Jewish community has always been tight knit, and last names now serve as a tool to help place a person in the community.

In the case of first names, I notice the repetition of certain names within the Jewish community. Daniel, Jeremy, Rachel, Joseph, Sarah, Ari, Noah, Adam, Elizabeth, Rebecca, David, Jonathan, Dana, Shana, Michael, Sam. Chances are you’ll come across these names in a Jewish community, but that doesn’t strictly mean all Jews take their names from the same set. There are Jews all over the world in many different countries. You can’t expect that they all share the same few names.

While I am proud to call myself Jewish, I recognize its drawbacks. Judaism is very good at being exclusive, even toward those who identify with it. Call it a design flaw, or a result of social conditioning from centuries of persecution, either way an individual shouldn’t have to be questioned on what faith they are because their name is different.

Growing up in an interfaith family, I always felt as if I was secretly having an identity crisis, never knowing where I really fit it. But I’ve grown into myself, and I know who I am. My name is Shannon. I identify as a secular Jew. I come from an interfaith family. I’m adopted. Part of my family is from Israel, and the other half is from Europe. I know and understand all of this. The problem is everyone who doesn’t understand.

Intercultural Adoption

The Boston Jewish Film Festival is underway, running November 3-14. There are a couple screenings of particular interest to interfaith families, or those interested in interfaith and/or intercultural issues. We reviewed a couple already, and are pleased to tell you about another one now.

I Love You Mommy is a stirring documentary about one family’s cross-cultural adoption of their daughter, Faith.

With two biological sons and a daughter previously adopted from China, this American Jewish family is looking to adopt a second daughter. They agree with their children to adopt an older girl so that their daughter can have a big sister. The documentary follows the family as they travel to China, meet their new daughter, Faith, and, over 17 months, go through the struggles of becoming a family together.

If you’re like me, you might have some knowledge of adoption, and might have friends who have adopted children before. None of my friends have adopted older children (Faith is 8 or 9 years old when she’s adopted) who are also from other countries. It was stirring to see Faith’s initial reactions to her new mother (she’s scared, she cries) and to her grandfather (she steps away from him when he approaches and hides behind the adoption agency’s interpreter) — the two family members who traveled to China to get Faith. Watching how her parents react to, and include, cultural differences and celebrations is really refreshing to see, as is Faith’s acclimation to her new culture, family and religion.

It’s amazing to watch her transition, see how the family grows with her, meets her challenges, and welcomes her as a new addition to their family and home.

If you’re in the Boston area, I Love You Mommy is playing on Tuesday, November 9 at 7:00pm at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline.

I recommend it!