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?

“Belonging” as a Parent with a Jewish Son

Stacie and family

Stacie, her husband Andrew and Sammy, the day of the aliyah

This past weekend, our 5-month-old son was formally welcomed into our synagogue community when our family was honored with an aliyah (being called to the honor of Torah). Our rabbi offered blessings, everyone sang “Siman tov u’mazel tov” and we talked about how Sammy got his name. He is named in honor of both of his grandfathers and we described the qualities we hope he will inherit from each: creativity, curiosity, intellect, humor and a big heart.

It was wonderful for us to celebrate the birth of our son together with our synagogue community and receive their congratulations. Every new parent needs all the support they can get!

But it also made me think about a comment my husband, who is not Jewish, made to me a few months ago. He said that now that he is raising a Jewish son, he feels like he is connected to and belongs to the Jewish people in a stronger way.

This comment surprised me a little because I thought he already felt like he belonged. After all, we’ve been celebrating Jewish holidays together since we started dating, we regularly attend neighborhood Shabbat dinner potlucks, and say Hamotzi (the blessing over bread) before dinner each night. Even when I was pregnant and not fasting, my husband decided to keep the fast during Yom Kippur anyway!

But then I thought about it. Being married to a Jewish woman is one thing. Committing yourself to raising a Jewish child is another. It is an awesome responsibility, and I hope, an opportunity. How wonderful that fulfilling that role has brought my husband closer to Judaism!

I hope that as we move through our life together and reach various Jewish milestones of Sammy’s—starting Hebrew school, having a Bar Mitzvah, being confirmed—that this sense of belonging is reinforced by our synagogue community and continues to grow. There are opportunities to invite both of us in as parents—Jewish and not Jewish—to learn along with Sammy and share in the lessons from Hebrew school; to think about the deeper meaning of becoming a Bar Mitzvah and taking on the responsibilities of a Jewish adult; and to engage with the synagogue community.

From our experience so far in our synagogue, I have faith that there will be a place for both of us as Sammy’s parents. Even during the aliyah, there was an alternate blessing for my husband to recite that acknowledges his different and special relationship to Torah while I recited the traditional blessings. I hope that continues to be the case for us, and I hope that all interfaith families have the opportunity to feel like they “belong” to the Jewish people.

Chelsea Clinton’s Pregnant and We Have Baby Naming Resources For Her

Chelsea & MarcIt’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for…Chelsea Clinton is pregnant! When Chelsea and Marc Mezvinsky tied the knot in 2010, we reported on their widely talked about co-officiated wedding. InterfaithFamily’s CEO Ed Case summarized the Jewish media response to their nuptials, which was not quite as congratulatory as ours and ultimately hoped that their wedding would serve to inspire other interfaith couples to incorporate Jewish practices into their weddings as Chelsea and Marc did.

Now that Chelsea and Marc are expecting, we’re excited for the opportunity to share with ALL expecting parents our helpful baby naming resources. From this guide, “What to do when the baby arrives: Tips for inclusive naming ceremonies” to our booklet, “Brit Bat: birth ceremonies for girls” and our other booklet, “To Circumcise or Not: That is The Question” we are here to help new interfaith families along the way. If you’re planning for a family (or if you want to offer Chelsea some tips), you can also check out this guide to birth ceremonies for interfaith families which includes lots of resources and sample naming ceremonies. We look forward to supporting Chelsea and all expecting interfaith families along their journey, and we’ll be watching to see if and how they raise their child with Judaism.


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Halacha Unplugged, Part 1 – The Bris: Which Parent Makes a Child Jewish?

Roman Jews

Is it the spirit of the law or the letter of the law that counts the most?

“Your kids aren’t Jewish because your wife is not Jewish,” my friend said to me over coffee recently. I laughed so hard that my coffee spilled. “What’s so funny?” she asked.

“I know that you totally did not mean for that to come across as offensive.” I said, “But that is EXACTLY the kind of thing that we are trying to teach people not to say. InterfaithFamily wants to help build welcoming and inclusive Jewish communities and saying something like what you just said, for many people, is offensive.”

There are many times in one’s life that a person might find himself doing something without asking the question, “Why am I doing this?” One of the most divisive rabbinic rulings that is adhered to by various Jewish movements is that the religion of a baby is determined by the religion of the mother, not the father. So if a person is intermarried (as over 50 percent of the American Jewish population is), and they want their child to be recognized as Jewish to people within these movements, according to halacha—traditional Jewish law—it is the religion of the mother that “matters.”  There are other views, such as the Reform movement, that recognizes a child as being Jewish if either parent is Jewish and the child is being raised Jewish (often referred to as patrilineal descent).

One of the most interesting aspects of the origin of religious descent is that originally in the Torah (the centerpiece and master story of the Jewish people), the religion of the offspring was determined by patriarchal descent, not matriarchal. There was a change around 2,000 years ago, many scholars found, that was based on the very tragic circumstances the Jewish people were facing. Jews were being wiped out by the Roman Empire in the 1st Century. The victimization and rape of Jewish women by Roman soldiers was not an uncommon occurrence.

There was no genetic testing back then, of course, and since the Jewish people were facing extinction, the rabbis rightfully decreed that the only parental origin that “mattered” for determining the religion of the baby was the religion of the mother. This law, which is still practiced by many Jewish communities today, had a very practical design.

But as Bob Dylan would say, “The times they are a-changin’.” It is true that there is still horrific “ethnic cleansing” that goes on around the world, such as in Bosnia and Darfur. But the problem that Jews were facing 2,000 years ago is, thankfully, no longer a common occurrence or threat. The law that once was helpful is no longer necessary.

When my son was born, my wife and I decided to have a bris and our search began to find a mohel that was willing to perform this ritual ceremony on a child from an interfaith marriage. At that time, f the mother was Jewish, it was much easier. Because I was the Jewish parent, many of the mohels we spoke to would only perform the ceremony if my wife and son wen to the mikveh together. “So what’s the big deal?” I ignorantly asked. “It will be fun to go to the mikveh.” Sounded simple enough from an unaware Jewish dad’s perspective. (By the way, if you are looking for clergy to help with a birth ceremony for your interfaith family, we are here to help—just visit interfaithfamily.com/findarabbi.)

My wife was not too excited about this idea. Her initial reaction was, “Who are we trying to please?” or in other words “Why?”

Our kids are brought up Jewish in a Jewish house with mezuzahs on the doors. They attend Hebrew school and we celebrate Shabbat in our own meaningful way. And to us, right now, that is enough.

If you have questions about a bris or baby naming for an interfaith family, check out our baby naming booklet that you might find helpful. And please send me your stories (josht@interfaithfamily.com), I would love to hear about your experiences as I continue this series of Halachah Unplugged.