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On Patrilineal Descent: An Informed Reform Jew's Lament

In what may be one of the world's best-kept Jewish secrets, the Reform movement, of which I am a part*, continues to abrogate a most fundamental principle of Jewish tradition.

Reform rabbis and lay leaders have deliberately nurtured the myth that our Orthodox brethren do not recognize us--or Conservative Jews for that matter--as Jewish. In truth, though, it is my own Reform movement that does not recognize some of us as Jews--even those born of Jewish mothers--as outlined in the definition that has guided Jewish life for at least 2,000 years.

The report of the Committee on Patrilineal Descent on the Status of Children of Mixed Marriages, adopted by the CCAR on March 15, 1983, states: "it can no longer be assumed a priori, therefore, that the child of a Jewish mother will be any more Jewish than the child of a non-Jewish mother will not be. This leads us to the conclusion that the same requirements must be applied to establish the status of a child of a mixed marriage, regardless of whether the mother or father is Jewish."

The report goes on to say, "Therefore: The Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people. The performances of these mitzvot(commandments) serves to commit those who participate in them, both parent and child, to Jewish life..."

In an exchange of correspondence, my rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Marblehead,Mass., where I have been affiliated for almost 40 years, confirms that a child born of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father, who would be deemed Jewish by Orthodox and Conservative authorities, would not be deemed Jewish by the Reform movement if there were no public affirmation of Jewishness, such as baby naming or circumcision ceremony, consecration or Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and unless the child were raised exclusively as a Jew. Furthermore, if a child born of a Jewish mother were brought up in both religions or neither religion, the child would not be regarded Jewish by the Reform movement. If a male child born of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father were circumcised in a hospital but not ritually, he would not be presumed Jewish by the movement until and unless some later evidence emerged that he was reared as a Jew. A female child would be viewed in the same manner if she did not experience a baby-naming.

But how (and by whom) would it be determined whether a child is being raised exclusively as a Jew? Would the presence of a Christmas tree in his or her home disqualify a child from being considered Jewish? Would occasional attendance at church services with the child's non-Jewish father be determinative? And what of children born of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father but brought up in a purely secular home? Are they to be deemed not Jewish since they fall in the category of "neither"?

How paradoxical that children recognized as Jewish by our Orthodox and Conservative brethren would be viewed as non-Jewish by my Reform movement, the "liberal" branch of Judaism. How ironic that, on the one hand, the Reform movement brings legal action against the government of Israel for failure to recognize as Jewish people who are converted in Israel by the Reform movement, while on the other hand, the movement denies Jewish recognition of some people who are born of a Jewish mother.

In practice, it might be the case that problems stemming from this issue do not arise with tremendous frequency. Nonetheless, the rule technically requires children of interfaith marriages, even in cases where the mother is Jewish, to affirm publicly their Jewishness or to go beyond that required of children whose parents are both Jewish, in order to be considered Jewish themselves. That is onerous--and contrary to the spirit of the Reform movement. It is a problem, both as a matter of principle and practice.

It is clear that the wide chasm between the Reform movement, on the one hand, and the Conservative and Orthodox movements, on the other, created by the differing views of who deserves to be recognized as a Jew is far greater than most of realize. If Reform leaders do not take steps to reverse this divisive, radical departure from historic Jewish law and tradition, it will be hard to imagine anything resembling a unified Jewish people in the future.

*Since writing this article, Mr. Lappin resigned from the Reform Movement in protest of this and other issues.

Distributed by Am Echad Resources.

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE.

Robert Lappin, a businessman and philanthropist, is a past president of the Jewish Federation of the North Shore in Mass. The Robert I. Lappin Foundations provide the funding which makes it possible for the Jewish Federation of the North Shore to sponsor an Interfaith Outreach Initiative that offers free programs to interfaith families living on the North Shore, including Introduction to Judaism courses, holiday programs, and subsidies for conversion.

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