The Truth About Matrilineal Descent


A mamzer who is a scholar takes precedence over a High Priest who is an ignoramus.Babylonian Talmud, Horayot 13a

Since I became involved in Jewish life about seven years ago, I have had the pleasure of meeting a number of Jews who, like me, are the children of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. Aside from the feelings of anger and alienation caused by our inequitable treatment within the Jewish community–treatment that many Jews with two Jewish parents fail to notice–the problems we experience goes far beyond being denied ritual honors or formal membership in an Orthodox or Conservative synagogue.

What I have most often noticed in other “patrilineal” Jews is a profound perplexity at our exclusion. Why, we often wonder, are segments of the Jewish community compelled to treat children of intermarriage in such an insensitive, cookie-cutter way–deciding that whether we are considered part of the Jewish family depends on the arbitrary fact of our being the fruit of Jewish sperm or a Jewish egg?

Having majored in religion in college, I have had the opportunity to examine the sources of matrilineal descent in Judaism in a way that few other patrilineal Jews have. In the hopes of lessening the confusion many patrilineal Jews feel about their situation, and of helping us all to achieve some measure of justice from the organized Jewish community, I want to give all patrilineal Jews the facts–scriptural, halakhic (Jewish legal), and sociological–they need to counter the arguments for our exclusion. When we come to those who would exclude us with the real facts in hand, I firmly believe, the wider Jewish community will be forced to admit that there is not a single argument given for reckoning Jewish descent matrilineally that can withstand the heat of serious scrutiny.

While it is impossible to treat this topic fully within the limits of a short article, I hope that what I can provide will prompt others who have been wrongfully denied their birthright to investigate the sources further and thereby be able to challenge this entrenched form of discrimination within Judaism.

The most commonly given rationales for matrilineal descent are:

  1. an interpretation of Deuteronomy 7:3-4, later encoded in the Mishnah (a compendium of oral interpretations of the Torah), and the expulsion of the foreign wives in the book of Ezra
  2. the certainty of maternity, versus the uncertainty of paternity
  3. supposed rabbinic humanitarian concern for Jewish women who had been raped, and their children
  4. the “need” of the community to punish men who have intermarried
  5. the inalienable nature of the Jewish covenant with God.

As I will show, all of these rationales are inadequate, and some are ethically dubious.

Scripture and Halakha (Jewish Law)

Chapter 7 of Deuteronomy deals with how the Israelites are to interact with seven idolatrous peoples of the land of Canaan, which they will soon occupy. Deuteronomy 7:3-4 states:

You shall not intermarry with them [members of these peoples]; you shall not give your daughter to his son, and you shall not take his daughter for your son, for he will cause your child to turn away from after Me and they will worship the gods of others; then [God’s] wrath will burn against you, and He will destroy you quickly.1

The lower-case “he” (as opposed to the uppercase “He,” God) who will “turn your son away” is taken by later sources in the Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 68b) to refer to a non-Israelite man married to an Israelite woman. Why is no concern raised over the possibility that a non-Israelite woman will turn “your son” away? Presumably, traditional interpretations suppose, because the child of an Israelite man and non-Israelite woman is not “your son”–that is, is not Jewish to begin with.

Read in their historical context, however, these verses in Deuteronomy almost certainly do not have this meaning. In the ancient Near East, religion was not a matter of private devotion but of tribal identity. When a man took a woman in marriage–women rarely had the right to choose a husband–it was taken for granted that she would join his household and, if he belonged to a different tribe, begin worshipping the gods of his people. In this context, Deuteronomy 7:3-4 most likely expresses no concern over a non-Israelite woman’s turning “your son” away not because such a child is not Jewish but because such a child is unquestionably Jewish.

Those of us who belong to interfaith families can see the clear ethical problems inherent in this traditional interpretation of these verses. It is no longer morally acceptable for the community to tell Jewish grandparents that they should regard some of their grandchildren as their grandchildren, and others as somehow not their grandchildren. Although it was once common for Jews to mourn for children who have intermarried as if they were dead, this custom is no longer endorsed even by Orthodox rabbis, who now strongly counsel parents of an intermarrying child to maintain a relationship with their child, the non-Jewish spouse, and any grandchildren. By declaring some of these grandchildren not their grandchildren, the Jewish community interferes with the shalom bayit (“peace in the home,” or, more generally, family harmony) of families affected by intermarriage.

A further argument for matrilineality from scripture is made on the basis of the Book of Ezra, in which King Ezra expels the non-Jewish wives of Jewish men residing in Israel with the admonition that it be done “according to the Torah” (Ezra 10:3). The traditional interpretation of the words “according to the Torah” is that the Torah permits the expulsion on the grounds that these women, and their children, are non-Jewish, as per the interpretation of Deuteronomy 7:3-4 given above, and that non-Jewish husbands of Jewish wives are not expelled because the offspring are Jewish. But it is far more probable that Ezra is not justifying his actions based on this specific reading of Deuteronomy (which modern biblical scholarship suggests had not even been written by Ezra’s time2) but rather arguing that the Torah gives the community the power to expel foreigners who are engaged in idolatry. Given the social context of the ancient Near East as discussed above, it is also probable that the non-Jewish husbands of Jewish women are not mentioned in Ezra because a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man would have become part of her husband’s tribe, and therefore her husband and children would not have been in Israel for Ezra to expel.

The Certainty of Maternity

A common argument for matrilineal descent given by laypeople within the Orthodox and Conservative movements (though not by their rabbis) is the “certainty” of maternity as opposed to the “uncertainty” of paternity–that is, the identity of a child’s mother is always known, whereas the identity of a child’s father is not. This argument does not bear scrutiny for two reasons: 1) In 1 Kings 3:22, two prostitutes come before King Solomon, both claiming to be the mother of a particular child–indicating that even the Bible recognizes that the identity of a child’s mother cannot always be known with certainty; and 2) in determining whether a child is a Kohen, a Levite, or an ordinary Jew, Jewish law uses patrilineal, rather than matrilineal, descent. Indeed, the section of the Mishnah that spells this out, Kiddushin 3:12, makes clear that, when the potential for valid marriage exists between a child’s parents–that is, when the child’s parents are not forbidden to each other under Jewish law, regardless of their actual marital status–the child receives not only his tribal identity, but also his status as a Jew, not from his mother, but from his father. For these reasons, the certainty of maternity cannot be the basis of matrilineal descent.

Rabbinic Pity for Jewish Women Who Had Been Raped

It is sometimes argued that Judaism became matrilineal after the Bar Kokhba rebellion (a Jewish revolt against the Romans in 132-135 C.E.), when many Jewish women were raped by Roman soldiers. Although a convenient argument for those who feel desperate to find any ethical basis for defining Jewish identity by matrilineal descent, this argument fails for two reasons. First, the passage defining the status of children of a non-Jewish woman in the Mishnah, Kiddushin 3:12, does not deal with rape but rather with the validity of marriage between a Jewish man and various kinds of women.

Second, multiple sources in the Mishnah (Yevamot 4:13, 4:16, and 7:5) indicate that the child of a Jewish woman and a non-Jewish man is not an ordinary Jew but rather a mamzer, a child of various prohibited sexual relationships such as incest and adultery who is not permitted to marry a non- mamzer. Although this opinion is not followed in Orthodox and Conservative communities today, it is inconceivable that the rabbis of the Mishnah would have concluded such a child is a mamzer if their chief concern were pity for women who had been raped–for how would bearing a child who will be an object of stigma in the Jewish community, and unable to marry most other Jews, be a comfort to a rape victim?

The Jewish Community’s “Need” to Punish Men Who Intermarry

This is not a particularly common argument for retaining matrilineal descent, but I choose to address it here because it has been raised by, among others, Judith Hauptmann, a Talmud scholar widely known for her work in advancing feminist scholarship of Judaism  Hauptmann proceeds to argue that the modern Jewish community should not rescind matrilineal descent because doing so would have the effect of removing a punishment against Jewish men who intermarry.

This argument is, at its core, nothing but pure sexism. Hauptmann and others who make it never seem concerned that Jewish law provides no similar punishment for Jewish women who intermarry. This inequity arguably discriminates against Jewish women more than against Jewish men, because it denies Jewish women equal responsibility to choose a Jewish spouse. More to the point, it is entirely unclear how reading the children of intermarried Jewish men out of the Jewish fold punishes these men, as opposed to their children. Nor is it clear why the rabbis would want to punish a child for an act committed before his or her birth.

A corollary argument, more commonly advanced by lay Jews and rabbis alike, is that enacting non-lineal descent–that is, determining the status of a child of intermarriage by upbringing rather than by the arbitrary fact of maternal or paternal birth–discourages the conversion of the non-Jewish woman in an intermarriage. Again, nothing but sexism supports the argument, since matrilineal descent provides no incentive for non-Jewish men married to Jewish women to convert to Judaism.

The Inalienable Nature of the Jewish Covenant and of Jewish Identity

Judaism defines Jewish identity by matrilineal descent, it is sometimes argued, because the nature of the covenant between God and Israel is one of inalienable destiny and obligation. A Jew by birth obtains all of his or her obligations to perform mitzvoth (commandments) through birth, not through a ritual act, as with Christian baptism, or through an individual choice to be so commanded. Thus, Jewish identity is seen as a matter of automatic fate, not of chosen faith.

Popular opinion notwithstanding, however, halakhic sources are not unanimous in conferring Jewish identity on the child of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father regardless of upbringing. A number of medieval authorities hold that the child of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father can be considered Jewish by birth only if raised as a Jew and only if he conducts himself as a Jew. Clearly, then, the idea of Jewish identity as a product of upbringing rather than as an accident of birth–the idea at the heart of non-lineal descent–is not without precedent; it does not, as some proponents of matrilineal descent claim, depart radically from a norm of Jewish identity universally held by all Jews for millennia.


What, then, is the reason for matrilineal descent? If traditional Judaism does not reckon Jewish identity by matrilineal descent for any of the reasons outlined above, what is the reason? Professor Shaye Cohen, who devoted an entire chapter to the origins of matrilineal descent in his book The Beginnings of Jewishness7. There is no clear reason that Judaism has to be matrilineal, except that it has been so for many centuries.

And there is even less reason that we should accept discrimination supported not merely by bad reasons, but by no reason at all.

For Further Reading


The Chumash, Stone Edition. (Mesorah Publications, Brooklyn, N.Y., 1993). Although not the most accurate translation of the Torah, this edition, put out by a right-wing Orthodox publisher, translates the relevant portion of Deuteronomy in a non-gender-neutral way. Additionally, the Stone Chumash, as it is known, has been translated to conform to the opinions of later medieval commentators, particularly Rashi (a comprehensive Bible and Talmud commentator of the 11th century C.E.). Mesorah also publishes an edition of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), which contiains the portions of the Ezra and 1 Kings cited above.

Scholarship and Commentary

Cohen, Shaye J.D., The Beginnings of Jewishness. (Berkeley University of California Press, 1999). Cohen’s book deals extensively with the origins of matrilineal descent, as well as with the origin of Judaism’s traditional prohibition on intermarriage. He includes some theories for the origins of matrilineal descent which I have not included here, largely because they are not commonly heard in the Jewish community today. Definitely worth a read. This website, created and maintained by Jessy Lister, herself a patrilineal Jew, is a treasure trove of information on the origins of matrilineal descent. In addition to scholarship of the Torah, Tanakh, and Talmud, Lister has also explored the issue of Jewish descent in the works of Josephus, a major chronicler of the Jewish War against Rome in 66-70 C.E.

Judaism. Winter 1985. In Winter 1985, the scholarly journal Judaism devoted an entire issue to the identity of children of mixed marriage. In addition to containing the articles by Judith Hauptmann and J. David Bleich I cited in this article, the issue contains pieces by a number of Jewish scholars of all Jewish denominations on the topic of patrilineal descent.

1  Translation is taken from The Chumash [Five Books of Moses], Stone Edition. (Mesorah Publications. Brooklyn, N.Y., 1993). This is one of the most literal of Jewish translations of the Torah available. Many other Jewish translations, including that of the Jewish Publication Society, translate this “he” as “they”–indicating that their understanding of the verse is gender-neutral and therefore does not necessarily lend itself to the traditional reading I have outlined here.

2  For a fuller treatment of the origins of the Hebrew Bible, see Friedman, Richard Elliott, Who Wrote the Bible? (Summit Books, New York, 1987).

3  See “Patrilineal Descent–an Examination of Non-Lineal Descent.” Judaism, Winter 1985, pp. 46-50.

4  Ibid.

5  See Bleich, J. David. “The Patrilineal Principle: The Crucial Concern”. Judaism. Winter 1985, pp. 15-16.

6  Cohen, Shaye J.D. The Beginnings of Jewishness. (Berkeley University of California Press, 1999).

7  Ibid., p. 305.

Derived from the Greek word for “assembly,” a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, “shul.” Reform synagogues are often called “temple.”

Hebrew for “sanctification,” Jewish marriage is often referred to as Kiddushin, as one partner (traditionally, the bride) becomes “sanctified” (dedicated) to the other partner (traditionally, the groom).

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!”)

Derived from the Hebrew for “Jewish law,” it’s pertaining or according to the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions.

Hebrew for “repetition” (from the verb meaning “to study and review”), it refers to the first major written redaction of the Jewish oral traditions (“Oral Torah”). Mishnah is the first post-biblical collection of Jewish legal materials, and the primary building block of the Talmud (the major collection of Jewish law), as interpreted by the rabbis.

Hebrew for “Jewish law,” it’s the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions.

A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.

Hebrew for “instruction” or “learning,” a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah.

Hebrew acronym standing for “Torah (Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im (Prophets), Ketuvim (Writings),” a name used in Judaism for the canon of the Hebrew Bible.

The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.

J.R. Wilheim

J.R. Wilheim is the son of an interfaith family and a former student of religion.

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