A Patrilineal Proposal: ‘Bath’ Mitzvah


Thirty years ago Rabbi Irving (“Yitz”) Greenberg looked ominously at the landscape of American Jewry. With spiraling intermarriage rates and the 1983 decision of the Reform movement to allow Jewish status to be determined by the identity of the father, he peered into the future and asked, in a seminal essay in Clal Perspectives, “Will There be One Jewish People in the Year 2000?” He predicted that, “within decades, the Jewish people will be divided into two, mutually hostile groups who are unable and unwilling to marry each other.”

Rabbi Greenberg’s prognostication turns out to have been an understatement. If ONLY there were just two mutually hostile groups — for in fact the Jewish community has been divided into many more hostile camps, divided along halachic, ideological and political fault lines. Patrilineal descent is only one of the challenges we now face — but it is a big one, and now, a generation later, we are talking not in hypotheticals; we’re talking about real lives, an estimated 200,000 real lives, and counting.

Samantha (not her real name), a college student with a solid Jewish identity and a non-Jewish mother, grew up in a nearby Reform congregation where her family was very involved. She went on a Birthright Israel trip and fell in love with an Israeli guy, who then broke the news to her that most Israelis, including his own family, would not consider her to be Jewish.

Crushed by this revelation, she didn’t call her rabbi, who had never told her about the patrilineal descent issue. She called me, the Conservative rabbi across town, whom she had also known since childhood.

I made it clear that she should not feel ashamed or embarrassed in any way, that her Jewish upbringing had been solid and that we could rectify the situation relatively easily. All that would be required is a little dip into the ritual bath. I’d bring a few rabbis, we would sign a couple of documents, and that would be that. 

Samantha took the patrilineal plunge and before she could dry off, her personal existential crisis was resolved, since the Israeli government would have to consider her to be Jewish — even though most Orthodox rabbis there would not accept my conversion.

I began to wonder whether there might be a way to reduce the pain for future Samanthas.

That’s when it came to me … the Bath Mitzvah.

The goal: for every 13-year-old to voluntarily immerse in a mikvah before her big day as a universally accepted part of the bar/bat Mitzvah experience.

OK, I know that at first glance might seem like the dumbest idea since the Betamax. But hear me out.

If Samantha had immersed before her bat mitzvah, the question of parentage would have been rendered irrelevant, since immersion is technically all that is required for conversion of a minor. For boys it’s more complicated, but since the vast majority of patrilineal boys are circumcised in infancy, that complication is minimized.

But to ask only patrilineal kids like Samantha to immerse, while giving their matrilineal friends a free pass, would be an insult to Samantha’s upbringing, and by extension, to the integrity of those movements that embrace patrilineality. There is enormous pressure on Conservative congregations to accept Samantha and the other patrilineals (and their children), yet to do so would create even more friction with the movements to the right. True, we could say that those movements don’t accept our conversions anyway, but that is precisely what the Reform movement said in the ’80s in their decision to go down the patrilineal path in the first place.

What we need is a way out that upholds the integrity both of Jewish tradition and all the religious streams. The stakes are enormous for all those who care about Samantha and her cohorts, who, if we don’t stop our bickering, will simply throw up their hands and walk away from Jewish communal life. At the very least, I hope my idea can inspire a dialogue that will lead to other initiatives.

As I envision the Bath Mitzvah, students would immerse either individually or as a class (yes, with bathing suits). Mikvahs would be preferred, but I can imagine enormous, community wide splash-fests in South Beach, Montauk or Santa Monica. Like the twinnings with Soviet Jews in the 1980s, this “dunk for unity” would link Jewish students of all backgrounds and become a meaningful component of the rite of passage, standardized and sanctioned by all the movements and supported by secular institutions like federations, JCCs and Israeli consulates. Curricula would be developed to explain how this simple act could unite the Jewish people.  Perhaps the same funding partners that brought us Birthright Israel could incentivize this program by offering scholarships for family Israel trips.

Yes, there would be logistical concerns; compromise would be necessary on all sides. Conversion standards would need to be relaxed among the more traditional movements and those denominations currently accepting patrilineal descent would have to acknowledge the benefits of resolving a problem that they in part created.

There would be a number of ancillary advantages:

n Bath Mitzvah would send a clear message that we are all, in essence, Jews by choice;

n It would expose more Jews to the experience of ritual immersion without having to address, for the moment, more complicated questions regarding family purity;

n It would present a spiritual dimension to the bar mitzvah experience that is so often missing, marking it as a liminal moment — a symbolic passage through a “birth canal” of childhood to Jewish maturity; 

n It would model for our kids — and for Israelis — how American Jews can work together for the common good, and how, in pioneering Orthodox feminist Blu Greenberg’s words, where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halachic way”;

n It would help transition American Jewry to a “post-gevalt” posture on intermarriage, redirecting our entire focus to fully embracing all Jewish children, including those of the 50 percent of Jewish millennials who grew up in dual faith families;

n Last but not least, it would enable Jews of different streams to more easily marry one another.

Not crazy about my idea? That’s fine. 

So what’s yours?

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Stamford, Conn.