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Behind the Headlines the ‘presumption’ Factor: New Reform Criterion for Jewish Identity

April 22, 1983
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A Reform rabbinical leader said that a resolution on parental transmission of Jewish identity to children of mixed marriages, adopted last month at the convention of the Reform rabbinate, has been widely misinterpreted, misunderstood and misreported by the media, both general and Jewish.

Rabbi Joseph Glaser, executive vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an exclusive interview that the intent of the proposal was to give both the non-Jewish and Jewish parent an equal opportunity to arrange for conditions to help assure a Jewish upbringing for their child.

He emphasized that the resolution, approved at the CCAR’s 94th annual convention in Los Angeles, did not seek to restore partrilinear transmission of Jewish identity, as had been widely reported by the print and television media.


What the resolution does propose, Glaser said, is that the child of a mixed marriage is to be considered — with the consent and the cooperation of both parents — to be under the “presumption” of Jewish descent and that this “presumption” is to be validated “through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish people.”

The resolution listed the “mitzvot” which constitute required acts of validation as including entry into the convenant, which Glaser said meant ritual circumcision of the male infant; study of Jewish sacred lore; acquisition of a Hebrew name; and Bar and Bas Mitzvah participation. Parents are required to maintain a Jewish home.

Glaser said that the judge who, for a particular individual, will determine that the “presumption” has been validated by adequate performance of such “public and formal acts of identification,” will be the Reform rabbi who becomes involved in such a situation, such as a case in which the child, as an adult, may wish to join his congregation or to be married by him to a Jewish mate.


The troublesome issue for Reform Judaism of the problem of whether a child of a mixed marriage may be considered Jewish had been codified in two earlier actions. One is a resolution adopted by a 1947 CCAR convention. The second is a statement in the 1961 edition of the CCAR Rabbis Manual.

Glaser stressed that both the 1947 resolution and the Rabbis Manual statement focussed on mixed marriages in which the mother was Jewish and the father was not. He said emphatically that there was no question in those two documents about the Jewish mother determining the Jewish identity of her children.

The current radical break with past practice in such marriages. Glaser said, is that the 1983 resolution makes both parents equal in accepting the “presumption” that their child is Jewish and that the “presumption” of Jewish identity must be — with the consent and participation of both parents-validated by such public acts, even if the mother is Jewish.

The validity of the ancient practice — still stringently observed in Conservative and Orthodox Judaism — that the mother transmits Jewish identity, is continued in the 1947 resolution and in the 1961 Rabbis Manual, but it is terminated in the 1983 CCAR resolution.

The 1961 manual declares that “Jewish law recognizes a person as Jewish if his (or her) mother is Jewish, even though the father is not a Jew.” Such a child may be admitted to synagogue membership and enter into a marital relationship with a Jew “provided he (or she) has not been reared in or formally admitted into some other faith.”

The manual also declares that Reform Judaism accepts the child of a mixed marriage as Jewish, without formal conversion, if he or she attends a Jewish school and follows a course of studies leading to Confirmation. “Such a procedure is regarded as sufficient evidence that the parents and the child himself intends he shall live as a Jew.”


The Los Angeles convention resolution, in departing from the matrilinear law of descent, cited the thousands of situations of mixed marriages in the United States and Canada. In the vast majority of such mixed marriages, “the non-Jewish extended family is a functioning part of the child’s world” in such a marriage, and “it can no longer be assumed, a priori, therefore, that the child of a Jewish mother will be Jewish any more than that the child of a non-Jewish mother will not be,” according to the Los Angeles resolution.

The resolution continues: “This leads us to the conclusion that the same requirements must be applied to establish the (Jewish) status of the child of a mixed marriage, regardless of whether the mother or the father is Jewish.”

Glaser told the JTA that he and many of his Reform rabbinical colleagues had considerable “ambivalence” about this admittedly radical departure from Jewish tradition. He said that two concepts were central to an understanding of the motivations for the approval of the 1983 resolution. He said one was “opportunity” and the other was “commitment.”

He said the Los Angeles resolution was approved partly out of hope that it might end the existing chaos in which children of mixed marriages can be in a religious limbo if the non-Jewish parent refuses to convert to Judaism.

Glaser said the resolution also was adopted out of the hope that it would provide an opportunity for the Jewish father in a mixed marriage to have a role equal to that of his spouse in helping to affirm the “presumption” their child was Jewish, with the prospect that the child would be accepted, at least in the Reform movement, as a Jew by virtue of performance of the required “public acts of identification.”


The significance of the “commitment” factor is based on the realization that thousands of American Jews-by-birth are Jews almost entirely by biology and rarely by Jewish behavior, of the kind required to validate the claim to Jewishness by “presumption.”

Glaser was asked whether this new definitition of transmission of identity would not create an irreparable breach with Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, He replied that he has frequently discussed the issue with “good Orthodox friends” and that he has stressed to them that the 1983 resolution is not based on Halacha — which Reform Judaism does not regard as binding on its adherents, in any case — that it is entirely advisory, and that any Reform rabbi could choose to follow or not follow the “presumption” procedure.

He asserted it was not accurate to say that Reform rabbis generally accept without hesitation or question any family in which the parents say they wish to become members of their congregations.

In fact, he said, since Reform Judaism started an “out-reach” program several years ago, more and more congregations are taking in mixed married couples and, correspondingly, the key rabbinical and congregational Reform officials are getting more and more questions.

He said these include queries on such matters as to whether a non-Jewish mother could be acceptable for membership in the Sisterhood; for office in the Sisterhood; and for office on the congregation’s Board of Trustees. There is also a growing stream of questions as to whether a non-Jewish father could be called to the Torah or participate in a Bar Mitzvah.


Glaser was asked whether any system of records was being planned, so that there could be some kind of documentation to guide the Reform rabbi in the future who might be called upon to determine whether an adult from a mixed marriage, seeking either membership in his congregation, or the rabbi’s services in marrying a Jewish spouse, had, in fact, gone through the process of validating any “presumption” of Jewishness.

Glaser replied that the issue of “recordation” had been among the topics vigorously debated by the Reform rabbis and that many, including him, both felt the need for some such registry and were also troubled by possible misuses of such records.

Glaser said he was aware of the statement by Rabbi Gilbert Klaperman, issued in his capacity as president of the Rabbinical Council of America, one of the major American Orthodox rabbinical organizations, that “we totally and absolutely reject” the 1983 CCAR resolution.


Klaperman declared that the resolution contained “the seeds of schism creating two ‘kinds’ of Jews, who would not be permitted to marry one another according to Jewish Law.” He also declared that this “new definition” of Jewish religious status, “in total disregard of Halacha and tradition, affects all Jews and their descendants, far beyond the organizational limits and philosophy of Reform Judaism.”

Klaperman also touched on an issue which has stirred fierce controversy in American Judaism for many years: participation of Orthodox rabbis and congregational organizations in umbrella agencies, working with Reform and Conservative groups.

One of the most prestigious of these umbrella groups is the Synagogue Council of America. But Orthodox Jews also work with Reform and Conservative Jews in local boards of rabbis in many cities and states, notably the New York Board of Rabbis, and in the JWB Commission on Jewish Chaplaincy.

It was suggested to Glaser that the new CCAR proposal would give the foes of such joint participation a powerful new weapon to use in their increasing pressure on Orthodox rabbinical and lay organizations to resign from such umbrella agencies.


Glaser responded he was convinced that Orthodox leaders would understand that the CCAR proposal was non-binding and that he felt the Orthodox realized the urgency of continued Jewish denominational cooperation on such non-Halachic problems as the threat of nuclear devastation, the danger of cults, poverty among Jews, as well as among Americans generally, the spread of assimilation, the growth of anti-Semitism and — above all — Jewish dedication to the welfare and security of Israel.

“On these and other areas of critical concern to all Jews, we continue to need each other,” he said.

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