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Reform Rabbis to Re-examine Controversial ‘patrilineal’ Policy

June 17, 1998
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Fifteen years after adopting one of its most controversial policies, the Reform movement is taking another look at “patrilineal descent.”

But rescinding the policy is not on the agenda.

Instead, a task force of Reform rabbis mandated to investigate the ramifications of the 1983 policy has recommended that the term be renamed “equilineal descent” or “Jewish descent.”

The 11-rabbi task force of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, created two years ago, is also recommending that the organization develop “clear guidelines” for applying the policy, which is interpreted in a range of ways by Reform rabbis.

Patrilineal descent, which has been deeply controversial both within the Reform movement and even more so outside of it, recognizes as Jewish the children of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother as long as they are educated as Jews and engage in “appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification,” such as Bar or Bat Mitzvahs and confirmations.

Traditional Judaism recognizes as Jewish a child whose mother is Jewish.

Despite the need to re-examine how the decision is interpreted, there does not appear to be any move to rescind it.

A report on the issue has been mailed to all Reform rabbis and is slated for discussion at next week’s CCAR conference in Anaheim, Calif.

The recommendations of the task force do not require a vote, but are up to CCAR officials to implement.

Patrilineal descent was adopted by the Reform rabbinate as a way to cope with increasing rates of interfaith marriage and the need for rabbis to find a way to integrate into congregational life growing numbers of children whose fathers, but not mothers, were Jewish.

It has been embraced by the vast majority of Reform rabbis and congregants in the United States.

As a result of the policy, “the only place an intermarried couple can find a fully welcoming environment is in a Reform congregation,” said Rabbi Samuel Stahl, chairman of the task force that has made the recommendations.

The policy itself is “totally accepted” by Reform congregants, said Dru Greenwood, director of outreach for the Reform movement’s congregational arm, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

The problem is, say Reform rabbis, there is no consistency about what it means to be educated Jewishly. While a Reform rabbi in Albuquerque, N.M., may accept as Jewish a teen-ager with a non-Jewish mother and Jewish father who has had little Hebrew school education and never had a Bar Mitzvah ceremony, another Reform rabbi, say, in New York, might require that same teen to have celebrated all of the available Jewish rites of passage in order to be considered Jewish.

If that family then moves from Albuquerque to New York and the teen wants to join a Reform temple youth group, he may not be considered Jewish.

Or later, when he approaches a Reform rabbi to officiate at his wedding to a Jewish woman, he may not be considered Jewish then, either, and he may be told that he has to convert to Judaism even though he grew up considering himself part of the Jewish people.

The problem grows even more acute when American Reform Jews move to Canada, where almost unanimously, Reform rabbis reject the entire concept of patrilineal descent.

“It is totally unworkable for someone to be a Jew in New York and not a Jew in Cincinnati” or some other place, said Greenwood.

There is no available estimate of the number of Reform Jews who are defined as Jewish by the patrilineal policy, and the percentage of congregants in Reform temples who are intermarried ranges from as low as 5 percent to as high as 70 percent, Greenwood said.

The patrilineal policy — which is also in place in the Reconstructionist movement — has been blasted by Conservative and Orthodox leaders since its implementation as an unacceptable break with the historical Jewish transmission of Jewishness through the mother.

Even among Reform rabbis it has not been universally welcomed.

“It creates further schisms from the non-Reform community,” said Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, the director of Kolel: Center for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto.

In part as a result of the patrilineal descent policy, “I don’t know what `klal Yisrael’ [the people of Israel] is anymore,” said Goldstein, the only one of 11 members of the Task Force on Patrilineal Descent who disagrees with the policy altogether.

Stahl, the task force chairman, said he hopes that the CCAR will develop a set of clear guidelines for rabbis to follow when it comes to applying patrilineal descent, or “Jewish descent,” as he prefers it be called.

Stahl said that while he expects the CCAR to accept the recommendations, he does not think all Reform rabbis will adopt them.

The notions of “standards” and “expectations” are deeply controversial within the Reform movement, where “we worship autonomy,” said Stahl, the rabbi at Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, Texas.

“But I think it’s very desirable. It’s going to be the only way we’re going to get through this issue.”

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