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Plight Of The Patrilineals

Plight Of The Patrilineals

As we all know by now, this weekend’s tragic shooting rampage in Arizona has not only stirred up much partisan finger-pointing about inflammatory rhetoric but highlighted yet again the utter wackiness of our gun-crazy culture (hold your angry comments NRA supporters: I’m unabashedly liberal on gun control and see no reason any civilian, much less a schizophrenic, should have access to a semiautomatic rifle).

But the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who identifies as Jewish but is not Jewish according to the traditional “matrilineal descent” definition, is also shining a spotlight on the “who is a Jew” debate. Giffords, 40, is the daughter of a Jewish father and Christian Scientist mother who raised her in both traditions; according to JTA, for the past decade (following her first visit to Israel) she has identified exclusively as Jewish, and she belongs to a Reform congregation.

While Giffords is married to a (gasp!) gentile, they had a Jewish ceremony at their 2007 wedding, with chupah and rabbi.

She also is pro-Israel and told JTA in 2006 that she always had special admiration for the Jewish women in her family: “In my family, if you want to get something done you take it to the Jewish women relatives. Jewish women, by and large, know how to get things done.”

“Kung Fu Jew,” a blogger on JewSchool, posted, somewhat angrily, yesterday about the incongruity between the Jewish community claiming Giffords as its own while at the same time failing to accept most patrilineal and intermarried Jews. (Thanks to Jewish Outreach Institute for alerting me to the post.)

Giffords, writes “Kung Fu Jew,” is “Jewish enough for the Jewish community to own a side-show of the media circus. Jewish enough to be our martyr, it seems, but not Jewish enough to be treated equally in life.”

I sympathize with Kung Fu, but I also think his post is a bit oversimplified, in that it lashes out at a Jewish community utterly lacking in consensus on this issue. [For more on patrilineal descent, please check out this, this and this, from the three-part series I did last year on the topic.]

Yes, the Chief Rabbinate-controlled Israel, while it would grant Giffords citizenship under the Law of Return, does not recognize Giffords as a Jew (although his assertions that she would be a “second-class citizen” and would not have the right to divorce in Israel are misleading, if not completely wrong). And that’s one of many reasons why IMHO the Chief Rabbinate is a major source of problems in Israel.

And yes, many traditional Jews still won’t recognize Giffords as Jewish, something I would like to see change (although, in fairness, many in the Conservative movement are struggling with this issue in a wise and sensitive manner, seeking to balance respect for Jewish law with a desire to be more welcoming). However, Giffords, who co-chaired the Jewish Outreach Institute’s 2007 conference, has been welcomed in her Reform congregation, and at this point I suspect most American Jews – and perhaps most Israelis – would happily welcome anyone who wants to be Jewish, even if they are not celebrities or congresswomen.

Illustrating that, I was heartened by yesterday’s Jerusalem Post editorial (hat tip to, which praised Giffords for being a “Jewish role model” and referenced the human cost of stringent halachic definitions:

Critics of the Law of Return might complain that it has extended citizenship to more than 300,000 former Soviet Union immigrants who are not halachicly Jewish. But is it conceivable to exclude these “non-Jews” despite the fact that the vast majority integrate fully into Israeli society, serve in the IDF and become productive citizens? Is it conceivable to exclude Giffords, another “non-Jew,” who is so unequivocally Jewish?

With all our desire for a universally accepted definition of “Who is a Jew?” that would unify the Jewish people, we cannot ignore the complicated reality that many “non-Jews” are much more Jewish than their “Jewish” fellows.
Congresswoman Giffords is one of them.

And while we’re on the topic of patrilineal Jews and Israel, check out this post on Ynet by Emily Bernstein, a new immigrant to Israel. (Again, hat tip to JOI…) Emily, if you’re reading this, please drop me a line at, as I’d love to learn more about your personal experiences in Israel and decision to make aliyah. As you can imagine, the name Emily Bernstein is rather ubiquitous on Facebook and Google.

Let’s all keep Giffords, who remains in critical condition, in our prayers and/or thoughts.

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