Patrilineal descent is an issue that raises strong emotions in many Jewish circles. Some feel adamantly that patrilineal Jews who have been living and identifying as Jews their whole lives should be accepted as Jews by the entire Jewish community. Others feel strongly that the very term “patrilineal Jew” is a misnomer and that individuals are either Jewish according to Jewish law, halacha — that is, that they have a Jewish mother or they have converted — or they are not Jewish.
One would think that this conversation would become most heated and controversial in pluralistic environments, as those are places where Jews of different orientations and philosophical approaches intersect. One would expect to find many places of conflict, of confusion, and of sensitivity in these communities.
Following this assumption, the Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR), the pluralistic rabbinical and cantorial school located in Riverdale, decided to host a conference on patrilineal descent in pluralistic communities. AJR’s admission policy at this point is not to accept patrilineal descent, but we recognize that we need to address the issue and think about whether our policy is still appropriate for the changing Jewish world. We thought that the best way to engage this issue was to gather a group of thinking, caring Jews representing many parts of the Jewish community and to struggle with this very complex question.
What we found upon planning the event, which was held Sunday, was that most community organizations, including non-movement schools, camps, youth groups, JCCs, etc., accept patrilineal descent. Remarkably, organization after organization told us that there was no need to host this conference, and that the issue was moot.
It was only after some prodding, in follow-up conversations, that we heard that yes, perhaps there was an instance in which a patrilineal Jew felt rejected and disenfranchised. Yes, perhaps a member of a community felt that she was being asked to count people for a minyan that she would not consider Jewish, and thus was uncomfortable reciting the Kaddish. Maybe there was an issue with setting up rules for who may be buried in a cemetery. There was talk of two high school students in a Jewish high school who began to date, but that one of the parents considered that relationship to be interdating.
While we were not at all surprised by the problems raised, we were shocked by the fact that so many people acted initially as if there were no complications, and only admitted to the difficulties when they were pushed to truly speak honestly.
The issue of patrilineal descent in pluralistic communities is complex, and very difficult to negotiate. It means understanding that different individuals approach the topic from very different worldviews, and that communication can only happen by considering the viewpoint of the other. It means subscribing to a principled humility that requires us to admit that no single approach can contain the entirety of God’s will. It means being open enough to expose and share our deepest understanding of Jewish identity with our companions, in a humble way, and to ask our companions to do the same. It means appreciating that whatever decision you make, you are being inclusive to some, and making others feel rejected. It means recognizing that pluralism involves inclusivity, but that true pluralism should mean more than openness, and that there needs to be room for traditional voices in the pluralistic Jewish tent.
There is a lot that we are uncertain about, but we move forward knowing that pluralistic communities should be places of open, honest, and nuanced conversation. They should be places where multiple viewpoints are cherished and appreciated as opportunities for growth. They should be places where we proudly state that we understand the complexities of living in a big tent, and that we sometimes need to confront boldly and honestly what the borders of that tent are. They should be places of difficult, loving conversations.
Issues of Jewish identity are among the weightiest in Jewish communal life, and practical policies in this area need to take into account the gravity of the implications. We go forward filled with a mixture of trepidation and confidence, unease and pride.
Ora Horn Prouser is executive vice president and academic dean at The Academy for Jewish Religion.