Matrilineality and Patrilineality in Jewish Law and Community, Part 1

Rabbi Ethan Tucker

Parashat VaYigash

In the 1980s, the Reform movement in the United States took up the issue of lineality and descent: specifically, the reevaluation of what had been the traditional matrilineal standard for determining Jewishness in a case of mixed heritage. This was perceived as a crisis in many corners of the Jewish world, as it broke what had been a broadly-held consensus around the definition of what makes a Jew by birth. We now live a full three decades later, with an entire generation having been raised under competing definitions of Jewish identity. It is, therefore, time to revisit some of the discussions of several decades back, with an eye towards an honest reading of the tradition, and strategies for applying it sensitively to our complex reality.

Note: This essay is part 1 of a 3-part series published in 2015. These essays propose a long-term, communal vision for re-imagining these concepts over the course of generations. They were never intended, in theory or in practice, to play any role in undermining the Jewish status of those who have been treated as unambiguously Jewish by the halakhic discourse in the communities in which they were raised. The essays are currently being revised to more clearly reflect that original intention.