American Reform Responsa
Report of the Committee on Patrilineal Descent
on the Status of Children of Mixed Marriages
Adopted by the Central Conference of American Rabbis
at its 94th Annual Convention, March 15, 1983
The purpose of this document is to establish the Jewish status of the children of mixed marriages in the Reform Jewish community of North America.
One of the most pressing human issues for the North American Jewish community is mixed marriage, with all its attendant implications. For our purpose mixed marriage is defined as a union between a Jew and a non-Jew. A non-Jew who joins the Jewish people through conversion is recognized as a Jew in every respect. We deal here only with the Jewish identity of children born of a union in which one parent is Jewish and the other parent is non-Jewish.
This issue arises from the social forces set in motion by the Enlightenment and the Emancipation. They are the roots of our current struggle with mixed marriage. “Social change so drastic and far reaching could not but affect on several levels the psychology of being Jewish…. The result of Emancipation was to make Jewish identity a private commitment rather than a legal status, leaving it a complex mix of destiny and choice” (Robert Seltzer, Jewish People, Jewish Thought, p. 544). Since the Napoleonic Assembly of Notables of 1806, the Jewish community has struggled with the tension between modernity and tradition. This tension is now a major challenge, and it is within this specific context that the Reform Movement chooses to respond. Wherever there is ground to do so, our response seeks to establish Jewish identity of the children of mixed marriages.
According to the Halacha as interpreted by traditional Jews over many centuries, the offspring of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father is recognized as a Jew, while the offspring of a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father is considered a non-Jew. To become a Jew, the child of a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father must undergo conversion.
As a Reform community, the process of determining an appropriate response has taken us to an examination of the tradition, our own earlier responses, and the most current considerations. In doing so, we seek to be sensitive to the human dimensions of this issue.
Both the Biblical and the Rabbinical traditions take for granted that ordinarily the paternal line is decisive in the tracing of descent within the Jewish people. The Biblical genealogies in Genesis and elsewhere in the Bible attest to this point. In intertribal marriage in ancient Israel, paternal descent was decisive. Numbers 1:2, etc., says: “By their families, by their fathers’ houses” (lemishpechotam leveit avotam), which for the Rabbis means, “The line (literally: ‘family’) of the father is recognized; the line of the mother is not” (Mishpachat av keruya mishpacha; mishpachat em einah keruya mishpacha; Bava Batra 109b, Yevamot 54b; cf. Yad, Nachalot 1.6).
In the Rabbinic tradition, this tradition remains in force. The offspring of a male Kohen who marries a Levite or Israelite is considered aKohen, and the child of an Israelite who marries a Kohenet is an Israelite. Thus: yichus, lineage, regards the male line as absolutely dominant. This ruling is stated succinctly in Mishna Kiddushin 3.12 that when kiddushin (marriage) is licit and no transgression (ein avera) is involved, the line follows the father. Furthermore, the most important parental responsibility to teach Torah rested with the father (Kiddushin 29a; cf. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De-a 245.1).
When, in the tradition, the marriage was considered not to be licit, the child of that marriage followed the status of the mother (MishnaKiddushin 3.12, havalad kemotah). The decisions of our ancestors thus to link the child inseparably to the mother, which makes the child of a Jewish mother Jewish and the child of a non-Jewish mother non-Jewish, regardless of the father, was based upon the fact that the woman with her child had no recourse but to return to her own people. A Jewish woman could not marry a non-Jewish man (cf. Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha-ezer 4.19, la tafsei kiddushin). A Jewish man could not marry a non-Jewish woman. The only recourse in Rabbinic law for the woman in either case was to return to her own community and people.
Since Emancipation, Jews have faced the problem of mixed marriage and the status of the offspring of mixed marriage. The Reform Movement responded to the issue. In 1947 the CCAR adopted a proposal made by the Committee on Mixed Marriage and Intermarriage:
With regard to infants, the declaration of the parents to raise them as Jews shall be deemed sufficient for conversion. This could apply, for example, to adopted children. This decision is in line with the traditional procedure in which, according to the Talmud, the parents bring young children (the Talmud speaks of children earlier than the age of three) to be converted, and the Talmud comments that although an infant cannot give its consent, it is permissible to benefit somebody without his consent (or presence). On the same page the Talmud also speaks of a father bringing his children for conversion, and says that the children will be satisfied with the action of their father. If the parents therefore will make a declaration to the rabbi that it is their intention to raise the child as a Jew, the child may, for the sake of impressive formality, be recorded in the Cradle-Roll of the religious school and thus be considered converted.
Children of religious school age should likewise not be required to undergo a special ceremony of conversion but should receive instruction as regular students in the school. The ceremony of Confirmation at the end of the school course shall be considered in lieu of a conversion ceremony.
Children older than confirmation age should not be converted without their own consent. The Talmudic law likewise gives the child who is converted in infancy by the court the right to reject the conversion when it becomes of religious age. Therefore the child above religious school age, if he or she consents sincerely to conversion, should receive regular instruction for that purpose and be converted in the regular conversion ceremony.” (CCAR Yearbook, Vol. 57)
This issue was again addressed in the 1961 edition of the Rabbi’s Manual:
Jewish law recognizes a person as Jewish if his mother was Jewish, even though the father was not a Jew. One born of such mixed parentage may be admitted to membership in the synagogue and enter into a marital relationship with a Jew, provided he has not been reared in or formally admitted into some other faith. The child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, according to traditional law, is a Gentile; such a person would have to be formally converted in order to marry a Jew or become a synagogue member.
Reform Judaism, however, accepts such a child as Jewish without a formal conversion, if he attends a Jewish school and follows a course of studies leading to Confirmation. Such procedure is regarded as sufficient evidence that the parents and the child himself intend that he shall live as a Jew. (Rabbi’s Manual, p. 112)
We face today an unprecedented situation due to the changed conditions in which decisions concerning the status of the child of a mixed marriage are to be made. There are tens of thousands of mixed marriages. In a vast majority of these cases the non-Jewish extended family is a functioning part of the child’s world, and may be decisive in shaping the life of the child. 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.
This leads us to the conclusion that the same requirements must be applied to establish the status of a child of a mixed marriage, regardless of whether the mother or the father is Jewish.
The Central Conference of American Rabbis declares that the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption of the Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people. The performance of these mitzvot serves to commit those who participate in them, both parent and child, to Jewish life.
Depending on circumstances,l mitzvot leading toward a positive and exclusive Jewish identity will include entry into the covenant, acquisition of a Hebrew name, Torah study, Bar/Bar Mitzvah, and Kabbalat Torah (Confirmation).2 For those beyond childhood claiming Jewish identity, other public acts or declarations may be added or substituted after consultation with their rabbi.
1. According to the age or setting, parents should consult a rabbi to determine the specific mitzvot which are necessary.
2. A full description of these and other mitzvot can be found in Shaarei Mitzvah.