Conversion of a “Matrilineal” Jew
Recently, a woman in her mid-twenties has come to me seeking conversion. Her maternal grandmother had been a practicing Jew. Her mother was raised as a Jew but converted to Christianity when she married. The woman in question was baptized as a Lutheran and brought up in that church. Her sister has meanwhile maintained a Jewish identity and refused to undergo confirmation as a Lutheran. Their father’s sister, while maintaining her native Christianity, married a Jewish man. Thus, there has always been a Jewish influence in this family, most evident at Passover, when the entire family would attend seder at their uncle’s home. The woman in question has met a Jewish man whom she wishes to marry. Is she a Jew by the traditional, “matrilineal” definition? Even should this be the case, I believe that a full conversion is warranted, given that she was raised and confirmed as a Christian. (Rabbi Marvin Schwab, Orangevale, CA)
We agree with your decision to require a conversion for this woman. Under the definition adopted by the Central Conference of American Rabbis at its convention in 1983,1 “the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption…is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people…Depending on circumstances, mitzvot leading toward a positive and exclusive Jewish identity will include entry into the covenant, acquisition of a Hebrew name, Torah study, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and Kabbalat Torah (Confirmation). For those beyond childhood claiming Jewish identity, other public acts or declarations may be added or substituted after consultation with their rabbi.”
The last sentence is the governing rule in our case. This Committee has taken the view that the adult child of one Jewish parent requires conversion when that child has never previously identified as a Jew.2 In the case at hand, the woman was baptized and raised as a Christian. That is her religious identity; the Jewish identification of her sister and uncle are irrelevant under the terms of our Resolution. We hold that she has forfeited her claim to Jewish status by way of descent; like any non-Jew who wishes to join us, she may undergo the process of conversion.
We should also note that though this woman qualifies as a Jew under the traditional “matrilineal” principle,3 halakhic practice would likely demand some formal ceremony to mark her return to Judaism. While under Torah law (dina de’oraita) she does not require ritual immersion, it is often customary to have the repenting apostate immerse in a mikveh in the presence of a beit din.4 Some authorities do not impose this requirement. A returning apostate, they stress, is a Jew and should be treated as such; no ceremonies connected with the conversion process should be performed for this person.5 A Jew, after all, “even though he sin, nonetheless remains a Jew.”6 Still, the dispute over this issue indicates that not all authorities agree that an apostate remains a Jew, come what may. Some geonim, for example, view such a person as a non-Jew for purposes of levirate marriage and inheritance law.7 The conferral of Jewish status is therefore not necessarily an automatic thing. The response of rabbinic authorities to the phenomenon of apostasy has been varied, reflecting in all probability the varying attitudes of Jewish communities over the course of time toward those who abandon Judaism and those who return to it.
To repeat: we agree that this woman requires conversion before she can be accepted as a member of the Jewish people.
Report of the Committee on Patrilineal Descent on the Status of Children of Mixed Marriages, in American Reform Responsa, 550. Contemporary American Reform Responsa (CARR), # 39, pp. 68-69, 42, pp. 71-72 (end), and 59, pp. 95-96. Learned by implication from the words of M. Kiddushin 3:12. Hiddushei Ha-Ritba, Yebamot 47b; Nimukei Yosef, Alfasi Yebamot, fol. 16b; Isserles to SA, YD 268:12. R. Shelomo b. Shimeon Duran, Resp. Rashbash, # 89, urges that those forced into baptism (anusim) who seek to return should be “drawn with cords of love”. For other sources, see CARR, # 64, pp. 104-105. While there can be no exact comparison between American Jews in our day and the anusim of yore, it can be argued that this woman, whose mother was an apostate, was an “involuntary” convert to Christianity. BT Sanhedrin 44a, after Joshua 7:11. Rashi is recognized as the authority who first lent halakhic force to this aggadic saying; see Teshuvot Rashi, ed. Elfenbein, # 171, 173, and 175. Otzar HeGeonim, BT. Yebamot 22a and Kiddushin 18a.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.