TFN no.5755.17 251-258


The Dual Religion Family and Patrilineal Descent



A Jewish man applies for membership in a congregation for himself and his young son, and wishes to enroll the boy in our religious school. The prospective member is married to a Catholic woman, and they also have a daughter who is being raised as a Catholic. Should the congregation accept the applicant as a Temple member? Would the teshuvah be different if it was a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, and the mother was applying for membership? (Rabbi Martin Zinkow, Saint Paul, Minnesota)



The North American Reform movement has long distinguished itself by its efforts to welcome interfaith families as members of our congregations. These efforts are based upon the belief that a firm and unwavering commitment to “outreach,” to programs aimed at bringing Jews heretofore on the margins of the community into the mainstream of Jewish religious life, is essential to insure the long-term survival of American Jewry. The resolution on patrilineal descent, adopted by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1983, is one of the more prominent expressions of this attitude. With that doctrine, which extends the presumption of Jewish status to the child of one Jewish parent, we say to the children of mixed marriage that we will accept them as Jews, without the need for conversion, so long as they establish their claim to Jewishness through the procedures specified by the resolution.1


Yet this stance of openness has never been without its limits. While we “reach out” to the interfaith couple and welcome them into our midst, we do not forget that we are a Jewish religious community and that our goal is the encouragement of Jewish religious life. For this reason, we do not look upon mixed marriage as a desirable or “normal” situation for our people. Our hope is that the interfaith marriage shall one day cease to be such, that the non-Jewish spouse will choose to become a Jew. In the meantime, we call upon the couple to establish a Jewish home, and we insist that the children be raised exclusively in the Jewish tradition.2


The case before us poses a severe test to these limits. We confront a mixed marriage in which the non-Jewish spouse remains an active and practicing member of her faith. Moreover, by their decision to raise one of their children as a Catholic and the other as a Jew, they have insured that their home is not a “Jewish” one, a home in which Judaism is the exclusive religious identity of the family. The she’elah asks whether the Jewish father ought to be accepted as a member of the congregation, even though his acquiescence in the creation of a dual-religion household runs sharply counter to the most basic Jewish religious principles. In addition, the question’s wording raises the issue of the son’s religious status. By suggesting the possibility that the answer might “be different if it was a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, and the mother was applying for membership,” it invites us to consider whether a child raised in such a religious environment qualifies for a presumption of Jewishness under the doctrine of patrilineal descent.


1. The Father as Member of the Synagogue. This applicant is a Jew, identifying as such; he is not an apostate. For this reason there is no justification for denying synagogue membership to him.3 Although he has chosen a lifestyle that is contrary to the ideals of our people, he is permitted to associate with the Jewish religious community. Indeed, our commitment to outreach and the furtherance of Jewish life demands a positive and active approach. He should be welcomed into the congregation and encouraged to build, step by step, a Jewish home. We Reform Jews, moreover, make no distinction in this regard based upon the gender of the applicant. On the other hand, though this man is welcomed as a member, his decision to allow his child to be raised as a Catholic raises doubts concerning his commitment to the most elemental Jewish responsibilities (veshinantam livanekha). It is therefore inappropriate for him to serve as a congregational officer, board member, committee chairperson, religious school teacher, or to hold any other significant communal position, since we look upon our leaders as Jewish role models, as exemplars of the kind of committed Jew that we want all our people to be.4


2. The Limits of Patrilineality.


We must now consider the status of this man’s son. Does the child qualify for Jewish status under the CCAR’s doctrine of patrilineal descent? Or does the family’s religious environment render his religious identity so doubtful or unsettled as to require that he undergo conversion prior to his admission into the congregation?


The text of the 1983 resolution states:5


The Central Conference of American Rabbis declares that the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent.


This presumption of 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.


The resolution goes on to enumerate some of the “public and formal acts” which might establish the child’s “positive and exclusive Jewish identity.” One of these is “Torah study,” which would include a child’s enrollment in and successful completion of a congregation’s religious school curriculum.


Some might argue that the child in our case enjoys a presumption of Jewish status. He is, first of all, the offspring of one Jewish parent, and his parents state that it is their intention to raise him as a Jew. Moreover, the father wishes to enroll his son in religious school, which the resolution cites as an example of a “public and formal” act of Jewish identification. And although more than one religion is practiced in the home, that fact might be regarded as irrelevant to the boy’s Jewishness. The resolution, after all, speaks of the “presumption of Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage (emphasis added),” a terminology which does not explicitly exclude the child raised in a dual-religion household. This might be said to follow upon the Conference’s previous statement on the subject, which pronounces the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother to be Jewish “if he attends a Jewish school and follows a course of studies leading to Confirmation. Such a procedure is regarded as sufficient evidence that the parents and the child himself intend that he shall live as a Jew.”6 Cited in the Resolution on Patrilineal Descent, this statement, too, makes no explicit exception for the child raised in a dual- religion environment.


The difficulty with this argument, however, lies in its assumption that under the 1983 resolution a child automatically qualifies for Jewish status when he or she has one Jewish parent and when the parents declare their intention to raise the child as a Jew. We reject that assumption. We would note that the resolution speaks of a presumption of Jewish status, a presumption established by the performance of certain “public and formal acts” which testify to the child’s “positive and exclusive Jewish identity.” This wording is key to a proper understanding of the document as a whole. It demands the conclusion that, while acts of Jewish identification can serve to confirm a child’s Jewishness, they do not inevitably do so. That is to say, the child of one Jewish parent does not necessarily become a Jew upon berit milah,7 acquisition of a Hebrew name, or attending religious school. These acts “establish” the presumption of Jewishness because they serve as evidence that the presumption was a correct one, that Judaism is the child’s positive and exclusive religious identification. It follows that, in a situation in which the performance of these acts does not offer proof of exclusive Jewish identification–as in a case where the child’s religious identity is torn, conflicted, or confused–then they cannot and do not establish that the child is in fact a Jew.


The thrust of the resolution, it must be remembered, was not simply to “equalize” the role of the father to that of the mother in determining the Jewishness of the child, but rather to limit the effect of genealogy in making that determination. Under its terms, the child of a Jewish mother and a Gentile father is no longer ipso facto a Jew, just as the offspring of a Gentile mother and Jewish father is no longer ipso facto a Gentile. In both cases, the child is presumed to be a Jew, but this presumption must be validated “through subsequent and meaningful acts of identification.”8 That is to say, the conferral of Jewish status in cases of mixed marriage now depends as much if not more upon the quality of the child’s religious upbringing as it does upon the circumstances of his or her birth. These acts of Jewish identification, though “public and formal,” are more than mere public formalities. To be “meaningful,” they must offer evidence that the child in fact identifies as a Jew and that the parents are willing and able to transmit a sense of Jewishness to their son or daughter. If they offer no such evidence, then they become meaningless, mere words and empty ceremony that tell us nothing of the depth of a child’s Jewish identification or of the parents’ capacity or sincerity in fulfilling their promise to raise the child as a Jew.


To summarize: patrilineal descent does not confer Jewish status automatically. Whether the child of a mixed marriage is in fact Jewish is a matter of judgment. It depends upon an evaluation of his or her conduct and commitment, a finding that the child’s acts of identification with Judaism are sufficiently “meaningful” to remove any doubt as to the genuineness of his or her Jewish identity.


In the case before us, we are convinced that this judgment must yield a negative conclusion. We are dealing here, not with an ordinary mixed marriage, but with a dual-religion household. Dividing itself equally and intentionally between Catholics and Jews, the family has determined that theirs shall not be a Jewish home but one that is as Catholic as it is Jewish. Christian holidays and observances will be prominent in the home, not merely as “Mother’s” private religious expression but as family celebrations that are as much “ours” as the Jewish ones. It is far from obvious that the “Jewish” child of such a couple, no matter what the parents’ stated intent, will develop a true Jewish religious identification. We question, therefore, whether such a family is capable of transmitting an exclusiveJewish identity to one of its children.


Our position flows from Reform Judaism’s categorical rejection of the concept of religious syncretism, the notion that a child can be raised simultaneously in more than one religious tradition.9 We hold that Judaism is an exclusive religious identification, that one is either a Jew or one is not, that one cannot successfully be a Jew and something else. For this reason, in the case of a mixed marriage, until there exist in the family a firm and discernible intent and ability to raise the child as a Jew, that child is not regarded by us as Jewish. Indeed, given the family situation, it makes as much sense to say that the child has a claim to Gentile status as it is to talk about a presumption of Jewishness. It is up to the parents, through a sincere and credible commitment, to decide which of these claims to validate. And if there is any doubt as to the choice they have made, the child does not qualify as a Jew under the doctrine of patrilineal descent.10


The dual-religion household is one in which two religions have a legitimate claim to equal status. This distinguishes our case from one in which the non-Jewish parent agrees that the home shall be Jewish and that the children–all of them–will be raised as Jews. A child raised in a dual-religion environment cannot help but be confused as to his or her true religious identity. Therefore, though his parents declare that they intend to raise him as a Jew and though he undertake “appropriate and timely public and formal acts” of Jewish identification, he does not enjoy a claim to Jewish status under the CCAR’s resolution on patrilineal descent. In a situation such as this, a child’s Jewish status can be established only through the process of conversion.


Conclusion. We suggest that the father be accepted as a member of the congregation. His son, on the other hand, is a Gentile and can qualify for Jewish status only through the process of conversion. The son should be admitted to religious school, so that he may begin a program of study that will help strengthen his sense of Jewish identity. Some members of the Committee believe that the child should be converted prior to his entry into religious school, as a means of removing all doubt as to his Jewish status. Other members feel that the conversion should be postponed until such time as the child can make a more mature choice for Judaism.11 In any event, while the child’s readiness to choose Judaism is a matter to be determined by the rabbi in the particular case,12 conversion must occur before the child is permitted to celebrate becoming a Bar Mitzvah. We would add, in answer to the sho’el’s query, that under the current position of the CCAR, the same procedure would apply were this boy the child of a Jewish mother and Gentile father.


Addendum. Our decision in the matter of the son is based upon our interpretation of the text of the CCAR’s 1983 resolution on patrilineal descent. Although, as we mentioned above, one could draw a different set of conclusions from that text, we believe that our interpretation, which leads to a stringency in this case, reflects the best and most accurate understanding of it. To interpret Jewish tradition, along with the traditions and precedents of our own movement, is the task of our Committee. But while we are certainly willing to perform that task, we would be remiss if we did not call attention to the particular difficulties inherent in this issue. The question of Jewish status is a most serious and sensitive one, especially in a community such as ours where mixed marriage is on the rise, where assimilation poses a constant challenge, and where the danger of religious syncretism is rife. Questions such as the one we address here will become more frequent over time. And it is unlikely that they will be firmly and finally resolved without a concerted effort on the part of the Conference as a whole to re-examine the question of Jewish status in a thorough and thoughtful way.


We do not wish to be misunderstood. It is not our role to advocate either for or against the resolution on patrilineal descent or for or against its amendment. That resolution reflects the policy of the Conference to which this Committee adheres. We simply want to suggest to our colleagues that the time has come to look carefully at the way in which this policy is practiced in our communities and to consider the effects of the resolution, which was controversial when it was adopted and remains so today, upon our congregations and upon the wider Jewish world.



See: Report of the Committee on Patrilineal Descent on the Status of Children of Mixed Marriages, CCAR Yearbook 93 (1983), 157-160; American Reform Responsa, 547-550. See below, in the discussion of the resolution on patrilineal descent. Were he in fact an apostate, a convert to another religion, the situation would differ radically. See CCAR Responsum 5753.13. In this case, however, we would simply note the famous rabbinic dictum, based upon BT. Sanhedrin 44a, that “a Jew, even though he sins, remains a Jew.” On the halakhic implications of this principle, see Teshuvot Rashi, ed. Elfenbein, # 171, 173, 175, and 246. On the qualifications for holding office in the synagogue, see R. Solomon B. Freehof, Today’s Reform Responsa, # 51, pp. 131-135, and Responsa Committee, # 5754.17. ARR, 550. Rabbi’s Manual, Rev. Ed. (New York, CCAR, 1961), 112. The language of the resolution refers to “entry into the Covenant.” This cannot refer to conversion, since a child presumed to be Jewish under the doctrine of Patrilineal Descent does not require conversion. The “entry” ceremony spoken of here is either berit milah or berit banot, rituals performed for children who are Jewish by birth. Ma`gele Tsedek: Rabbi’s Manual (New York, CCAR, 1988), 227. Contemporary American Reform Responsa, # 61, pp. 98-99; R. Walter Jacob, Questions and Reform Jewish Answers, # 88, pp. 138-139 and 109, pp. 173-174. In cases of mixed marriage where the parents have decided to raise their child simultaneously in Judaism and in another religious tradition, the Committee has ruled that those children are Gentiles: they do not qualify for a presumption of Jewish identity under the doctrine of patrilineal descent, and they must undergo conversion if they wish to be recognized as Jews. R. Walter Jacob, QRJA, # 111. The halakhah provides for the conversion of minor children, but they retain the right to renounce the conversion upon reaching majority (BT Ketubot 11a; Yad, Hilkhot Melakhim 10:3; SA, YD 268:7). “In matters of conversion, the determination is left to the discretion of the court;” R. Yosef Karo, Beit Yosef YD 268.

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.