On Patrilineal Descent

NYP no. 5758.11


On Patrilineal Descent, Apostasy, and Synagogue Honors



This query concerns a young man whose Jewish father and fundamentalist Baptist mother are members of my congregation. The young man, who is now college age, grew up attending our religious school on Saturday mornings and his mother’s church on Sundays. He observed his bar mitzvah in our synagogue, on condition that he not be baptized for a minimum of two years following the ceremony. He continued to attend religious school classes, exceeding our synagogue’s “post-Bar Mitzvah” requirement, and he and his family continue to attend Shabbat services every week. However, the young man eventually chose to be baptized as a Christian some time after his seventeenth birthday. He is now attending a seminary with the intention of becoming a Christian minister.

The father of this young man, who is an active worker for and major donor to our congregation, customarily reads the haftarah at our Yom Kippur minchah service (“maftir Yonah”). This is an honor which we bestow upon the person judged the synagogue’s “star supporter or worker;” hence, the father has read this haftarah for some years. And since the father has no knowledge of Hebrew, his son has for several years recited the benedictions preceding and following the reading. Now that the son has chosen to become a Christian, a congregant has objected to his continued participation in the service. On the other hand, our ritual policy which deals with the participation of non-Jews in our public services does not seem to apply here. The policy states that non-Jews are not permitted publicly to recite benedictions containing the formulae asher kideshanu bemitzvotav (“Who has sanctified us through the mitzvot”) or asher bachar banu (“Who has chosen us”). Since the haftarah benedictions do not contain these formulae, it is not clear to me that we can deny the son the right to participate in this honor without making it clear to his father that this decision is aimed specifically at him.

Should we permit the son, who at any rate is very respectful of his Jewish heritage, to recite the haftarah benedictions?


Under no circumstances should this young man be permitted to recite the haftarah benedictions. He is not a Jew, and as such he is precluded from participating in the ritual reading of the Torah, of which the haftarah is an inseparable element.

This she’elah raises the issue of how a synagogue determines its rules governing the participation of non-Jews in its worship services. The present congregation has such a policy, and our sho’el suggests that this policy does not clearly apply to the haftarah benedictions. We disagree with this suggestion, for two reasons. First, we would point out that the benediction recited prior to the haftarah reading does contain the words asher bachar…uveyisrael amo, “God, who has chosen…Israel His people,” thereby expressing the very same theological doctrine which according to the policy ought to disqualify a Gentile from participating in this element of the service. Second, even if this doctrine were missing from the text of the benediction, the she’elah proposes that we read the congregation’s rule in such a literal and formalistic way as to render it meaningless.[1] The point of the policy, it seems to us, is not that Gentiles are prohibited from reciting certain “magic words” and combinations of syllables but that it is inappropriate for Gentiles to lead rituals and to read prayers which express the concept of the peoplehood of Israel, the idea that we Jews are a particular community, distinct from all other communities in its unique understanding of how to worship God and to realize the ideal of holiness in our lives. “Chosenness” and “commandment/sanctification” are, to be sure, prominent verbal embodiments of this concept, but a great deal of our liturgy is devoted to the rehearsal of our identity as a particular people “chosen” for the task of sanctifying ourselves and the world through the performance of mitzvot. By that token, there are many parts of the service which a Gentile, who by definition is not a member of this particular people, should not lead for us, even though they do not contain the precise formulae designated explicitly by the congregation’s ritual policy.

In several recent responsa, we identify the concept of community as the proper standard by which to distinguish those elements of our service that Gentiles may not lead or perform from those which they may.[2] Non-Jews may not recite those rubrics of the liturgy, such as the Shema its benedictions and the tefilah, which our tradition defines as chiyuv (obligations), for it is in the recitation of these elements that we constitute ourselves as a particular community and identify ourselves as participants in the ongoing historical experience of the people of Israel. Another way to put this is that a Gentile may not serve as a sheliach tzibur, a leader of congregational prayer, for that person must, as a representative of the people, be of the people, a member of the community. Similarly, a Gentile should not recite on behalf of the community benedictions whose wording expresses the idea that “we, the people of Israel, do this in response to God’s mitzvot.” And a Gentile may not participate in any of the rituals surrounding the reading of the Torah, since this act, which requires a minyan of Jews, is one of the central liturgical means by which the community affirms its existence as a covenant people. Since the haftarah, the “supplement” to the Torah reading, is an integral part of that reading,[3] it is clear that this young man, who is a non-Jew and not a member of the religious community of Israel, may not recite it or its accompanying benedictions.

Patrilineal Descent and Jewish Status.

We have described this young man as a “Gentile” and on that basis find him ineligible to recite the haftarah benedictions. By this, we do not mean that he is a Jew who has converted to another religion; such a person is regarded as an “apostate Jew,” a subject we shall take up later in this responsum.[4] We mean rather that this young man never was a Jew in the first place. To say this is to declare that he never qualified for Jewish status under the terms of the CCAR’s Resolution on Patrilineal Descent, adopted in 1983. The text of that 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 those public and formal acts which might serve to confirm what it terms the child’s “positive and exclusive Jewish identity.” Among these are religious study and participation in a ceremony of Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

One might possibly assume that this young man qualifies as a Jew under the resolution, since he has attended religious school and observed his Bar Mitzvah in the synagogue. This assumption, however, is erroneous. The point of the Resolution on Patrilineal Descent, as it has been interpreted by this Committee and through the accumulated practice of Reform congregations, is that Jewish status is not automatically conferred upon the child of one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent. The child’s Jewishness is a “presumption” which must be established through a pattern of behavior which testifies to the desire of the parent(s) to raise the child exclusively as a Jew. Therefore, the “public and formal acts” of which the resolution speaks can confirm a child’s Jewishness only to the extent that they offer proof that such is indeed the intention of the parent(s).These actions must serve as “meaningful acts of identification” with the Jewish faith and people.[6] As we have written:[7]

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 identification or of the parents’ capacity or sincerity in fulfilling their promise to raise the child as a Jew.

In that responsum, we found that a child raised in a “dual-religion” household, one in which Judaism and another religion are actively practiced, does not qualify for Jewish status under the Resolution on Patrilineal Descent, because regardless of the “public and formal acts” they may perform, such a family is incapable of transmitting an “exclusive Jewish identity” to the child. A household in which two religions have a legitimate claim to equal status is not a Jewish household. In such a household, it is as easy to say that the child enjoys a presumption to Gentile status as to a Jewish one. And in such a case, the child’s Jewishness can be established only through conversion.

The case before us is markedly similar. This young man, whose father is an active member of the synagogue and whose mother is a committed Christian, grew up in a dual-religion household. He was intentionally raised in both Judaism and Christianity. The “timely and formal” acts of Jewish identification, such as religious school and Bar Mitzvah, are nullified by his attendance at church, and his choice of Christianity is proof that he never developed an “exclusive Jewish identity.” We would conclude that, although under our 1983 resolution this young man enjoyed a presumption of Jewish status, this presumption was never established. He is, in our eyes, a non-Jew, and he can become a Jew only through the process of conversion.[8]

Judaism as an Exclusive Commitment and a Public Matter

. This conclusion proceeds from Reform Judaism’s categorical rejection of the notion that a child can be raised simultaneously as a Jew and as a member of another religious community. In this regard, we would point out that there is no such thing as a “half-Jew”; one is either a Jew or one is not. That a child receives a Jewish education along with a Christian one does not change this reality. That he “is very respectful of his Jewish heritage,” while admirable, is irrelevant for the purposes of this she’elah. For our community to consider him a Jew, a member of the religious community of Israel, he or his parents must make an exclusive commitment to Judaism, a commitment requiring that he renounce his attachment to any other faith. And as a means of avoiding the confusions and difficulties of which this she’elah is a remarkable example, a mixed-religion family ought to make such a decision for their child as soon as possible in that child’s life.

With this in mind, we find it puzzling in the extreme that the congregation permitted this young man to observe his becoming a bar mitzvah in the synagogue. Our Committee has held that such ceremonies of religious identification as berit milah and bar/bat mitzvah are inappropriate for children who are being raised in two religious traditions.[9] The latter ceremony symbolizes a young person’s acceptance of the mitzvot, the religious responsibilities incumbent upon an adult member of the Jewish community. One of these, obviously, is the responsibility to be a Jew, to identify with this people and with its religious experience and expression. This young man, who was simultaneously attending church services and considering whether to “be” a Jew or a Christian, was most assuredly unready to declare his acceptance of those responsibilities. We are confused, as well, at the “condition” imposed upon him at the time of his Bar Mitzvah ceremony. A promise not to be baptized for two years hardly inspires confidence that we are dealing here with an identified Jew. On the contrary: the fact that such a promise had to be made indicates that he was at the time actively exploring the possibility that he would commit himself to Christianity. This sense of doubt, this lack of exclusive commitment to a Jewish religious identification renders the bar mitzvah ceremony an empty ritual, a contradiction in terms. As we have written elsewhere, “the (bar mitzvah) celebration is a confirmatory act, not a trial run…its observance under present circumstances would be a denial of its essence.”[10]

We take this opportunity to stress a point of critical importance concerning these issues: the definition of Jewishness and the setting of criteria by which an individual’s Jewish status is determined is an emphatically public matter. It is for the community, and not for the individual or the individual’s family, to answer the question “who is a Jew?”, for we are the Jewish people, a collective which bears a common historical identity. In order to maintain its common existence, this people must possess and exercise the right to draw its own parameters and to declare its standards for membership. An individual may regard himself or herself to be a Jew; his or her family may concur. And this sense of identification may be significant for that person and family. But for our purposes, in deciding how we shall set the rules and ritual policies that govern our communal religious life, this person is not a Jew unless and until we, the community of Israel, can accept him or her as one of us.[11]

The Apostate and the Synagogue.

Even were this young man considered a Jew under the doctrine of patrilineal descent, his decision to become a Christian would define him as an apostate. While it is true that mainstream halakhah holds that one cannot successfully convert “out” of the Jewish people,[12] an apostate is nonetheless regarded as having separated him- or herself from the community and therefore ineligible to participate actively in its ritual and public life. On that basis, while we would encourage this young man to attend synagogue, we would certainly not permit him to ascend the bimah or to perform any of the public rituals of our worship services. In a previous teshuvah dealing with a Jew who converted to Episcopalianism and graduated from a Christian theological seminary, we wrote:[13] “we would be sending the most confusing signals to our community if we permitted apostates to assume prominent roles in our synagogues and thereby blur the distinction between those who proudly declare their Jewishness and those who abandon our faith.” That conclusion applies without question to the present case.


Because he was raised simultaneously in two faiths and because he has declared his attachment to Christianity, the young man who is the subject of this she’elah does not qualify for Jewish status under the CCAR Resolution on Patrilineal Descent. He is therefore not a Jew, and he should not be permitted to recite the haftarah benedictions or to lead any of the elements rubrics of our liturgy whose recitation and performance are restricted to Jews.[14]

One final note. We have approached this question as a matter of standards of religious practice. At the same time, we surely recognize its personal and emotional side. We do not know the father of this young man, yet we know that his must surely have been a most difficult experience. We are unable to agree with his desire that his son continue to recite the haftarah benedictions, for we do not believe that we obtain lasting religious benefit when we abandon the most basic standards of practice and observance that distinguish us as a people. Yet we are also forbidden to ignore the sense of pain and anger, of rejection and loss which quite likely lie behind that request. This is, therefore, a situation that calls not only for judgment but for compassion, for the exercise of midat harachamim alongside midat hadin. It is a situation that clearly demands the utmost in pastoral skill and sensitivity. We are confident that the rabbi of the congregation possesses these in sufficient measure to respond fully to the human needs of its members. We can but offer the rabbi our encouragement and our wishes for success.




  • We doubt whether even this congregation applies its policy so literally. For example, the benediction following the Torah reading does not contain the word bachar in any of its forms, yet no suggestion is made by the congregation that a Gentile for this reason is permitted to recite the blessing after the reading but not the one before it. We think this is because the congregation does not really interpret its rule in such a formalistic sense as implied by the she’elah, especially when such an interpretation would lead to an obviously absurd result.
  • See Teshuvot for the Nineties (TFN), no. 5754.5, and the other responsa cited therein, especially American Reform Responsa (ARR), no. 6. See as well our teshuvah 5758.2.
  • See M. Megilah 4:1 and Yad, Tefilah 12:2. The haftarah is never read when the Torah is not read; hence, it, too, requires a minyan (M. Megilah 4:3; Yad, Tefilah 8:4) and is like the Torah reading an essentially communal ritual.
  • The Jew who renounces Judaism for another religion is regarded as yisrael mumar, an apostate Jew; see below in the text.
  • The text can be found in American Reform Responsa (ARR), 550.
  • Ma`agele Tzedek: Rabbi’s Manual

(CCAR, 1988), 227.

  • Teshuvot for the Nineties (TFN)

, no. 5755.17, at 254-255.

  • Our Reform responsa tradition has consistently ruled that the presumption of Jewish status under the doctrine of patrilineal descent does not apply in cases where the parents have chosen to raise their child in more than one religious tradition. See Contemporary American Reform Responsa (CARR), no. 61; Questions and Reform Jewish Answers (QRJA), nos. 88, 109, and 110.
  • On berit milah, see QRJA, nos. 108 and 109; on bar mitzvah, see CARR, no. 61 and TFN, no. 5754.3, 263-264.
  • TFN

, no. 5754.3, at 264.

  • This point is not altered in any way by the disagreements between Reform Judaism and other Jews over such matters as patrilineal (better: “one-parent”) descent. We may dispute the details of the definition of Jewishness, but we have never disputed that this definition is a public matter, to be set by the community. The Resolution on Patrilineal Descent is just such a communal standard: adopted by the Conference and interpreted by the Conference and its constituent bodies. Reform Judaism has never suggested that an individual is Jewish merely on the grounds that he or she “feels” Jewish or regards him- or herself as such.
  • “A Jew, even though he sins, remains a Jew”; BT Sanhedrin 44a, according to the interpretation advanced in Teshuvot Rashi, no. 173.
  • TFN

, no.5753.13; the citation is at p. 83. We add there that “were we to honor an apostate who, to boot, is a scholar of theology, the community would be confronted with a man who was born and raised a Jew, but determined after much study that Judaism is inferior to another religion. We must be careful to avoid conveying any message which may weaken the Jewish community.” See that responsum for texts and sources on the status of the apostate in Jewish law and tradition.

  • We should add, parenthetically, that although the she’elah takes note of this young man’s ability to pronounce the blessings in Hebrew, the haftarah benedictions may be recited in the vernacular: M. Sotah 7:1; BT Sotah 32a, and Tosafot ad loc., s.v. keri’at shema utefilah; BT Berakhot 40b; Yad, Berakhot 1:6 and Kesef Mishnah ad loc.; SA OC 185:1. To be sure, the tradition prefers that the berakhot be recited in Hebrew; see both the Mishnah Berurah and the Arukh Hashulchan to OC 185:1. And while the words of both of these late-19th and early-20th century authorities are influenced by their anti-Reform zealotry, we Reform Jews for good reasons of our own have come to encourage the use of the Hebrew language in our synagogue and home rituals. Still, in the absence of any absolute requirement that the haftarah benedictions be recited in Hebrew, there can be no practical justification (let alone a religious one) for permitting this young man to recite them.


If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.