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A Natural Born Jew
Patrilineal and Matrilineal Decent

By Shlomo Phillips © July 11, 2016

One would think that after around 3500 years Jews would have the answer to this basic question: "Who is a Jew?"

One would be wrong! This question remains a major bone of contention.

While historically Judaism accepts converts, even praises them, within modern Judaism this is an area of much debate and contention. Orthodox Rabbinic conversion requirements often divide Jews and causes innumerable difficulties for born Jews and converted Jews alike.

While everyone born of a Jewish mother is accepted as Jewish according to Rabbinic Judaism, the Orthodox believe that only they have the religious authority to make converts and confirm acceptable Jewish lineage. This means that most people who convert outside of Israel are not accepted as Jewish by the Orthodox Chief Rabbis regardless of how committed they are to our derech, while the non-religious and even Atheists who are born to Jewish mothers are accepted as fully Jewish. I discuss Rabbinic conversion and accepted Jewishness elsewhere.

When contrasting Karaite and Rabbinic Judaism this debate takes a most fascinating turn, and not towards unity. According to Karaism, one is a natural born Jew if ones father is Jewish, regardless of the mother's status. This is the exact opposite of the Rabbinic view, where the mother's lineage is what matters and not that of the father. For this reason traditional Rabbinic Judaism accepts some Karaites as Jews and not others. Its all terribly confusing!

This is among the most fundamental differences between the two Jewish sects. Rabbinic Tradition is that Jewishness passes matrilineally, and Karaite Tradition is that it is patrilineal.

When we consider the Torah and the rest of the Tanach we find that the lineages of Israel always pass from father to son, just like tribal (house) lineage. This seems clear from early on:

Bereshit/Genesis 11:31 And Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter in law, the wife of Abram his son, and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees to go to the land of Canaan, and they came as far as Haran and settled there.

The "begots" found in places like Bereshit chapter 36 always refer to "the son of" a father, not a mother. When references are made to the sons of a mother it is usually worded that the father gave birth to the child through the woman, not that the child was a son of the woman (for example, Bereshit 24:15). There are exceptions, but in the main this is the case. Based on this clear biblical precedent, Karaism is patrilineal. The son or daughter of a Jewish man is accepted as a natural born Jew.

It appears that the Rabbinic change to matrilineal reckoning began at the very earliest during the Babylonian exile under the authority of Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly. The justification is said to be that since Jewish women were at such extreme risk of sexual violations then, and since identifying fathers in such conditions was next to impossible, the Jewishness of the mother would become the deciding factor in establishing Jewishness. The Sadducees and others rejected this change away from biblical halacha.

Not all Rabbinics agree with this answer however. Chabad rabbi Malkie Janowski finds a Torah indication for matrilineal decent:

You shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughter to his son, and you shall not take his daughter for your son, for he will cause your child to turn away from Me, and they will worship the gods of others (Deuteronomy 7:3–4).

"The implication is that children from such a union will be torn away from Judaism. Since the verse states "for he (i.e. a non-Jewish father) will cause your child to turn away . . . " this implies that a child born to a Jewish mother is Jewish ("your child"), whereas if a Jewish man marries a non-Jewish woman, the child is not Jewish—and as such there is no concern that "she," the child's mother, will turn the child away from Judaism."

When contrasted with the overwhelming number of references to the passing of Jewishness through the father, and it's accepted absence matrilineally, this answer seems inconclusive at best. Patrilineal bloodlines determine whether a Jew is a Kohen, Levite, or Israelite, and so it seems all but certain to me that biblically at least, Jewishness is also transmitted through the father. Joseph was married to a non-Jewish woman and his children were considered Jewish. The same was the case for Moses, King Solomon, and others. Despite the weak Orthodox attempts to support matrilineal decent biblically, the change to a policy of matrilineal descent clearly came about in late antiquity and developed gradually.

Rabbi Raymond Apple explains how the change occurred:

"In early Biblical times the criterion was bet av, "the father's house" (Ex. 1:1, Num. 3:2), but this was superseded by the matrilineal principle, derived from a midrash halacha on Deut. 7:3-4 which refers to "your son" as the child of an Israelite mother, a rule accepted by all halachic authorities (Kidd. 65b/68b, Yad Issurei Bi’ah 15:4, Shulchan Aruch E.H. 8:5).

This is important to understand! The rabbi acknowledges here that biblical halacha was "superseded" by Rabbinic halacha. This means that the rabbis hold the authority to not only interpret the Torah based on Talmud, but to replace or supercede it.

In this section of AllFaith.com we are examining the differences between Karaite and Rabbinic teachings. For Karaites the idea that anyone has the authority to replace what is clearly presented in the Torah is unthinkable! In Rabbinic Judaism the rabbis have this authority as the leaders of our people. We see such Rabbinic changes in various areas, including the religious calendar used by Rabbinic Jews. In the fourth century, Hillel II established a fixed calendar based on mathematical and astronomical calculations, replacing the biblical calendar. Karaites continue to use the biblical calendar and continue to observe patrilineal decent. This is a major difference between Karaite and Rabbinic Judaism. Who holds the authority?

Rabbi Apple says that at least by the time of the Mishnah (Kidd. 3:12), circa 200 CE, it was accepted that Jewishness be determined by the mother’s status. The Talmudic sages interpreted Jacob's blessing, "The Lord make you as Ephraim and Manasseh” (Gen. 49:20) to aver that the boys' mother was not a gentile but the daughter of Dinah, the sister of Joseph.

Why the change? Partly at least the rabbis blame the followers of the historic Yeshua (Jesus of Nazareth). What occurred with the development of matrilineal decent between the days of the Men of the Great Assembly and the first two centuries CE is debatable. What is certain however is that as the popularity of the historic Jewish reformer increased, an unprecedented number of Jewish conversions took place. While the early Rabbinic-based Way reform movement of the Apostles welcomed Noahides (see Acts chapter 11), many of their followers wanted to convert into their new teacher's religion, Rabbinic Judaism. The problem for them of course was that the rabbis rejected the reformist movement of the Apostles, and hence they rejected their converts.

Sound familiar? Converts today, through non-Orthodox Judaism, are not themselves being rejected by Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is rejecting the authority of non-Orthodox rabbis to make converts, just as they rejected the Apostles' authority in the first two centuries, before the creation of the Christian religion. The rabbis rejected the authority of James, Paul, and the other Jewish leaders of the Way sect to make converts, hence their converts were not Rabbinically halachically Jewish. So too today, Orthodoxy rejects the authority of the Reform, Reconstructionist, Jewish Renewal, Conservative, and so on to make converts, so these Jews are rejected by the Orthodox as being "real" Jews. Today this growing division makes it all but impossible to say for certain who is and who is not Jewish!

During this same period, post-Temple Judaism was establishing what would become the Judaism of the future. The rabbis grappled with these issues and developed the essential halacha that remains in effect today. It was during this period of Talmudic development that Rabbinic Judaism fully embraced matrilineal decent and established Rabbinic authority.

As is so often the case, what is "right" depends on ones belief system and party preference. The Rabbis can establish rules for their followers, but they can not dictate to those of the other movements and sects. If one accepts that the Orthodox Rabbis hold the authority to govern Jewish life, then they certainly have the authority to change the calendar, to define Jewishness, and transform the religion from a patrilineal to matrilineal system. If one believes the laws of Torah are sacrosanct as written and that no one has the authority to alter them, then the Karaites are correct, because biblically Jewishness passes through the father, not the mother.

In the end, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew.

Each of us would do well to examine our holy religion, and our own practice of it, and to determine our own beliefs accordingly. But then, this is what Karaites do.

Micah 6:6 With what shall I come before the Lord, bow before the Most High God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with yearling calves?
6:7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriad streams of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
6:8 He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord demands of you; but to do justice, to love loving-kindness, and to walk discreetly with your God.

Sources considered for this piece

For further study:

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