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Who is a Jew and the Tyranny of Halacha

July 6, 2009 – 3:15 pm30 Comments

bangladeshi-jewsBy Yoram Symons

Most of us were raised to believe that you were a Jew because your mother was Jewish. That Jewish descent passes through the woman. And no doubt we have all heard the various reasons that rabbis and others have given for this over the years. My personal favourite is the one that says women are more spiritually advanced than men and hence the Jewish spiritual DNA can only be passed through them. I mean, obviously spiritual DNA can only be passed through women, why would we have ever thought otherwise?

On a more serious note, however, the idea of matrilineal descent has major ramifications for many Jewish people. In an era where more and more Jewish boys and girls are meeting people from outside of their culture, maintaining the racial and ethnic purity of the people has never been harder. And it is especially hard on the Rabbinate to try and enforce their notion of spiritual purity with very few punitive measures available to them.

But lets examine for a moment the origin of this matrilineal descent concept. Within the 4-cubit-wide confines of rabbinic logic, the source of all Jewish laws and customs is the Torah, as interpreted by the Rabbis of the Mishnaic period (i.e 200BC-200AD). And sure enough, the Mishna is quite clear on the matter. Kiddushin 3:12 states that to be considered Jewish one must be the child of a Jewish mother or a righteous convert. For the rabbi it is simple – case closed.

But for those of us who for whatever reason see it fit to doubt the reasoning of pre-industrial scholastic logicians who were part of a nationalist populist political movement arguably responsible for the two most catastrophic wars in Jewish history up until the Holocaust, well, we have to search beyond the Mishna and its peculiar methodology of Biblical interpretation.

A straight reading of the Torah leaves one with a fairly overwhelming impression that in Biblical and pre-Biblical times, all notions of tribal descent were passed through the father. There are numerous characters in the Bible, for example Judah’s sons, Ephraim, Menashe and the children of Moses who all had non-Jewish mothers and were all considered Jewish. The rabbis conveniently explain that all of their mothers converted to Judaism but as with most rabbinic statements, they bear little relation to any literal reading of the text and require the application  of the arcane science of drash to force those meanings out.

In addition to this is the overwhelming number of references to the father’s tribe being the most important, to all descent occurring through the patrilineal line, the generation lists that only mention fathers and the constant reference to the Gods of Forefathers, implying that tribe and religion are the domain of the male.

And this makes perfect sense. We know that the Biblical and pre-Biblical society was highly patriarchal, both for the Israelites and the Hebrews and for most people around the world at that time. If a Jewish man married a non-Jewish woman what was happening in effect was that the man was taking her into his tribe, she would be absorbed in to the new people, and thus her previous identity and her previous gods would be irrelevant.

What is equally clear to all historians of this matter is that at some point this changed and matrilineal descent took over as normative practice. There are a number of arguments put forward, each with greater or lesser degrees of evidence to back them.

There is the idea that it originated with Ezra, when he forced Jewish men to banish their non-Jewish wives. There is another idea that it was instituted after the Bar Kochba revolt as a leniency to the children of women raped by the Romans, so that an entire generation of children would not be lost to Judaism. There is a further idea that in contrast to paternal descent, maternal descent is certain and provable.

But the truth and historicity of any of these reasons is not the real point. The real point is that according to the best evidence that historians can bring up:

  1. Once upon a time Jews believed in patrilineal descent
  2. At a later period they changed to matrilineal descent
  3. No one has ever really understood exactly why this change took place

Despite the overwhelming historical evidence pointing to a tradition of patrilineal descent, the Halacha is steadfast in its exclusive acceptance of matrilineal descent.  As far as Halacha is concerned, if the Mishnaic sages interpreted a biblical verse in a certain way – then come hell or high water their interpretation will stand until the end of time.

What is important for us is the following: Why as a community do we allow ourselves to be bound by the interpretation and tradition of the Halacha? Why do we allow questions of such fundamental importance like “Who is a Jew?” to be arbitrated by a system that borders on the superstitious?

Being Jewish is not a superstition – it is a very real and powerful experience that transcends the narrow and stringent practices of Halacha. Most of us feel very comfortable being Jewish without keeping any real Halacha at all. The question of whether one can be Jewish without keeping the Halacha was answered long ago. The question now is slightly different:

Can a community claim to be Jewish without relying on the Halacha for definitions of its own Jewishness?

Even though most of us feel entirely Jewish as individuals without the need for any formal Halacha in our lives – we have left the ultimate Jewish character of the community entirely in the hands of the Halachists.

The Halachic system performed a great service to the Jewish people. Arguably it guaranteed the survival of the Jewish people for 2000 years without a homeland or a sovereign state of our own. Yet the great epoch of the Halacha is at an end. We may not be living in the era of redemption, but neither are we living in the Exile proper.

As a community we need to rethink our relationship to the Halacha. Instead of accepting it as a ruler and master, we should adopt it for what it actually is – a frame of reference. The word Torah etymologically derives from the word “hora’ah” or guidance. In the language of our most ancient forefathers the word Torah did not mean law but guidance.

If we saw the Halacha as a guide to our ancient traditions, rather than hard and fast law, we would be in a better position to fashion a Jewish experience that is congruent and consistent with the way we actually live our lives.

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