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Should mothers matter more than fathers?

Growing up, I always knew that, whoever fathered my future children, they would be considered Jewish, but should that now change, asks Jennifer Lipman

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    As a feminist — no, don’t stop reading — there’s plenty about Judaism and especially Orthodox Judaism that rankles. The rules on modesty, for example, which seem to mostly allow men to walk around in whatever they want but dictate that women are covered up and their hair hidden under a wig. The fact we segregate services on gender grounds; our antiquated divorce process; that boys become adults by reading from the Torah but girls are not expected to do the same. I could go on.

    Yet there’s one area where, rather perversely, Jewish women are favoured. Growing up, I always knew that, whoever fathered my future children, they would be considered Jewish. Male friends would not enjoy that privilege. A woman could still “marry out” in our community’s parlance, but there was far more for a parent to fret about if a son did so than a daughter.

    We’re told Judaism is inherited, that it’s something you are born into rather than something you choose. But that’s only half the story; you’re born into it only if the right parent is of the faith, with no account taken of engagement or commitment. It’s hard to argue that’s anything but sexist.

    Judaism hasn’t always been purely matrilineal. In biblical times it apparently went through the male line; Joseph’s children were Jewish even despite his marrying a non-Hebrew (although some interpretations suggest Asenath, “daughter of Potiphera” was actually Jewish) while Moses was free to marry the Midianite Zipporah. Even if you question whether those stories are fact or fiction, consensus is that the religion once accepted patrilineal inheritance.

    By the rabbinic period, things changed, no doubt in part because it was easier to confirm parentage through the mother’s line. And things have largely remained thus, at least for Orthodox and Masorti Jews. For the Reform movement, in a change taken up by most UK communities, children born of a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother are no longer automatically required to convert, although many do.

    It’s a thorny issue, and Reform did not arrive at that position easily. Yet while many things in Judaism are set in stone (literally), there is surely a case for modernisation. If it was a rabbinic decision to switch then and override the biblical way of doing things, surely that’s true now? Just as having the Shalosh Regalim last two days seems outdated when we have ample ways to confirm the calendar, it’s no longer tricky to clarify paternity.

    The rules are maddeningly inconsistent. Why is Judaism inherited through the mother, when a child is a Cohen or Levi based on their father? How does this stance fit with Israel’s Law of Return? And while we shouldn’t be defined by how our enemies see us, history’s most notorious antisemites have rarely made the distinction.

    Mostly, it just no longer reflects the reality of the Jewish family. A Chabad article on this argues that “the maternal line strikes much deeper to the essence of who you are”. Really? For every couple?

    We’re not in utopia yet, and women may still generally take the lion’s share of childcare, but the Jewish (and non-Jewish) men of my generation are moving in a more egalitarian direction, as Richard Verber’s decision to quit the Board of Deputies for family reasons shows. I have several friends who have taken shared parental leave; the fathers I know are equally invested in their child’s future.

    In other words, we’ve moved on from a society (Jewish and generally) where a child’s upbringing is solely deemed a woman’s responsibility. That includes responsibility for instilling spiritual values and understanding, or for marking Jewish festivals and celebrating our cultural heritage.

    Yet by saying Judaism cannot be passed down the male line alone, we are effectively telling fathers their identity isn’t enough to shape that of their progeny. We are effectively, arbitrarily, saying their only job in securing Judaism’s future is to marry Jewish, no matter whether their bride has any interest in keeping the flame of the religion alive.

    When this is brought up, it’s often in the context of our waning numbers and preventing the “loss” of community members. That’s an important conversation, but since conversion remains on the table, it’s a separate issue. Yet as we talk more and more about gender issues in Judaism, and rightfully press for progress in Orthodoxy, the question of whether fathers count is key.

    As a feminist, I have a fundamental problem with my religion assuming the offspring of Jewish fathers are somehow worth less than those of Jewish mothers. Teach your children, it commands in Deuteronomy. Why does it make a difference which parent is doing the teaching?

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