Karen Glaser

This Father’s Day, let’s hear it for patrilineal Jews

Forget the idea that you’re only a Jew if your mother is Jewish. Let’s go back to the Bible


Like father, like daughter: patrilineal Jew Gwyneth Paltrow with her father Bruce, in 2001 (Photo: Getty Images)

June 14, 2024 10:00

Last week, I was at a dinner party at which I got chatting to a lovely person. We raced through subjects nodding and giggling in excited agreement in the way you sometimes do with people with whom there’s instant chemistry. But then she said the following and, just as instantly, the temperature in the room dropped. “Dad’s Jewish but mum isn’t, so neither am I.”

Dropped for me, that is. I got the distinct impression, can’t imagine why, that Rebecca has been told for her entire life that Jewishness is passed down through the mother and so felt she was simply stating a widely known truth.

But for me it’s a nonsense and every time I hear someone say this about themselves, or other Jews, I feel sad and compelled to demur. Gossip: I’ve even found myself reprimanding colleagues for saying they aren’t properly Jewish because their Jewishness comes from their father, not their mother. I mean, come on, they work for this newspaper so really ought to know better.

Anyway, since we are approaching Father’s Day, the day when we honour dads and their role in our lives, I am going to use this column to reprimand you, if you too buy into the whole illusory purity of the matrilineal line thing. Just in case it’s not already blindingly obvious, my view on the matter is as unequivocal as that of the halachists: you are wrong.

Where to start? Nuremberg is as good a place as any, I guess. If our patrilineal fellows were good enough for Hitler to murder as Jews, they are, surely, good enough for us to let them live as Jews.

Next up, the sacred writings of Judaism. Whenever I make the case for patrilineal Jews being as Jewish as Jews like me (I have a Jewish mother), someone will invariably cite the Hebrew bible. Unwise. The matrilineal definition of Jewish status does not appear in the Old Testament. In that collection of writings, Jewish status is actually patrilineal, with the father’s family still determining our tribes today. It was altered to the female line in rabbinic times because of the perceived needs of that age. I’d go as far as to say this is a stain at the heart of rabbinic Judaism.

But not a stain that spreads to all rabbis. As I never tire of reminding people, only one denomination of Judaism insists on the rule of matrilineal descent, the one that can be loosely be described as Orthodox.

Well, other strains of Judaism are available, people. When I decided to join a synagogue ten years ago so my daughter could have a bat mitzvah (she didn’t in the end, but that’s a story for another column) I automatically went for a Progressive shul because I could never pay membership fees to a synagogal movement that doesn’t recognize patrilineal Jews. Or as a rather famous Jew put it, I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.

Meanwhile in Israel, the most Jewish place on Earth, the entry rules for the club sit very well with me. Under the Law of Return, people with one Jewish grandparent have the right to Israeli citizenship, regardless of whether they are considered Jewish under Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law. In 1950, in an address to the Knesset, the then-Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion uttered some of the most moving words to ever fall from the lips of a Jewish leader: “This law does not provide for the state to bestow the right to settle upon the Jew living abroad; it affirms that this right is inherent in him from the very fact of being a Jew.”

Of course, 71 years later, Itamar Ben Gvir did his best to amend the sacred Law of Return to include only halachically-recognised Jews, which for me probably ranks as the far-right politician’s most outrageous endeavour yet, and competition for that description is stiff.

Had Ben Gvir been successful my beloved Dad, who I will be honouring this Sunday, even though, in truth, every day is Father’s Day for me, would not be allowed to make aliyah. He’s a patrilineal Jew, you see.

Never mind that it was Dad who introduced me to wonderful books about Jews and Jewishness when I was a little girl, that his historical knowledge of Israel is better than anyone’s I know, that he’s helped make me the proud Jew I am today, that his own father escaped Nazi Europe. For the halachists, my Dad doesn’t count.

You do, Dad, and so does yours, Rebecca. Happy Father’s Day to you both.

June 14, 2024 10:00

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