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‘Inherited Jewish status can be gained from any parent’

JN article by Rabbi Rebecca Birk

One of the many things that sets Progressive Judaism apart from the other branches of Judaism is our approach to Jewish status.

In British Progressive Judaism, a child is able to gain inherited Jewish status if any parent is Jewish – no matter if it is a mother or father.

It, of course, depends on the family and the individual choosing to lead a Jewish life.

For us, this is an opportunity to welcome a new family, and enable Jewish continuity. We prefer the term ‘marrying in’ than ‘marrying out’.

It’s also important to note that the inheritance of Jewish status in Progressive Judaism isn’t restricted to the religion of a biological parent, but also applies to adoptive parents.

This all means that our communities are bustling with individuals who have one Jewish parent (often termed patrilineal Jews where it is a father who is Jewish), but whose other parent is of a different, or no, faith.

As Jews, we love the Groucho Marx line: “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”

Maybe it’s because Judaism has always had quite strict membership rules.

Sometimes these have protected and strengthened, but sometimes – as in the matrilineal rule that restricted inherited Jewish status to only a mother – they have excluded in a very profound way.

We are not entirely sure why there was a change in the rules, from the Torah’s patrilineal lineage to the matrilineal concept that some branches of Judaism still follow today – but the latter first appears in the Mishnah in 200CE.

At the start of the 20th century, in the English-speaking world, this became something of a problem.

Why would children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers raised in a Jewish household and congregation not be considered formally Jewish?

So in 1909, the American Reform Rabbis (CCAR) adopted a new policy; the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother would not need to undergo formal conversion.

By the late 1920s, equilineal descent was first spoken about in what is now known as British Liberal Judaism. It became official policy in 1955 and was made even clearer in later years (as outlined above) to include all family structures.

The Movement for Reform Judaism also adopted a policy whereby someone raised as a Jew can have this recognised in their status without being required to go through conversion – uniting our UK Progressive family and reflecting our joint belief that Jewish life must be uncompromisingly egalitarian.

Progressive Judaism is predicated on a belief in continuous revelation, ongoing renewal of our Jewish principles and experience for every generation. Jewish status is one of those.

The verse from Deuteronomy 29 recalls the covenant agreement between Israel and God “not only with you who are standing here with us today… but also with those who are not here today.” Most commentators understand it referring to future generations.

It informs and instructs such an idea today that Jewish ideas and status must keep renewing.

Our wider, more diverse community reflecting our 21st century identity will welcome and ensure more families are included within our Jewish congregations.

Whichever parents carried the Jewish line, the family will be encouraged and welcomed to raise their children as Jews in our communities.

By Rabbi Rebecca Birk, Finchley Progressive Synagogue
Writing in The Jewish News

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