If the Mother is Jewish

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

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This week’s Parshah, Bamidbar, begins the book of “Numbers.” It so dubbed because it immediately sets out to record the census of the Jewish people, and determine their numbers, by counting the members of each tribe.

However, in our ever-expanding social discussion of gender identity, the second verse of the Parshah provides an interesting discussion point. In it, G-d commands Moses as follows:

Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families following their fathers’ houses; a head count of every male according to the number of their names. [1]

This single verse would seem to emphasize a patriarchal dominance in Judaism in several different ways.

The “children of Israel”: of Israel, Jacob — not Rachel or Leah.

Following “their fathers’ houses” — not their mothers’.

Counting “every male” — not the females.

And yet —

There is a silent, overarching and all-encompassing principle that casts a very different light on our patriarchal system: the principle of matrilineal descent.

Without converting, there is only one way to be Jewish, and that is to have a Jewish mother.

Think of the significance of this.

A man might be the greatest rabbi, a prophet of unparalleled esteem, a saint on the level of Moses himself — but he can do nothing to ensure that his children will be Jewish, unless a Jewish woman chooses to be the mother of his children.

A woman might belong to the dregs of society, she might be a truly hateful, cruel and immoral person — but if she’s Jewish, there is absolutely nothing that she can do to prevent her children from being Jewish.

A person might convert to a another religion. He might publicly disclaim his Judaism. He might refuse to have a bar mitzvah, or to have rabbi officiate at his wedding. He might vow to never eat another piece of gefilte fish in his life. Yet none of that would affect his Jewishness in the slightest, so long as his mother was Jewish.

To be fair, although the principle of matrilineal descent was universal at one point — and still is in virtually all Orthodox and Conservative communities — that is no longer the case. In 1983 the Reform movement passed a resolution that treated the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers as Jewish — provided that they also participated in the various Jewish life-cycle ceremonies.

Other than that, however, the fact that the mother determines the absolute and unconditional Jewishness of her child is a virtually universal and unquestioned principle.

Where does this principle come from? Surely, given how fundamental it is to the very identity of the Jewish people, it must appear somewhere prominent in the Torah — perhaps in the Ten Commandments, or in the story of Exodus?

Actually, no.

The biblical source for matrilineal descent is almost shockingly obscure.

About 40 years after the Jewish people left Egypt, as Moses was recounting for them all of the journeys that they had taken, the miracles that G-d had wrought, the challenges that they had faced, and the commandments that they had been given, he warned as follows:

When the Lord, your God, brings you into the land to which you are coming to possess it, He will cast away many nations from before you . . . 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 turn away your son from following Me, and they will worship the gods of others…[2]

It is the phrase “for he will turn away your son from following Me” that is key here. The question is: If we are commanded not to allow either our sons or daughters to intermarry, then why does the commandment express concern only about our sons being turned astray?

If the Torah was truly locked in a patriarchal groove, the answer would be easy: we just don’t care as much about our daughters as we do about our sons. That, however, is not the explanation.

Instead, the Talmud explains that the “son” who is in danger of being turned astray is actually our grandson; and the “he” who is likely to be doing the turning-astraying is the Canaanite husband to whom we might have given our daughter. And the fact that the Torah still calls their child our “son,” and is concerned about whether or not the child will be raised to be G-d-fearing, is because the child’s mother is Jewish.

Conversely, the verse does not warn that “she [a Canaanite wife] will turn your son [your grandson, born to your Jewish son] astray”; because that child would not be Jewish — since his mother is not Jewish — and would therefore not be considered our “son.” [3]

There is little about this Talmudic passage that is easy to digest. Starting with the syntax itself, would the phrase “for he will turn away your son” really jump back to the situation contemplated by “giving your daughter to his son,” skipping over the intervening phrase regarding “taking his daughter for your son”? And isn’t the “he” in the phrase “he will turn away your son” the same person intended in the phrase “you shall not take his daughter” — in other words, the Canaanite father-in-law? [4] And wouldn’t a simpler interpretation be that the commandment is concerned with influence that a Canaanite father-in-law would have over his Jewish son-in law (whereas perhaps a Jewish woman’s strength of character would involve less of a risk)? The way the Talmud expounds upon the verse just seems a bit strained.

And is this really the place that such a basic ingredient of our Jewish identity would be buried? Not in the direct narration of G-d’s commandments, but rather in Moses’s repetition of the commandments; and even then, not explicitly, but rather barely hinted to in a law regarding intermarriage?

Lastly, the Talmud’s explanation leads to a fascinating statement of priorities. According to the Talmud, the Torah presents two scenarios: one in which a Jewish girl marries a Canaanite boy, and one in which a Jewish boy marries a Canaanite girl. In the former, the children will all be Jewish, but will be raised by their Canaanite father. In the latter, none of their children will be Jewish — the Jewish line will end. Although the Torah prohibits both marriages, the Torah expresses concern about only one: the one in which Jewish child grow up without their Jewish heritage. By not warning of the consequences of a Jewish boy marrying a non-Jewish girl, Torah appears to be — if only slightly — less concerned about that outcome.

There is another biblical reference to the principal of matrilineal descent. The Book of Ezra tells of a large number of Jews who left their Babylonian exile to return to the land of Israel and to rebuild the Holy Temple after its first destruction. Later, Ezra the Scribe joined them. When he arrived, he learned that quite a large number of Jews had married gentile women and had children with those wives. After exhorting the Jew to return to G-d’s ways and His commandments, the Jews repented, and said:

“Let us now make a covenant with our G-d to expel all these women and those who have been born to them, in accordance with the bidding of G-d and those eager to fulfill our G-d’s Commandment, and let the Torah be obeyed.” [5]

If the children born to the gentile women were Jewish, would they have been sent away?

In reading the Torah, one often gets the sense that certain realities that were so common, widespread and obvious, that there was no need to make a point of specifying them in the Torah.

For example, in traditional (now Orthodox) Judaism, married women cover their hair. Why? Search the Torah, and you will find no commandment banning a woman’s uncovered hair. However, in a few weeks, we will read about the Sotah — a married woman accused of adultery after having been warned by her husband, who must undergo a grueling and public ceremony to determine her guilt. As a part of the ritual, the Torah says that “the kohen shall stand the woman up before the Lord and expose the hair on the head of the woman.” From the fact that the Kohen uncovered her hair, we can surmise that her hair had been covered; and the fact that the Torah, with its extreme economy of words, acknowledges this practice, tells us that it was a universal Jewish practice.

The principle of matrilineal descent is far more fundamental than a woman covering her hair, but it is so basic and foundational that it is perhaps not the kind of concept that would be specifically flagged in the Torah. It is not a commandment, per se. It is not a moral lesson. It is simply a fact of what makes a Jew. Thus, the references to matrilineal descent need not even be expressly stated, and appear incidentally throughout the biblical texts. We, millennia later, struggle to find the source for truths that were then self-evident.

Before Shavuot, before G-d gave the Torah, the Jewish people were more like a large family than a nation. They were the children of Israel. G-d chose Israel — Jacob — as the man whose children would comprise His future nation. At the foot of Mount Sinai, however, the children of Israel were forged into a nation. No longer just a family. Sure, the father will still determine which of the twelve tribes a Jew belongs to, just as Jacob’s twelve sons were themselves fathers.

But the essence of our identity — whether or not a person is Jewish — is obviously determined by the mother. Even the word “soul” — “Neshama” — is a feminine word. So is the word “shechinah,” referring to the Divine presence.

Because being Jewish is not a cultural thing. No amount of lox, cream cheese and bialys can make me Jewish. Nor is it a racial thing. The Jewish people are comprised of all races. And it’s not a philosophical thing or a ceremonial thing, for I am Jewish even if I claim not to believe in G-d, and even if I participate in no Jewish ceremonies.

Being Jewish means having been given a spark of the Divine, which — whether we like it or not — infuses our every thought, word and action with Divine energy. Consciously or unconsciously, our every touch is pregnant with spiritual potential and meaning. It is a far greater responsibility than it is a gift — much as King Midas discovered when he received his golden touch — for it imbues our interactions with the world around us with a spiritual charge that is sometimes uncomfortable, and which often puts us at odds with the baser elements of the world and of our own natures.

Regardless, the phenomenon of receiving a Divine gift, and nurturing it, developing it, and producing its fruit, is a strictly female endeavor. Men are quite capable of producing seed, but let’s face it — what percentage of men’s seed actually make it inside of a women to be fulfill its fertilizing purpose? The spiritual analog would be a Divine transmission with no receiver; it would just remain out there, in the ether, uncaptured, unheard. The ability to receive the Divine, on the other hand, to host it, nurture it, and perpetuate it, exists firmly — and obviously — in the province of women. So the answer to the question of why it is a mother who determines whether her child is Jewish or not is simple:

Who else?

Works Cited

[1] Numbers, 1:2.

[2] Deuteronomy, 7:1-4.

[3] Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 68b.

[4] This point is actually raised by Tosfot, who provides an alternative explanation as follows:

The Torah expresses concern that “your son” may be turned astray by his Canaanite father-in-law. The fact that the Torah specifically limits its concern to “your son,” and expresses no such concern about “your son’s children” — or perhaps more generically, “your progeny” — tells us that “your son” is the only Jew in danger of being corrupted in that situation; his children would not be Jewish.

In the situation in which a Jewish woman marries a Canaanite husband, however, the Torah is concerned for both her and all of her offspring, and therefore does not specify a concern for [just] “your daughter.”

[5] Ezra, 10:3