Dear Rabbi: Last Week Someone Told Me I Wasn’t Jewish

Rabbi Jonathan Aaron

Dear Rabbi…                               

Rabbi, my father is Jewish and my mother is Christian, I went to religious school, had a bat-mitzvah, and my whole life I’ve had Shabbat dinner at home with my family and friends on Friday nights. Last week someone told me I wasn’t Jewish, is that true?                


– Jew(ish)

Dear Jew(ish),                   

The question about who passes Jewish status to children has changed throughout Jewish History. In the Hebrew Bible, Jewish descent was passed through the father. In the story of Jacob, it is clear that descent passed through him, and not through his four wives. And in Numbers 1 it says: “By their families, by their fathers’ houses.”                       

It wasn’t until the Rabbinic Period after the destruction of the Temple that only matrilineal descent determined whether you were Jewish. But curiously, when the rabbis expound upon this in the Mishnah, patrilineal descent is responsible for the tribe to which you belong (Priest, Levite, Judean, etc). It is unclear why this change took place, although some speculate that when the people of Israel were dispersed, it was easier to verify if the mother was Jewish.                     

In 1983, the Reform Rabbinate, led by then President of the Reform movement, Alexander Schindler, put forth a resolution stating that when ONE parent is Jewish, whether the mother OR father, their o spring is Jewish.                    

So in your case, since you were brought up Jewish, and identify as a Jewish person, and one of your parents was Jewish, you are Jewish. In Reform Judaism, which parent is Jewish is not as important as learning about, participating in, and making the rituals and traditions of Jewish life a part of your life. I believe that we should be proud of the Reform movement for understanding the modern world, and doing what was right.

– Rabbi Jonathan Aaron