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To a Child of a Jewish Father

To a Child of a Jewish Father

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Question:

My mother was Protestant. My father's father was Catholic, but his mother was Jewish. My family survived the holocaust in Europe, with great struggle.

I know that by traditional Jewish law I am not Jewish, but I feel that I more than qualify to be a Jew. I read books about Jews. I support Israel. I even had a bar mitzvah. The worst part is that the people who tell me I am not Jewish are rabbis! They said I would have to convert to Judaism. I do not understand why they say this. My family survived the greatest atrocities in the history of the Jews. How can I convert, when I feel that I already am Jewish....

Response:

In Biblical Israel, every citizen was landed. If you were a descendant of one of the twelve tribes, you owned a plot of land. If you sold it, it came back to you--or to your inheritors--on the jubilee year, which occurred every 50 years. You were tied to the land and the land was tied to you. Inheritance of land was through the paternal line--just as tribal affiliation is patrilineal.

I'm mentioning this because, in Torah law, a very similar relationship exists between the Torah and a Jew, between a Jew and his Jewishness. A Jew can abandon the Torah, but the Torah never abandons him--eventually it will return, if not to him, then to his children, if not to his children, then to his children's children. So too, a Jew may imagine that he has abandoned his Jewishness, and yet always remains a Jew--as do the children of that Jew, and the children of those children.

There are two distinctions, however, between the relationship of a Jew to his share of the land and the relationship of a Jew to Torah and Jewishness. One is that it is possible to sell one's plot of land--although it will still return, for that period of time, it is sold. Torah and Jewishness, on the other hand, are not for sale. No matter how hard a Jew may try, he never truly can let go of either.

The other distinction is that Jewishness--and therefore the relationship to Torah--is not patrilineal, but matrilineal. Perhaps these two distinctions are related: The maternal line strikes much deeper to the essence of who you are, and that essence is something that not only will always return, but can never truly be abandoned.

Despite all this, the child whose father married out of his people can still claim his father's heritage. His challenge is greater than the child whose Jewish mother brought him by default into her people. In his case, it is up to him to decide whether he wants to make the commitment to join his father's people and to fulfill all the obligations the Torah places upon this nation. He must also become circumcised and immerse in a mikvah before a qualified bet din.

If this is the path you wish to follow, I am willing to assist to whatever degree is within my capacity. If not, it is good to have you as a friend of the Jewish People. The righteous of humankind, no matter to which family, tribe or nation they belong, all have a share in the world to come.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Discussion (205)
December 25, 2016
Understanding lineage and what conversion is
So much profound desire and confusion.

Let me add something-

Being Jewish is something you have inside you. You do or don't. If you enter into the covenant where nobody else in your line had prior, you have Neshema that was calling out to Hashem.

'Converting' is learning to do Mitzvot with as many actions as you possibly can. To bring Hashem's love and wisdom into this world to make it fit for Hashem to be present. It's a way life, a way of spirit, and a way of being. I've always felt this is so much more than something as boxed in as a 'religion'.

If you've discovered your lineage is paternal, maternal, or otherwise, learning to do Mitzvot is an honor, blessing, and a Mitzvah in of itself. You have my love as a brother regardless.
Aaron Schlesinger
New York
December 25, 2016
Thats disappointing
I have the same issue. Even though I am clearly of Jewish descent it was my Father who was Jewish. It doesn't count if my grandmother and family were killed in Auschwitz. Seems to be a betrayal. However, despite what the rabbinical view us I am a descendant of David, by lineage. So I will trust in God, not the Torah.
Anonymous
Henderson
December 13, 2016
need Torah/Bible reference
Where is it clearly stated in the scriptures (Torah) - without an esoteric reading of the text - that "jewishness" can only be passed through the mother? My father is Jewish and my mother is a gentile. Our Rabbi said that I am Jewish through my father. I do not want a Talmudic interpretation since the Torah trumps any commentary.
Anonymous
NJ
June 22, 2016
It is not enough that the doctor be "orthodox". In fact, he does not need to be orthodox. He does need to be halachically Jewish. But then he needs to take the standard training that every mohel learns. A mohel does circumcisions every day, or at least every week--far more often than most MD's do them. The mohel is the expert, and the MD is the amateur, unless the MD gets the mohel's training. But an MD with mohel training IS a mohel. He is called upon often enough that he, too, is an expert.
Reuven
Seattle
June 22, 2016
Mohel malpractice???
When we are expecting a child, we ask the obstetrician not to circumcise the baby. There have been two or more famous cases where he did it anyway, and the parents sued the doctor in a regular US court. It was such a strange lawsuit, in the eyes of the press, that it was reported all over the United States. The last time I heard of such a case was years ago. I guess the famous case alerted all the doctors to be careful to be less cavalier about the parents' wishes. But most MD's are already careful so there have never been very many lawsuits about wrongfully timed circumcisions.
Rebecca
Kansas City
June 20, 2016
Thanks Rabbi Moshen. I guess you would have to call an improper circumcision "Mohel Malpractice". I wonder if like medical malpractice you can sue for this? Would the lawsuit be in a Rabbinical or Circuit Court?
Dr. Harry Hamburger
Miami
June 20, 2016
If you have a foreskin (in whole or part)
To those me who have a foreskin and are considering conversion, please do not just go to someone to circumcise you. Wait for your Beith Din to decide that you are ready and then they will choose an expert. Your Brith Milah will be done with the blessings before and after that are unique to a Ger.

I have had the merit to be at a few (some by orthodox doctors and others by trained Mohalim), some full and some part (where the doctor who preformed the original circumcision left part of the foreskin still attached).
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
June 20, 2016
Being Jewish is really not very complicated at all. Keep Kosher, follow the Commandments, study Torah, celebrate the Sabbath, learn Hebrew, and if a male..get that foreskin cut off. Otherwise, why bother. If you do these things, and get a Rabbi to convert you, it will not matter who your father or mother are. If you object to the above, I suggst you become a Methodist or Unitarian.
Dr. Harry Hamburger
Miami
June 18, 2016
What makes you think you have the authority to decide who is a Jew?
What if I say that people can be Christian without being baptized? What if I say that having one Christian parent is enough, and that baptism is unnecessary?

Sorry, but that is not what Christianity says about itself. And nobody, not even a devout Christian, can authorize the claim that you can be a Christian without having been baptized. Any such claim is irrelevant.

Your claim that Rabbi Freeman's "reasoning simply cannot stand" fails. For millennia, there have been two ways to be a Jew: either by entering the mikveh (which has sme resemblance to baptism by immersion). Or, you can be born of a Jewish mother.

If you like, you can pretend your "reasoning" is met by claiming that her uterine fluid is like a mikveh and the baby is immersed before birth. But that is not why the mother's Jewishness counts. It counts because the mother's Jewishness has been the criterion for thousands of years, and your demand to satisfy your "reasoning" is irrelevant.
Rafael
Buffalo
June 13, 2016
Fathers strike just as deep!
Is this really a message we want to send to our fathers and our children: "The maternal line strikes much deeper to the essence of who you are?"

I appreciate Rabbi Freeman's kind approach and I respect his conclusion, but his reasoning simply cannot stand.
Andrew
Philadelphia