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To a Child of a Jewish Father

To a Child of a Jewish Father

E-mail

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.
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Discussion (173)
March 13, 2015
Many thanks,rav!I'll thinkabout it!
George
Milan,Italy
March 12, 2015
George - Please come to America where with your background and the amount you've already studied conversion should be fast and painless.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn
March 2, 2015
Patrilinear
Well,in Italy where I live conversion takes ages!For people with Jewish fathers it's usually five years minimum;but for people who are not Zerah Israel,it can take as long as ten years!
George
Milan,Italy
January 29, 2015
Support Groups
I am aware of two groups in English (one on yahoo and one on facebook) and one in Portuguese. I am sure that there are others.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
January 28, 2015
Patrilineal Jews and Conversion
I am in the process of converting - I had one Jewish grandfather, and another who was half jewish through his father.

I am happy to convert; I long accepted I'd have to go through this process - not because I want others to accept my jewish status, but because I need to feel secure in it for myself. However, I have found that converts need a lot more support than they get in general. Interestingly, I have Haredi friends who, despite being in a pretty insular community, were prepared to set me up with somewhere to live, an introduction to their friends and a Rabbi at a local shul. I think across the board there needs to be a sort of support movement set up for converts from all strands of Judaism. I can honestly say that converts are terribly vulnerable in some ways, and this is not always understood by halachic Jews who've never had to confirm their Jewish status!
Clarissa Smid
United Kingdom
November 28, 2014
Who can really prove it?
Records were not kept (that we have?), so why shouldn't I be totally a goy?
Amos Hart
Finchley
November 17, 2014
My Jewish daughter will do whatever she feels comfortable with when she is a grown woman, which apparently on this blog is 18. Where that arbitrary number comes from I have no idea. She is Jewish, and always has been. She is leaning toward conservative at this point. Her children will be raised in the highest of Jewish traditions, namely shalom in the home, Torah study, respect for parents, and love of neighbor. That is what Jewish is.
Ronald Roth
St. James, NY
chabadmidsuffolk.com
November 17, 2014
Definitions
Orthodox Jews accept the existence of an Oral Torah that was carried through the generations. An outline of it was "published" at the beginning of the third century CE called the "Mishnah". Notes of the academies were included in the "Gemara" which when included with the Mishnah gives us the Talmud. This acceptance of the Oral Law is a sine qua non to Orthodox. The teachings of the Talmud were digested and published in various works, especially the "Shulchan Aruch". There is nothing vague here. And we are not free to disregard the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch in our discussions, however hard we would like to bend over backward to accept those who wish to be accepted. Biblical guidance is not needed.

Even if you were to refuse to accept the Oral Law you would still have to deal with the actions of Ezra who dismissed foreign wives and children born by these foreigners. And this is recorded in the Bible.
Rabbi Aryeh Moshen
Brooklyn, NY
November 17, 2014
Who is a Jew
Who is a Jew is by no means arbitrary, or some fiction dreamed up by orthodox Rabbis to have a corner on the conversion market. A Jew is a man or woman who studies the Torah and Halacha. They accept the positive and negative commandments as handed down by Moses. They keep Kosher, and honor the Sabbath. Why someone would want to be called Jewish, yet not act and practice being Jewish is beyond my limited understanding. This discussion is sort of like someone wanting to be a duck, but wants to burrow in the ground like a gopher. Please, if you want to be Jewish then BE Jewish with all that it entails. If you believe that being a good person is the important thing, then become a Methodist. I will say it again, "those who marry Jew with non-Jew, and convert those with no intention to be practicing Jews are "killers" of the Jewish people, and belong in the pit with Korach.
Dr. Harry
Miami, Fl.
November 16, 2014
Jewishness has always been inherited through the mother. The problem exists because the Reform chose to separate themselves from all other Jews (including Conservative Jews) by acknowledging non-Jews as Jews. I hope you have warned your daughter that she is regarded as non-Jewish by all non-Reform Jews, and that her children will also be unable to inherit Jewishness from her. If she wants to marry a non-Reform Jew she will have to convert. It might be useful for her, if she wants to be accepted as a Jew beyond the Reform community, to convert upon reaching age 18.

This has been going on for three or four generations now, and promises to be more & more of a problem as more and more Reform Jews are regarded as non-Jews by non-Reform Jews. I wish that the Reform movement would warn the children of non-Jewish mothers (& this includes Jews who are converted by Reform rabbis) of what they may face as adults. Orthodox and Conservative rabbis will need proof that the mother's line is Jewish.
David
Chicago
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