Jewish Identity: One Debate

Jewish Identity: One Debate
Jewish star stained glass window illustrating a post about Jewish identity

Most modern Jewish communities honour two paths to Jewish identity. You are a Jew if you (1) are born to a Jewish mother, or (2) converted in a ritual overseen by a beit din, or rabbinic court.

In a halachic paper, Rabbi Ethan Tucker argues that we should change #1. We should make it stricter: you are a Jew by birth only if both your parents are Jewish.

Why? Well, says Rabbi Tucker, it’s complicated.

Matrilineal descent makes sense, in a certain social context. One where the Jewish community had no room for intermarriage. Maybe a mom was raped, in which case Dad was likely gone. Or maybe the couple had a consensual, but socially edgy, relationship. In that case, they had two options. Mom could leave the community with Dad, and raise a child outside of Judaism. Or Dad could leave, and then Mom would raise her Jewish child alone. A child raised by its Jewish mother alone, the rabbis decided, would be unambiguously Jewish.

But in our context, Rabbi Tucker argues, a Jewish woman can marry a non-Jewish man. And two parents, with different religious identities, could raise a child. So, the child would be part of two very different extended families. The child would experience two different rhythms of seasonal holidays. They might feel themselves pulled in two different directions. And thus, in important ways, the child would not be unambiguously Jewish.

So, what does Rabbi Tucker suggest? That the Jewish community acknowledge the complexity. Thus, any child of a Jew and a non-Jew should have a special chance to declare their Jewishness. As soon as they are ready to commit fully to it, they should have a modified conversion ritual. No extra study, no waiting time, but an immersion in the mikvah as soon as possible.

(Tucker does believe that rabbis should require this. If they didn’t, he argues, few people would ever get around to scheduling it.)

Now, this is an interesting proposal. Potentially helpful, potentially hurtful. But it’s worth debating. After all, some things in life are in our control, like the religious tradition we embrace. And some things are not in our control, like who our parents were. This mikvah ritual could be wonderful celebration of adult autonomy and choice. Yes, I was born into a complex situation. But I sorted it out, and I have made my free choice.

Except that’s not how Rabbi Tucker explains it in his 2015 paper. He does not talk about autonomy and choice. Instead, he talks about “blood” and “covenant” and “ethnic apostasy.”

Judaism, he says, is a “covenantal” religion. A lot of it is performative, embodied, experienced through ritual. So, there is a “covenant” of the body. And this bodily covenant is “passed on by blood.” A Jew who has sex with another Jew honors the covenant. A Jew who has sex with a non-Jew ignores it. By rejecting the covenant, they commit “ethnic apostasy.”

This is really upsetting language.

First—and most obviously—the biological direction is a self-contradictory. Rabbi Tucker describes a cultural shift. Today, he says, non-Jewish fathers actively educate their Jewish children. So, it seems odd to speak of what they don’t pass down “by blood.”

Second, “blood” is a terrible metaphor for genetics. It echoes the language used by some of the worst antisemites. It affirms that we have our own “bloodline.” We might feel we have the purest line. But others feel we are grossly impure. Also, “ethnic apostasy” sounds a lot like the Nazi concept of Rassenschande, the “race defilement” that happens when an Aryan has sex with a non-Aryan. I suppose you could counter this antisemitic rhetoric by proudly reclaiming it in a Jew-positive way. And maybe that’s what Rabbi Tucker means to do. But I would rather speak about Jewish identity in different terms.

Third, “blood” is also a terrible metaphor for emphasizing the role of biological fathers. Tucker argues that fathers and mothers have an equal role in the “bloodline.” But that is not how reproduction works. It’s true that blood type is determined by both mother and father. But a fetus’s developing circulatory system is connected to its mother’s. And the fetus is sustained by nutrients from its mothers blood.

If we are going to talk about genetics, let’s please use contemporary scientific terms. Because—among other reasons—women still suffer under remnants of old Aristotelian biology. Like the theory that we are passive vessels holding the baby made by Dad.

Fourth, it’s just a little bit odd to talk about women’s responsibility to treasure the “covenant.” Yes, I know that brit, covenant, is a traditional Jewish term. But I also know that the brit at Mt. Sinai is addressed to men—even if midrash denies it. And that Jewish men make a sign of the brit on their bodies. But, I am not a man. So, covenant is not at the center of my embodied Jewish identity. Of course I connect with God and with Jewish history. But not through the experience of “covenant.”

And that is fine with me. Covenant is, after all, a political model. A community, through its representative, makes a covenant with a king. Thus, it agrees to the king’s rule of law. Obviously, God is supposed to be better than any earthly king. But monarchy and aristocracy are coming back these days—and not in a good way. So, I would rather not glorify them in religious language about Jewish identity.

So, I know Rabbi Tucker is planning to update this paper. He sees himself as a progressive egalitarian—within Orthodox boundaries of course. And thus, he is stuck with particular halachic concepts. But some of these concepts just don’t make sense in our social context. The language of “blood” and “covenant” and “ethnic apostasy” is patriarchal, regressive, and tainted.

Yes, obviously this is only critique, not an articulation of alternate ideas. And I do hope to articulate more clearly, in writing, the theology that I express in other contexts.

NOTES: Essay referenced: Ethan Tucker, “Matrilineality and Patrilineality in Jewish Law and Community, Part 3” (2015). Photo credit: Alex Proimos via Wikimedia Commons.

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