Is Judaism defined by one’s mother or father?


In the Bible, genealogies are stated mostly in terms of fathers and sons. Yet, in speaking to contemporary Jews, I am told that the determination of whether one is a Jew or not depends upon the mother’s lineage and faith.
Is that the Biblical standard or was that changed over time?

∼ Christopher J.


Dear Christopher,

The Hebrew word for parents is ‘HoRiM.’  The ‘iM’ at the end denotes a plural word. There is no singular noun for ‘parent.’  Mother, yes. Father, yes. Parenthood, however, takes teamwork. Knowing this fact benefits everyone.

It encourages individuals to marry before having children and lets them know that they are depriving their children if they do otherwise. If a tragedy occurs and one of the parents is no longer alive or available to the child, then acknowledging that parenthood is a two person-two gender job allows the extended family and community to know that assistance is needed. Pretending that any and every family is equally desirable pretends to help children, while really it harms them.

Judaism’s way of identifying people underscores this idea that both mothers and fathers are necessary. One’s Judaism is dependent on having a Jewish mother (or converting). Your father can be from a distinguished Jewish lineage, yet if your mother is not Jewish, neither are you. On the other hand, your tribal identity depends on your father. While a Levite father has unique stature in Judaism, as do his children, a mother descended from the tribe of Levi but not married to a Levite, does not pass on that identity to her own children. Thus, Judaism emphasizes that one’s entire identity comes from both one’s parents, not just from one.

Much of the Torah revolves around forging inter-dependency between people. The Torah does not extoll heading off to a mountain top and living in isolation. One area that this co-dependency has always been nurtured has been by recognizing that a child needs input from both his mother and his father.

Collaborate, connect and create,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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