5770 - #33




The halachic assertion that Jewish identity at birth is established by the mother’s identity1 has faced various challenges in recent years, most notably by the Reform movement. This movement’s critique actually did not emerge from a questioning of heredity per se but, rather, from the contention that one’s religious identity should really be based on commitment. The essence of their argument was not that a child’s Jewish identity should be determined by a father’s status as well as a mother’s but, rather, this identity should be based solely on how the child is raised.2 Others, though, did voice support for the Reform position based on heredity, arguing that it simply should not matter whether it is the father or mother who is Jewish; one Jewish parent creates the Jew. This argument found further support in the reality that Nazi anti-Semitism did not distinguish between whether one’s father or mother was Jewish; the underlying sentiment being that if one is going to be persecuted as a Jew, we must also see this person as a Jew. For the halachic individual, none of these arguments could, of course, change the Divine law yet they did sharpen the question: why is Jewish identity defined by the mother?

            To many, the answer would seem obvious. We absolutely know who the mother is; Jewish identity should be just as absolute. In our present age, some who support patrilineal descent retort that with modern DNA testing we can also absolutely know who the father is. A review of Kiddushin 66b, where the statement that one’s Jewish status follows the mother is enunciated, would show, though, that this argument actually has little validity in explaining why one’s Jewish status should follow the mother. According to the gemara, almost every other definition of status follows the father; if the supposed criterion for such a law is the need to definitely know a child’s status, why should laws of status ever follow the father?

            The method by which the gemara learns that Jewish status follows the mother is most interesting. Devarim 7:8,9 present the prohibition of marrying a non-Jew3 and the reason for this prohibition. These verses state that one should not take a non-Jewish woman as a wife for a son nor give a daughter as a wife to a non-Jewish man “for he will turn your son away from [God].” The wording of the verse seems to be somewhat problematic for it seems to state that the concern is that the non-Jewish male will lead a Jewish male astray and, furthermore, that this is the sole concern. It is from this problematic wording that the gemara concludes that only the child born to a Jewish mother is Jewish by birth. Rashi, Yevamot 17a explains that since the Torah uses the singular male tense, not the singular female tense, our concern cannot be that the non-Jewish mother will lead the child astray. This is because her child is, anyway, not Jewish. Our concern is thus that the non-Jewish father could potentially lead his Jewish son, born to a Jewish mother, astray. Tosfot, Yevamot 17a, d.h. V’ein maintains a different understanding. Our concern when a Jewish man marries a non-Jewish woman is that he, this Jewish male, will, inherently, be led astray by the wife and her family, the use of the male tense reflecting his father-in-law. This is specifically indicated by the offspring not being Jewish. We are not similarly concerned when a Jewish woman marries a non-Jewish man for the children are still Jewish.4 Either way, though, there still seems to be a simple problem with these verses. The commandment prohibits both intermarriage by a Jewish man and a Jewish woman yet the reason, on the surface, seems to only specifically apply to one of these cases albeit that Rashi and Tosfot do focus independently on each different case. The answer, though, may actually be found in the very reality of both these explanations.

             T.B. Avodah Zara 36b states that this lo ta’aseh, negative commandment, specifically concerns intermarriage and is not the source for the prohibition of sexual relations with non-Jews. The concern here is not a momentary attraction but, rather, a thoughtful determination. One wishes to marry a non-Jew; one, we can assume, has good reasons for marrying this non-Jew. The non-Jew may indeed have many good characteristics but, nevertheless, still wishes to define himself/herself as a non-Jew. In that the verse warns the Jew that through this intermarriage there is a strong possibility of assimilation, we can perhaps also assume that this Jewish individual also believes that there will be no negative effect on his/her Jewishness as a result of this intermarriage.  This, we can project, is the scenario that the verse is addressing.

            It is the Torah perspective on the mechanics of a relationship and of a family that the verse is revealing. There indeed will be a difference in the workings of a family whether the husband/father or wife/mother is Jewish yet the eventual results are potentially very similar. Both scenarios can and most often will lead to assimilation. When a Jewish man marries a non-Jewish woman, the children are not Jewish. In most cases of status, the issue is communal; status, as such, follows the father. Jewish identity, however, is more personal. It is the mother who is inherently, even physically, more attached to her children.5 The personal status of Jewishness, thus, must follow the mother. The child of such a union is, thus, immediately lost to the Jewish People. A wife furthermore also sets the tone in the house. As such a Jewish husband also can more easily be led astray by his non-Jewish wife than a Jewish wife could be similarly affected by her non-Jewish spouse. Simply, the effects of an intermarriage to a non-Jewish woman are more direct and the verse, within the context of some explanations, is asserting this reality.

            Nevertheless, this does not mean that there are no negative effects from a marriage to a non-Jewish man, they are just more removed. He is still an educator of and model for his children. They may be Jewish but they are Jews subject to non-Jewish influences just as the wife is subject to them in such circumstances. The result thus is eventually similar. Albeit more indirectly, this type of intermarriage also will lead one away from the Torah service of God.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 See Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 8:5. It may be of interest to note that this definition is actually not phrased in terms of the Jewish mother but rather the non-Jewish mother namely that in a situation where a child is born to a Jewish man and non-Jewish woman, the status of the child follows the mother.

2 A Reform rabbi once explained to me that even if a child was born to Jewish parents but was brought up as a member of another religion, while Orthodoxy will still identify this child as Jewish, Reform Judaism would not. It should be noted, though, that the question of how a factor of heredity does enter into an evaluation of religious identity is a serious one but that investigation is outside the parameters of this Insight, See, however, my Crisis in Jewish Identity, Nishma Journal IV, V, VI, VII.

3 See, further, Chinuch, Mitzvah 427. We will assume, as per Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah 12:1 that this law applies to relations with all non-Jews.

4 It should, perhaps, be noted that other commentators have different ways of explaining the gemara’s derivation from the verse.

5 See, for example, T.B. Eruvin 82b..

(c) Nishma, 2010





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