Patrilineal Jews: Can there be Two Truths?

Two just claims can conflict. Two people of good will can be at odds.  Should one side be eliminated in order to have peace? Or can we compromise and live with people with whom we disagree?

This question arises frequently when interfaith couples are addressing patrilineal descent – children of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. It hits close to home – how will our children’s religious identity be perceived, will they be welcomed and seen as equal to children of Jewish mothers?  The answer is a simple, no. There are environments in which a patrilineal child is not seen as a Jew.  I think we all agree that that doesn’t mean we should kill everyone in those communities. However, the answer is typically, we have to change their minds. Here are my issues with that belief.

  1. I will not change my beliefs because someone disagrees with me. Why should I assume someone else will?
  2. I’ve heard the arguments and they all fail to address the concerns of traditional communities. We’re speaking Tagalog in Portugal and wondering why we aren’t getting through.
  3. We are demanding that someone else’s spiritual home be altered for us instead of seeking a spiritual home who’s population is in agreement with us.
  4. We are using a negative approach. There are often angry and disparaging words used in front of and to children about other Jews.  Thus we seed our children’s Judaism with hatred and despair.  This is our worst sin.

I remember reading the bar mitzvah speech of a boy born to a Jewish father who had been poisoned against Judaism. It was bitter and dark. I’m sure the child fled Judaism as soon as he could leave his home. His father went on to threaten to sue another young person who wrote an article in the J-weekly that contradicted his viewpoint. I was deeply saddened to see that both father and son were going through life poised to strike.

Let us follow the wisdom of Shoftim and acknowledge that we disagree with others, but wish them no ill. Reflect on how lucky we are to be comfortable accepting every Jew!  The Orthodox struggle with their attachment to our children.  As one Orthodox rabbi has said to me of patrilineal children, “They aren’t Jewish, but they also aren’t not Jewish.”  Is that hard for you to understand? Then challenge yourself to figure it out. One thing I love about Orthodoxy is how it demands learning many, and at times opposing, viewpoints.  The better one understands the opinion of another, the better we can communication.


A teaching on compromise from Cantor Linda Hirschhorn.

There’s a song from the sixties by Buffalo Springfield with the line, “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” It’s been more than 50 years and we still can’t seem to get past the idea that “I’m right and that makes everyone else wrong.”  How appropriate is Cantor Linda Hirschhorn‘s email to her congregation, Beth Sholom of San Leandro, on this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim.  Here’s what she has to teach us.

In this week’s Torah portion we read: “Tsedek Tsedek Tirdof” “Justice, justice shall you pursue. “ The question of course is why the word ‘Tsedek’ is repeated?  Here are some answers that Rabbis have offered over the years:

Hida: (18th century Palestine & Western Europe, North Africa) Justice, justice you shall pursue…With justice, you shall pursue justice. Even the pursuit of justice must employ only just means, and not falsehood.

R’ Simhah Bunim of Pshischa (18th century Poland): Justice, justice you shall pursue…Justice alone is not enough, because there are many types of justice, just as there are many kinds of truth. Every regime has its own justice. The Torah, therefore, stresses, “Justice justice you shall pursue,” namely the musar (ethic) of justice, where both the means and the end are just.

Maimonides, living in Egypt in the eleventh century CE, taught that the repetition emphasizes the need to consult with others, garnering as many points of view as possible before reaching a decision.

Still others in the Talmud explain the repetition of “justice” to refer to the need for just compromise. It is understood that often two justified claims clash with each other; thus tzedek, tzedek. The rabbis explained that the repetition of tzedek teaches us that when two justified claims clash with each other, the just solution is for the parties to find a compromise between them.

Resh Lakish, who lived and taught in Tiberias in the third century CE, taught that the repetition of tzedek  is to remind us to be deliberate and careful in judgment, revisiting and reviewing the case and not rushing into a decision. In Jewish law, a bet din, or rabbinical court, waits until the next day before delivering a guilty verdict.

Others have argued that the term is repeated to convey the idea that the pursuit of justice is not only the responsibility of the officials and the courts, but also of each individual.

Bakhya ben Asher, living in Spain in the twelfth century, taught that the double emphasis means justice under any circumstance, whether to your profit or loss, whether in word or in action, whether to Jew or non-Jew.

In nineteenth-century Poland, Reb Yaakov Yitchak of P’shischa interpreted the word’s repetition to connote that the end does not justify the means: “The pursuit of justice must also be done justly, unblemished by invalid means, with lies and surreptitiousness as some permit themselves under the flag of the worthy cause.”

As relevant today as in days of yore.