Thursday, January 19, 2006

Matrilineal Jews and the Torah

In the bigger social picture, there are two presuppositions that define Jewish culture today. The first, and most important, is "whether or not they believe in Jesus". This fact is quite confusing to most people, for example:
A friend of mine, whose husband is Jewish, told me she was planning to convert to Judaism. Knowing that she had been raised in a Catholic family, I was curious, and asked if she had ever visited a Messianic Jewish congregation. She looked puzzled and asked, "What's that?" So I told her that it is a Church founded by Jews who believe in Jesus. And with wide surprise in her eyes, she replied, "They have those?"

Her response was not too amazing, but my inclination to suggest that Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, or Paul were Jews who believed in Jesus could have been insulting ... so instead, I thought, it would be more appropriate to invite her to a Bible study. Before I could do that, her father-in-law approached us, having overheard the last bit of our conversation. The situations that the Lord puts me in are amazing sometimes.
No matter how much the Jewish people resist the notion that their culture is defined by "whether or not they believe in Jesus", it is perhaps the most defining aspect of their culture today. In fact, for Jews who do not believe in Jesus, it shapes their culture far more than they want to admit. The very nature of the way that they respond to Christian proselytizing, let alone the mention of Jesus in their own home, is quite telling. They might freely talk of satan worshippers, enemies of the state like Bin Laden, or even Hitler, but Jesus is not up for discussion at all. It is easy to understand why they do this, but then one must also see that this is a feature of their culture that distinguishes it from the rest.

The second presupposition that defines Jewish culture today, may not be as important as the first, but it is certainly more confusing, more mysterious, and more widely misunderstood. It is usually stated simply that, "If your mother is Jewish, then you are Jewish". Most Christians have not thought clearly enough about this fact, and I am one of those Christians.
The best way to become acquainted with a subject is to write a book about it. - Benjamin Disraeli
Instead of a book, I am writing this blog entry to clear my thoughts on this subject of matrilineal descent and its impact on Jewish culture.

While many Christians want to talk about evangelizing, I want to love people first, and learn to understand them without forgetting to preach the Gospel. Some Jews have said that they are afraid that evangelical Christians would love them to death ... is there a better way to die?

It is possible, and in fact quite probable, that people who have read the Law, the whole of Scripture, and even an entire history of the Jews, barely notice how this one law of matrilineal descent has shaped the entire Jewish culture. So where does this Law come from? Very few people know its origins, including many Jews. And those who do know, do not want to talk about it much, and I'm not sure why.

I once asked this question of a famous Rabbi:

Vernon Singleton from Orlando Florida wrote
in with an interesting question:

The Torah seems to indicate that the Jewish
people were Jewish because they were descendants
of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (this is patrilineal).
But Many Jewish folks today say they are Jewish
because their mother was Jewish (this is matrilineal).

At what point did the change take place?
Who had the authority to change it?

Rabbi Wein:
The change took place at Sinai.
Before the revelation at Sinai the Jewish
people were a family not a faith ... so to speak.
And as family it was patrilineal.

One of the rules that was given at Sinai
is that from now on the Jewish people as a
faith ... as a religion ... follows the mother
there are many reasons for that I mean one of
the basic reasons is that usually we can find
out who the mother is ... the father may or
may not be so clear.

But since Sinai we are
a matrilineal ... it's measured by the mother.
And anyone born of a Jewish mother is a Jew.
Anyone who was born of a non-Jewish mother
can become a Jew through conversion, but is
not born Jewish.

What is the right of return law in Israel like?

Rabbi Wein:
Well the right of return is much broader.

I mean if you are related to a Jew you are
allowed to come in under the right of return.
We have hundreds of thousands of Russian Christians
here in the country who are here because they
have a connection to some Jewish grandfather or
to a Jewish uncle or a ... by marriage etcetera.

So the law of return is much broader than the
Halakha (Hebrew: הלכה) itself. I think what
he's asking is ... what does it take to be
registered as a Jew in the country?

Well he actually does ask, "Does the government
of Israel ask immigrants if their mother was

Rabbi Wein:

In fact it's on all the documents.

Rabbi Wein:
Because you have to answer on the form what you
are ... Jewish, Christian, Muslim, nothing,
whatever you want, but you have to answer.

In order to receive your identity card and your
passport, etcetera, which says that you're
Jewish, then you have to bring proof that you're

Besides that non-Jews are also accepted and
welcome here that they have another path as
it were for a ...

Rabbi Wein:
There are, I would say, a million and a half
non-Jews ... Muslims, Jews, Christians

That's Muslims, and Jews, and the Christians,
of course

Rabbi Wein:
And now that we have many of the Asians here,
they have eastern religions. There's a lot
of people here.

His response only begged the question. An answer that comes closer to the mark is posted on here. It is a better answer because it is supposed to explain where exactly in the first 5 books of the Law, Moses established the definition of Jews to include the children of Jewish women as follows:
The Torah does not always state every law explicitly. In the case of Matrilineal Descent, the practice is derived from Deuteronomy 7: 4, "Because he will lead astray your son from before Me" To understand this verse, look at the preceding verse, which states: "And you shall not intermarry with them, your daughter you shall not give to his son and his daughter you shall not take for your son". Verse 4 should have stated "Because SHE will lead astray your son", for the non-Jewish girl that your son married ('your' meaning Jewish) should be the one that would lead your son astray. So who is the 'HE'? It might be the girl's father, but in general, women leave their father's house and live in their husband's house; they would then not be living with her father. Hence, it would not make sense for the girl's father to lead "your son" astray if your son doesn't live with him.

The Rabbis concluded that 'HE' is the man that your daughter married, and 'your son' mentioned in verse 4 is your grandchild, meaning Jewish grandchild. Thus, verse 4 is referring back to the middle section of verse 3. It reads like this, "your daughter you shall not give to his son because he will lead astray your son" This shows that the child of a Jewish girl and a non-Jewish boy will be Jewish.

No one said this was going to be easy, but ... wow. What do you think?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

very interesting. i have just read and think for sometime now genesis 2:24 and Ephesians 5: 31 whether this is an extant layer of matrilineal tradition of a jewish society.
i belong to a matrilineal society today in India