by Tuvya Zaretsky
Jewish survival is a dominant concern among Jewish-Gentile families. Will their children be Jews? Will the rest of the Jewish community consider them as Jews?
Social research has shown two key challenges that Jewish-Gentile families experience related to children.1 Marital dissatisfaction includes challenges to family harmony in forms like: parental reluctance to accept an intermarried couple; conflict over cultural symbols or competition to define an interfaith family identity. It was also found significant discord over enculturating children: which ethnic heritage will they claim, or what religious faith will be passed on to them?
It is helpful to frame the question of Jewish survival in terms of two perspectives: first ethnic and second religious. Jewishness of children is more easily defined through ethnic criteria.
Mothers or Fathers?
Jewish scholars agree that historically Jewishness was determined through the line of the father. The Hebrew people were first identified via the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and his sons. Genealogical lineage throughout the Tanakh was marked by the familiar formula: so-in-so "the son of…" The first census of the Jewish nation in the Sinai wilderness was "by their families, by their fathers' households" (l'mishpehotam l'veit avotam) in Numbers 1:2.
Yet, we find biblical evidence that Gentile wives could mother and raise Jewish children. Rahab of the Canaanites and Ruth the Moabite were two classic examples. If that were not so then king David and his family would have been discounted from the Jewish line because of his great grandmother, Ruth.
So ethnicity in Bible times included Jewish heroes or kings who married Gentile women and produced Jewish offspring. Judah married a Caananite; Joseph took an Egyptian princess as his bride; Moses wed a Midianite and an Ethiopian; David married a Philistine, and Solomon's harem was a role call of the United Nations. Patrilineal lineage was the norm, but matrilineal descent was also accepted for ethnic continuity of Jewishness.
Who made the issue of matrilineal descent the dividing line for Jewish ethnicity and when did that happen? Evidently, it came from the traditional Jewish scholars of Judaism. Until 70 AD, and the destruction of the second temple, Jewish ethnicity was determined through the father - particularly for the cohenim.
Sometime during the First Century AD, matrilineal descent was adopted as the basis for determining Jewishness. Scholars believe that was to bring the growing body of Jewish tradition into line with laws of the Roman Empire. When the Talmud was finally codified in the fourth and fifth centuries, matrilineal descent became the law of Judaism.2
Traditional Judaism today is divided on the question of "Who is a Jew?" Orthodox and Conservative Judaism hold to matrilineal descent to define Jewish ethnicity. Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism adopted rulings for a patrilineal descent in the early 1980s.
However, with 63% of American Jewry is unaffiliated with traditional Judaism and Jewish-Gentile intermarriage has been the majority since 1985. Therefore, personal experience is trumping rabbinic authority. Couples are finding that the Bible pattern is still trustworthy.
In reality, Jewish survival has continued with the ethnicity of either father or mother. There are plenty of good examples today. However, we would like to point out that Jewish survival was guaranteed by something much more enduring than blood lineage.
Survival of the Jewish people depends on the unconditional faithfulness of God through His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The preservation of a Jewish nation depends on the faithfulness of God's word and character.3 That is a pretty safe bet!
And yet, the participation in Jewish identity depends on what children learn about that God. They need to know that God has a purpose in creating the Jewish people. They would be instrumental in delivering the Messianic Redeemer to fulfill Genesis 3:15. The person of Y'shua (Jesus) fulfills the Israelite mission. Jewish-Gentile children should learn that God ordained the Jewish people as a lamp through which He would reveal the light of His presence to all the nations. His covenant care for the Jewish people would teach that His character is dependable for all peoples.
Jewish mothers and/or fathers are essential for survival of the Jewish people. Family spiritual harmony depends on teaching all children about the God who created Jewish people to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth.4 History, the Bible and the personal experience of Jewish-Gentile couples are showing that one Jewish parent, sharing one messianic faith with a Gentile partner can create spiritual harmony and shalom bayit (peace at home). Happy Mother's Day and Happy Father's Day to every Jewish-Gentile mom and dad!
1. Zaretsky, Tuvya. "The Challenges of Jewish-Gentile Couples: A Pre-Evangelistic Ethnographic Study: A Dissertation submitted to the faculty of Western Seminary. (Portland: Western Seminary) 2004, pages 67 and 97.