Last Shabbat, at our Friday night service, we had a very interesting discussion about the fact that Moses married outside of the tribe of Israel. His wife, Tziporrah, was part of the Midianite tribe that lived in the northern Arabian Peninsula. The Midianites had their own religious beliefs, rituals, and gods. Tzipporah, as far as we know, never adopted the religion of the Israelites. Given this, Moses, one of our greatest leaders, was involved in an inter-faith marriage.

One of the things that I find so interesting about Tziporrah is that for a member of another tribe, she quietly plays a very important role in the Torah. We learn very early on in Exodus that Tziporrah has the where-with-all to save her husband’s life. Moses, rushing with his family to return to Egypt and lead his people to freedom, overlooks the fact that his son, whom Tzipporah had just given birth to, needed to be ritually circumcised. In parashat Shemot, we read how Moses is almost killed by God because of this oversight. Tzipporah, however, understanding Moses’ mistake, immediately circumcises her son, redeeming her husband. If it were not for Tzipporah, Moses might not have had the chance to lead his people out of Egypt.

Many of you questioned me after our discussion last Friday evening. Given that, for the most part, the contemporary Jewish world asserts that in order for a child to be Jewish, he must be born to a Jewish mother, you could not understand why God was so upset with Moses for not circumcising his son on time. After all, this little baby boy, born to Tzipporah, was, according to today’s standards, not Jewish! Tzipporah was not a member of the tribe!
The fact is, in biblical times, the tribe or religion of the mother did not matter. In the Torah, the tribal and religious affiliations of a child were determined by the tribal and religious affiliations of the father. We call this “patrilineal descent” and it is the reason that Moses’ son needed to be circumcised.

Today, the vast majority of the Jewish world embraces the concept of “matrilineal descent”. A child is a Jew if he is born to a Jewish mother. The religious affiliation of the father does not matter today. The Reform and Reconstructionist movements embrace matrilineal descent. However, these movements also embrace the older concept of patrilineal descent that we read about in the Torah. In these two progressive Jewish movements, a child who is born to a Jewish father and not a Jewish mother is considered a Jew. In the Conservative and Orthodox movements, this child is not considered to be a Jew.

What happened to bring about this significant change in the way we determine the religion of a child? The fact is we are not certain.
Professor Shaye Cohen, a well known Hebrew Literature and Philosophy professor at Harvard University, suggests two reasons why Judaism switched from a patrilineal culture to a matrilineal one. First, he proposes that it was the ancient rabbis who, around the 3rd century CE, adopted the concept of matrilineal descent. Cohen suggests that the rabbis took the concept from the Roman law that established that in a marriage between two Romans, a child would receive the legal status of his father. In an intermarriage between a Roman and a non-Roman, however, a child would receive the citizenship status of its mother.

Cohen’s second proposal is, oddly enough, based upon Israelite animal breeding practices. While the Torah forbids the breeding of animals of different species, there is a teaching in the Mishnah that a mule whose mother was a horse and whose father was a donkey should be allowed to mate with other horses. This rule suggests that “horse-status” is passed down from the mother. The father’s species is insignificant. Cohen argues that this rule pertaining to animals might very well have been applied to humans and this is why a Jewish woman is the one who passes down “Jewish-status”.

Others argue that matrilineal descent came about as a result of the unpleasant reality that Roman soldiers would frequently rape Jewish women. The argument has been made that the ancient rabbis, in an attempt to comfort these women, declared a child born to a Jewish mother to be a Jew. Related to this, some assert that the unpredictability of paternity made matrilineal descent an easier, safer way of determining a child’s religion. The father might be gone, but chances are, the child is still with her mother.

I need to stress that none of these explanations as to why Judaism went from being a patrilineal culture to a matrilineal culture have been proven. We simply know that at some point, the concept of matrilineal descent replaced patrilineal descent. Given this, today, Moses’ child would not have been considered Jewish and circumcision would not have been required except if the child was being converted to Judaism.

Unfortunately, this change from patrilineal to matrilineal descent does not just make for an interesting scholarly discussion. It also does not just affect the status of Moses’ son. The reality is that it has the potential to affect all Jewish children whose Jewish identity is defined solely by their father’s Judaism (by patrilineal descent). One day, these Jewish kids (many of our Ramat Shalom kids) might very well find that their Jewish identity is questioned. Whether it be because they fall in love with and want to marry someone from a Conservative or Orthodox background or because they want to make aliyah (move to Israel) – there are many Jews out there that do not consider these children to be Jewish and will deny them the basic rights entitled to every Jews (e.g. the ability to marry another Jew, the ability to make aliyah). It because of this that I encourage all inter-faith families where mom is not Jewish to consider converting their children when they are young so that their Jewish identity can never be called into question. (By the way, I also strongly urge families who adopt a child to convert their children as well. Having no biological Jewish parent places even more obstacles before a child being raised as a Jew.)

Conversion of children is simple, safe, meaningful, and moving. It requires no study on the part of the child. Little boys do need to be circumcised by a mohel. Mom and Dad need simply to state their desire to convert their child before a beit din – three witnesses who oversee the conversion. By doing this and by immersing their child in a mikveh (ritual pool, or the ocean) while saying a few sacred blessings, parents can significantly reduce the potential of their child’s Jewish identity being called into question. If you have any questions about conversion, please contact me and I would be happy to talk with you.


  1. Heather Moreno Reply

    I really appreciated the content of this topic; it is an issue that resonates for many of us who come from interfaith backgrounds & are searching for our own Jewish identities. I think you have highlighted how important the element of our identity is to us on an individual/personal level & community/social ones as well. I myself have long debated the reasons why the patrilineal/matrilineal discussion is so important in the Jewish community. The questioning of one’s Jewish identity is sometimes a deterrant to those of us who are trying to re-establish our spiritual connection to Judaism.

    Thank you & I was pleased to meet you and your staff on 2/11/10. I had a very good experience & I look forward to attending Shabbat services soon & am reading the prayer book you lent me.

    Heather Moreno

  2. Andrew,

    Despite the fact that you admit the truth, FINALLY:

    “The fact is, in biblical times, the tribe or religion of the mother did not matter. In the Torah, the tribal and religious affiliations of a child were determined by the tribal and religious affiliations of the father. We call this “patrilineal descent” and it is the reason that Moses’ son needed to be circumcised.”

    You go on to support conversions, but I ask you…

    If a child is already Jewish according to the ancient what “religion” do the Rabbi’s demand he convert to?

    Are there two separate religions and nations, one of the ancient Israelites and the second the one of the modern Rabbis?

    How can Jews (and the state of Israel) today claim to to follow the religion of Moses and be part of the Bnei Yisrael when such an important “core tenet” is in conflict between the two? The conflict between Moses and modern Judaism that is?

    • Nicky, Judaism, like most civilizations, is evolving. Every major community/country/culture has gone through shifts and changes. Judaism certainly has, as have many other religious traditions. The conversion from patrilineal to matrilineal descent became the accepted standard by the majority of Jews. This does not mean that there are two separate religions – simply one religion that has evolved over the centuries. Thanks for your question.

      • Albeit true, religions evolve, that does not change the fact that the religion was different then and we must address the issue with a living G-d who’s religion it is. The question remains, what makes a Jew a Jew and when is a Goy a Jew and not a Jew, to G-d?

  3. portia Goldstein Kvatek Reply

    I have a daughter. Who’s trying To make Aaliyah. But I don’t. Know if I’ll. Encounter. A problem. My father is Jewish my mother not but she converted after. Marriage. 5 years before I was born and I wad raised in Jewish home. My father died when I was 11 but my mother continued raising me Jewish even after we returned. To her home state of Tennessee. Where there wasn’t. A synagogue close enough to attend. So. There wasn’t. A Jewish community. Or a lot of Jewish people. To help with my upbringing. But I feel she taught. Me the best way she could and I have been able. To pass this down daughter. My daughter. And I now are currently. Members of a synagogue and my daughter. Teaches there can you give me advice thank you

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: