The Jewish Mother: A Theology

By Meir Soloveichik

A new look at matrilineal descent.

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f all the doctrines asserted by rabbinic Judaism, few are as surprising, or indeed as controversial, as “matrilineal descent,” the notion that the offspring of a Gentile mother and a Jewish father is a Gentile, while the offspring of a Jewish mother and a Gentile father is a Jew. This precept, accepted universally among the classic commentators, seems inconsistent with the rest of Jewish law, in which it is almost always the father’s ancestry that is determinative. It is the father, and only the father, who determines a child’s status as a priest or Levite, a member of the tribe of Judah or of Benjamin, a descendant of the Hasmonean house or the Davidic. Genealogy, indeed, is determined by the father regarding all categories except the most important: Whether a child is Jewish in the first place. Indeed, the principle of matrilineal descent appears so incongruous that the leading German rabbi of the first half of the twentieth century, Yehiel Jacob Weinberg, was moved to comment: “Why is a child as his mother? The answer is not quite clear.”1
The matrilineal principle is puzzling not only from the perspective of Jewish law, but from that of Jewish history as well. In The Beginnings of Jewishness,Harvard scholar Shaye Cohen points out that “throughout the ancient world the parent who mattered was, of course, the father. The children born of a marriage are his children, not the mother’s.” Aeschylus, Cohen points out, epitomized this attitude when he wrote that “The woman you call the mother of the child is not the parent; she is merely the nurse of the seed that was sown inside her.” “What, then,” asks Cohen, “are the reasons for the rabbinic matrilineal principle?”2
One of the most popular explanations asserts that paternal identity is less certain than maternal identity: Since we are more likely to know who the mother of a given child is, we are best off relying on her for definitive lineage. But as Cohen observes, this explanation fails for two reasons. First, the rabbis looked to the mother’s lineage only with regard to Jewishness; if parental certainty were the central issue, then we would expect to see the matrilineal criterion for other questions of lineage. Second, the rabbis gave the mother legal standing to determine the identity of her child’s father even in cases where paternity is the defining element. As Cohen notes, “if an unmarried woman is pregnant and declares that the father of her child is a priest, R. Gamaliel and R. Eliezer say that she is to be believed; if a woman becomes pregnant as the result of rape, the offspring is presumed to have the same status as the majority of the people where the rape occurred.”3 Thus, when paternity is uncertain, and we rely on the mother’s testimony or location, it is never the mother’s lineage that becomes definitive.4 Ultimately, Cohen says, the academic historian cannot explain matrilineal descent by appealing to any ordinary historical or social factors. Though “it is easy to believe” that rabbinic Judaism, in insisting on the matrilineal principle, “must have been compelled by some societal need,” nevertheless, Cohen concludes, “there is little evidence to support this belief.”5

Meir Soloveichik is an Associate Fellow at the Shalem Center, and a Contributing Editor of AZURE. He is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan, and is working on his doctorate at Princeton University. His last essay in AZURE was “God’s Beloved: A Defense of Chosenness” (Azure 19, Winter 2005).

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