The Jewish Mother: A Theology

By Meir Soloveichik

A new look at matrilineal descent.

Of 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

To understand the principle of matrilineal descent, then, it is necessary to look beyond historical or sociological factors. I will propose here a theological explanation of the matrilineal principle, and show that far from being inconsistent with the rest of Jewish law, it follows from a proper understanding of the nature of Jewishness. Indeed, the principle of matrilineal descent lends insight into the Jewish view of parenthood, and even of the nature of religion itself.


To speak of descent—matrilineal or patrilineal—itself implies a remarkable assumption: That Jewishness can be a matter of descent, rather than belief; that the foundation of Jewish identity is genealogy rather than theology. In Jewish chosenness, spiritual identity is inextricably bound up with familial identity. One born to Jewish parents is a Jew, a member of God’s covenant, no matter the extent to which one conforms to the tenets of the Tora or accepts Jewish dogma. In this respect Judaism differs fundamentally from Christianity, in which participation is essentially a matter of faith, rather than descent.

Reflecting on the theological commonalities and differences between Jews and Christians, the Christian theologian R. Kendall Soulen notes:

Traditionally, Jews have understood themselves as God’s chosen people descended from the patriarchs and matriarchs. Hence the ordinary way of becoming a Jew is to be born of a Jewish mother.... Most Jews are members of the chosen people by birth, and the privileges and obligations of the covenant fall to them accordingly. Christians, on the other hand, understand themselves as a fellowship that can be entered only through repentance and rebirth into the messianic community (that is, by getting washed!). Hence, no one can be born a Christian… one becomes a Christian through faith in Jesus as Messiah and Lord, and through baptism in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.6

Christianity, then, is a faith, while Judaism is also a family. Though Judaism involves a set of ideas, beliefs, values, and obligations, the Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod notes that “these are, in a sense, superstructure rather than foundation. The foundation of Judaism is the family identity of the Jewish people as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”7 To be a Jew is to see all other Jews not only as fellow believers, but as brothers and sisters. In choosing his monotheistic messengers, God bestowed religious obligations upon a natural family. Thus, Judaism is a faith founded on the natural familial bonds between Jews. It is for this reason that according to the halacha, or Jewish law, once a Jew is born to a Jewish mother, he cannot abdicate his covenantal obligations or undo his Jewishness. Though one can abandon a faith, family ties can never be severed.

Why does God choose a family, rather than electing only adherents of a faith? Why should kinship form the basis for spiritual responsibility?

The answers begin in the Jewish approach to man’s embodied life. Man possesses not only spiritual but also physical dimensions. Any religion must therefore ask: How should man, who is a physical being, seek to relate to a nonphysical God? One possibility is to urge man to transcend the physical, to escape the body imprisoning his soul, and to establish thereby a relationship between the spirit and the Eternal. This, however, is not Judaism’s solution. The Talmud insists that man’s embodied existence, with all its drives and desires, provides man with the opportunity to serve God with every aspect of his humanity, and worship in a way that no purely spiritual being ever could:

R. Yehoshua ben Levi said: When Moses ascended on high, the ministering angels spoke before the Holy One, “Sovereign of the universe! What business has one born of woman among us?” He answered them, “He has come to receive the Tora.” They said to him, “That secret treasure… you desire to give it to flesh and blood!” The Holy One said to Moses, “Return them an answer”.... He then spoke before them, “Sovereign of the universe! What is written therein?… ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.’ Do you then perform work, such that you have need for rest? What else is written therein? ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ Do you have fathers and mothers? Again, what is written therein? ‘You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal.’ Is there jealousy among you? Is the evil Tempter among you?” Immediately they conceded to him.8

As this passage indicates, Judaism claims that the Tora was written for man in his totality, demanding not that he abandon the natural desires, inclinations, or weaknesses with which he is endowed, but that he embrace his humanity in its fullness and dedicate his whole life, body and soul, to the divine. Thus Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik notes that holiness is created by “man, by flesh and blood.” Though some faiths may focus solely on the spiritual, for Jews, he writes, “the earth and bodily life are the very ground of halachic reality.”9

Similarly, the theologian Eliezer Berkovits notes that the role of the physical in religious worship lies at the center of the Jewish and Christian disagreement over the relevance of the ritual law. Should our spirit transcend our body, or should we direct the entirety of our human identity toward service of the Divine? If our spirit alone is central to our relationship with God, then faith, and not ritual acts, is of supreme importance. Judaism, however, argues that rituals are required in order to serve God not only spiritually, but physically. God created both body and soul; as such, our biological natures are not to be transcended, but sanctified by being directed toward the service of God. As Berkovits writes:

The so-called ritual laws are the only way for the physical component in man to become oriented toward the divine; through them, the body too may cleave to God. By fulfilling the commandments of God, the body too may enter into the relationship that is the essence of religion.... If the relationship to God is to be complete, it must engage man in his entirety. We can know nothing of the religion of a pure soul.... On the level of the soul, the relationship is spiritual and conscious, but it cannot be expressed in action; on the level of the body, the relationship has to become “materialized” in action. These two expressions of the religious life are not meant to exist parallel to each other as the religion of the soul and as that of the body. The mitzva is the union of the two… in the mitzva man is one; as a whole he related himself to the one God.10

If, however, man is supposed to transcend his body, then true familial bonds, true kinship, must be purely spiritual, and not in any way influenced by the natural or carnal. The book of Matthew makes this point explicitly:

While he [Jesus] was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”11

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