American Reform Responsa

145. Status of Children


QUESTION: The child of a Jewish mother and Gentile father is normally considered as Jewish. For how many generations does this Jewishness continue, if in the succeeding generations the mothers, though not practicing Jews, are the daughters of Jewish mothers? (Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin, K.A.M. Congregation, Chicago)

ANSWER: As the questioner has stated, Jewish tradition is quite clear on the status of children born to a Jewish mother and a Gentile father: That child is Jewish (Yev. 45b; Tur, Even Ha-ezer 4; Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha-ezer 4.5ff). Nothing would have to be done by these children in order to be accepted into the Jewish community, although--practically speaking--some authorities, both ancient and modern, would encourage study and education on their part. There would be no obstacles in the way of such children marrying other Jews or participating in any way as Jews, provided that they wished to be recognized as Jews. If they held other religious beliefs, they would be considered as apostates and the rights and privileges accorded to them would depend upon the particular circumstances (Zimmels, Die Marranen in der rabbinischen Literatur, pp. 21ff; Rufeisen v. Minister of Interior, 1962-16-P.D. 2428; Schereschewsky, Dinei Mishpacha,pp. 81ff).

We must now consider two distinct sets of circumstances under which this question may arise. Let us first treat apostates or Marranos who may have returned to Judaism after one or more generations. This problem received considerable discussion over a period of centuries. After that, we will deal with the modern circumstance in which there has been an intermarriage, but without the adoption of or inclination to adopt another religion.

Let us begin with the status of apostates and their children. We should remember that the attitude toward apostates has fluctuated within the Rabbinic tradition. The final view of the Shulchan Aruch is clear, and has generally been accepted since the 16th century; but other points of view also prevailed from time to time. In the Gaonic period, the Geonim were divided both on the matter of what the apostate must do when he returns, and whether he should be considered as a Jew. These views also determined whether their children were to be considered as Jewish. Hai Gaon (as quoted by Adret, Responsa VII, #292) felt that an apostate could not be considered as a Jew. Centuries later, the rabbis of the Mediterranean basin had to face the problems of the Marranos (Anusim). Their attitudes differed greatly and may be summarized under five headings: (1) Apostates were Jews who had sinned, but nevertheless Jewish (Isaac bar Sheshet; Simon ben Zemah of Duran, but on some occasions he did not grant this status; Solomon ben Simon Duran; Zemah ben Solomon); (2) Those who considered the apostate as Jewish only in matters of matrimony (and so their offspring were Jewish), but not in any other area (Samuel de Medina); (3) Marranos (Anusim) were non-Jews in every respect, including matters of marriage; their children were not considered to be Jews (Judah Berab, Jacob Berab, Moses ben Elias Kapsali, etc.); (4) An apostate is worse than a Gentile (ben Veniste, Mercado ben Abraham); (5) Descendants of the Marranos who have been baptized are like Jewish children who have been taken captive by non-Jews, and their children are Jewish (Samuel ben Abraham Aboab). All of these references and excerpts from the relevant literature may be found in H.J. Zimmels, Die Marranen in der rabbinischen Literatur,pp. 21ff.

Some of the authorities cited above would terminate the Jewishness of the child with the first generation. Others would continue it. The most generous of all is Solomon ben Simon Duran (Rashbash, Responsum #89), who stated that such children would continue to be considered Jewish forever into the future, as long as the maternal line was Jewish. He also felt that nothing needed to be done by any generation of such apostates when they returned to Judaism: no ritual bath nor any other act was considered necessary or desirable. In fact, he emphasized that no attention be given to their previous state, for that might discourage their return. Rabbenu Gershom gave a similar view and urged the quiet acceptance of all who returned to Judaism (Machzor Vitry, pp. 96 and 97).

The other extreme has been presented by Rashi (in his commentary to Kid. 68b and Lev. 24:10). He felt that any returning apostate or the children of a Jewish mother who had apostacized were potentially Jewish, but must undergo a process akin to conversion if they wish to become part of the Jewish community. That point of view was rejected by most later scholars (as, for example, Nahmanides, in his commentary to Leviticus 24:10; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De-a 268.10f; Ezekiel Landau, Responsa, #150, etc.). We, therefore, have two extremes in the Rabbinic literature; both, of course, represented reaction to particular historic conditions.

Solomon ben Simon of Duran wished to make it easy for a large number of Marranos to return to Judaism. Unfortunately, this did not occur; even when it was possible for Jews to leave Spain, the majority chose to remain. Rashi's harsh statement probably reflected his generation's attitude toward the small number of apostates who were a thorn in the side of the French community. Normative Rabbinic Judaism chose a middle path; it accepted the child of an apostate as Jewish, and encouraged the child's return along with some studies, but without a formal conversion process.

The modern State of Israel has taken a somewhat different position on apostates. For purposes of the Law of Return, it does not recognize an apostate who remains a member of another religious faith. Such individuals would not qualify for automatic entry into Israel under the Law of Return (Rufeisen v. Minister of Interior, 1962-16-P.D. 2428). The latest amendment to the Law of Return retained this interpretation (Law of Return, Amendment No. 2, March, 1970).

Modern cases likely to come to our attention involve entirely different circumstances. We would generally deal with a mixed marriage in which no conversion has taken place; there would also be no attempt to conceal the Jewish identity of the mother or her children. In many such cases the children receive no formal Jewish education and are only vaguely aware of any Jewish identity, perhaps through the celebration of a holiday or some other random act. If the daughter of such a union also married a Gentile and this pattern continued in subsequent generations, what will the status of such offspring be?

We must again state that we are concerned solely with individuals who remain without non-Jewish religious identification. If they have converted to Christianity, then we would consider them and their children as Christian, in contrast to our tradition. In this we would follow our earlier decision and that of the Israel, courts ("Apostate Proselyte," CCAR Responsa, 1979; Rufeisen v. Minister of Interior, 1962-16-P.D. 2428). We could not consider such individuals akin to the Marranos, as no duress has led them to Christianity, but they have taken this step of their own volition.

If the offspring have remained without formal religious identification through the generation--which is perfectly possible in contemporary America--then we would follow Solomon ben Simon of Duran with modification. We would recognize the potential Jewishness of such offspring forever into the future, but we would insist on some form of education in order to understand Judaism and to express a commitment to it. No formal conversion nor any other rite would be necessary for the acceptance of such individuals, but a sincere interest and intent are required. We may then summarize that we would accept children of mothers who are presumed Jewish despite apostasy or intermarriage on into the future, without any limitation to the generations which have passed. It would make no difference whether they have nominally adopted another religion for the sake of safety or whether they have remained without formal religious identification. In both cases, we would insist on some education and commitment before full acceptance into the Jewish community could occur.

Walter Jacob

See also:

S.B. Freehof, "Status of Apostates (Children and Adults)," Recent Reform Responsa, pp. 120ff.

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.