Matrilineal Descent and Mamzeirus

Real questions, submitted by actual OU Torah followers, with their real answers. NOTE: For questions of practical halacha, please consult your own rabbi for guidance.

Q. I understand that by rabbinical law Jewishness is passed down by the mother, whether she be born Jewish or converted prior to giving birth. So long as the child does not then later convert away and perform apostasy then they remain Jewish.

However, in the Torah there is a great importance placed upon the father and their being Jewish as well. In prayers we often recite our father's instead of our mother's linage or in the case of the Amidah both lines are blessed: the paternal and maternal. And, of course, the Tribes were led by both male and female heirs during the time of Moshe, each given importance of equal measure. In fact, to be a bastard or to not know your father cuts off the child from the Assembly.

Yet in rabbinical law and the law of return for Israel there is no paternal qualification needed, only a maternal one, which I assume was because it is easier to determine who the child really belongs to if we can observe the birth. Like it came from that woman for sure. Yet then there is the case of the orphan who is adopted like Baal Shem Tov and they were still Jewish. I struggle with this because when I pray with Orthodox Jews they are always so concerned about my mother and sometimes I don't want them to know who my mother is. I am an adult so they should be more concerned with who I am than who my mother is.

Anyway, it has caused me to ponder this segregation of our fathers. Wouldn't not caring whether the father is Jewish and only caring if someone's mother is make us spiritual bastards? Maybe not actual bastards, but spiritually there is like no importance placed upon their existence at all. Wouldn't this condemn us spiritually as a nation as bastards?

A. Thanks for your question. Your dilemma is predicated on a misconception. Matrilineal descent isn’t a rabbinic enactment; it’s a Torah principle that we see in practice throughout Tanach. There are several places where you may have to read between the lines to see it but here are two of the more overt examples:

1) In Exodus chapter 21, discussing the laws of a Jewish indentured servant who serves for six years, we see that if his master marries him to a non-Jewish slave girl (who serves indefinitely), the children are biologically his but legally Canaanite servants like their mother. The fact that the father in Jewish is immaterial. 

2) In Ezra chapter 10, all the Jewish men who married foreign women separated from their non-Jewish wives. The children of these unions are not Jewish. (This ramification is limited to Jewish men who married non-Jewish women, not the other way around.)

Conversely, consider the case of the blasphemer in Leviticus 24: his mother was Jewish and his father was Egyptian, yet he was Jewish like his mother.

The rules concerning marriage and the identity of the offspring are codified in the Mishna. Kiddushin 3:12 explains:

“When marriage is effected and permitted, the child follows the father’s status. An example of this is when the daughter of a kohein, a Levi or a Yisroel marries a kohein, a Levi or a Yisroel (i.e., the child is whatever the father is). When marriage is effected but not permitted, the child follows the status of the lesser parent. An example of this is when a widow marries the Kohein Gadol or a divorcee marries a regular kohein (i.e., the child is not a kohein)…. If marriage cannot be effected under Jewish law, the child follows the mother’s status. An example of this is when a Jewish man has children with a female Canaanite servant or a non-Jewish woman.”

So importance is placed on the father, just in different ways. If one’s mother is from the Tribe of Levi and one’s father is from the Tribe of Gad, the child is considered a member of the Tribe of Gad (following the father). If one’s mother is from Israel and one’s father is from Egypt, one is considered a member of Israel (following the mother). You’re focusing on one detail and taking umbrage on behalf of fathers but if you pull back, you’ll see that we follow the mother's status in one case, the father's in another, and the “lesser” parent’s status in a third.

So when you walk into an Orthodox synagogue, the first thing they may want to know is whether you’re Jewish, and that depends on the mother. If they want to give you an aliyah (or if there’s duchening), then they’ll want to know if you’re a kohein, Levi or Yisroel; this depends on the father. Neither parent is irrelevant, they’re just relevant in different areas.

You talk about “bastards” a bunch in your question but that’s irrelevant. The word normally translated as “bastard” – “mamzer” – has nothing to do with the parents’ marital status or knowing your father. A mamzer (“bastard”) is the product of an incestuous or adulterous relationship. (This is actually covered in the same mishna I translate above but I excised it from there because it broke the flow of what we were talking about.) The child of two unmarried people is “legitimate” in halacha. So mamzeirus (the state of being a mamzer) doesn’t enter into your greater question.

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