Britain’s Assembly of Reform Rabbis this week endorsed a shift in how the movement views Jewish identity. The children of Jewish fathers and gentile mothers would be eligible to be considered members of the tribe without undergoing conversions.
The Reform Movement is said to represent around 20 percent of the United Kingdom’s 270,000 Jews.
At the rabbinical body’s monthly meeting on Tuesday, what was described as an overwhelming majority of members voted to approve a position paper proposing “that individuals who live a Jewish life, and who are patrilineally Jewish, can be welcomed into the Jewish community and confirmed as Jewish through an individual process.”
“Rabbis would be able to take local decisions – ratified by the Beit Din [Jewish court] – confirming Jewish status,” the Assembly of Reform Rabbis UK said in a statement.
The decision to reconsider previous norms had been prompted by requests from the laity and members of the Reform youth movement.
Details of the two-year process, which culminated in agreeing to the principles of a position paper on the subject, have been kept under wraps, as have the details of the voting, though The Jerusalem Post has learned that the decision was not unanimous. Names of dissenters have – inevitably – not been revealed.
Rabbi Steven Katz, one of those who opposed the motion during the meeting, told the Jewish Chronicle he believed it would “lead to a number of people joining our synagogue with minimal levels of Jewish knowledge.”
“Before Jewish status was determined by the Beit Din – but now different rabbis will have different standards. It is harmful to the well-being of the movement,” he said.
“We are proud to offer these new ways of welcoming people to our communities, just as we were proud to lead on equal marriage and on calling women to the bima [to read from the Torah during synagogue services]. The assembly has stayed true to our core values, treasuring both Jewish tradition and Judaism’s ability to evolve in response to the contemporary world, as being inclusive and egalitarian,” assembly chairman Rabbi Paul Freedman said.
One final stage in the rule changes still has to be completed, though Reform Movement insiders have indicated that they do not believe seeking local synagogues approval for the revised conversion process will be problematic.
Under the new procedures, candidates would be assessed by local rabbis and their decisions forwarded to the Reform Beit Din for formal approval, effectively a rubber-stamping exercise, though it was pointed out the Beit Din would retain the right to ask questions about knowledge of the religion or adherence to its practices to ensure conversion uniformity.
However, once the local rabbi has made an assessment of a person’s “Jewish Life,” the candidate would no longer need to go through the full Beit Din conversion process in order to be considered a Jew.
It is understood that there would be no requirement to have a circumcision or to attend a mikve ritual bath. And once certified as Jewish, the person would be eligible to marry in a Reform synagogue and his or her children would be accepted as Jews.
Thus while previously, would-be converts with a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother have been accepted into the Reform Movement in a process regulated by the Reform Beit Din, now it is to be left to the discretion of local rabbis to determine if candidates are sufficiently knowledgeable and suited to be converted.
While the move seems to bring the UK’s branch of Reform in line with its American counterpart, which has accepted patrilineal descent for decades, there are differences.
While it is a significant shift, it does not imply an open-ended endorsement of patrilineal descent, explained Alex Fenton, a Reform spokesman.
“It is essentially a new way of confirming Jewish status,” he said. “What that means in terms of patrilineal descent is that somebody [with] a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother [goes] through a local, individual process that would be overseen by their rabbi. They could be confirmed as Jewish without having a conversion.”
“It would be possible for someone with only a Jewish father to be Jewish without a conversion, but there would still need to be a confirmation process. They still need to go through a process, it’s not an automatic thing where [someone says], ‘I’ve got a Jewish father, give me a certificate.’ That wouldn’t happen. The rabbi would ask have you lived a Jewish life and so on,” Fenton said.
This week’s decision comes 32 years after Reform Jews in America adopted patrilineal descent, although Fenton said that heretofore communities in both countries accepted as Jewish anyone considered a member of the tribe by the other.
Neither the Orthodox nor the Conservative Movement approved of the change.
Some 65 percent of the UK’s mainstream Jewish community belongs to the United Synagogue organization, a London-based Orthodox grouping whose head is Britain’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. His spokesman offered “no comment” on the Reform changes, however retired senior United Synagogue Rabbi Alan Plancey told the Post that no Orthodox rabbi would accept any of the Reform’s conversions as they were “not worth the paper they are printed on.”
He added that for generations the lineage has been through one’s mother, but the tribal association has been with one’s father.
“We here have no authority whatsoever to change this status quo,” Plancey said.
The Conservative Movement said it continues to be “committed to the traditional, matrilineal definition of Jewish status,” Jewish News Online reported.
“Masorti [Conservative] Judaism recognizes the value in having a diverse Jewish community with different approaches to the tradition. Our own approach is to be as inclusive as possible within the framework of Jewish law and we are committed to the traditional, matrilineal definition of Jewish status,” Matt Plen, the movement’s chief executive, was quoted as saying.
The decision would not seem to have any effect on who can be considered Jewish for purposes of aliya, as children of only one Jewish parent still qualify for Israeli citizenship even if they are not Jewish according to Orthodox standards.