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Q I am an American immigrant and am engaged to an Israeli. A Conservative rabbi vouched for my halachic Jewishness since I was born to a Jewish mother. The tricky part is that although my mother was born Jewish, she converted to Christianity well before my birth. I was raised Catholic - from baptism through confirmation - but my mother later allowed me to practice Judaism with friends and their families. Am I Jewish?
A Mazal tov! I wish you both happiness together here.
Frequent apostasies to other religions, sometimes willful but frequently forced, propelled the status of apostates into one of medieval Jewry's most significant controversies. Scholars struggled to define Jewishness in a manner that recognized the sociological implications of apostasy but preserved the inborn nature of Jewish identity.
Three major positions developed in rabbinic sources. The first contended that an apostate loses his status as a Jew. These scholars highlighted the talmudic declaration proclaiming descendents of the Ten Lost Tribes as gentiles (Yevamot 17a). Accordingly, once apostates become "completely absorbed into their surroundings," they lose their Jewish status. The apostate's total assimilation into gentile society nullifies his legal connection to Judaism. Consequently, a deserted spouse does not require a get (divorce writ) to remarry, since their initial marriage automatically dissolves.
Despite this potential benefit, the vast majority of scholars contended that apostasy cannot rescind Jewish identity. Regarding the national sin of the golden calf, the Talmud declares, "Even though [the people] have sinned, they are still [called] Israel" (Sanhedrin 44a). Rashi (1040-1105) transforms this principle to apply to individual sinners as well. The Talmud, Rashi and Maimonides claim, rules that even a convert (ger) who later adopts a different religion retains his status as a Jew (Yevamot 47b). While the Lost Tribes represent a unique case addressing the historic exile of a mass community, individuals maintain their inalienable Jewish identity. An apostate, no matter how distant he becomes from the people and its traditions, remains legally a part of the Jewish nation.
Yet this does not necessarily mean "once a Jew, always a Jew." Many scholars took a middle position by agreeing with Rashi regarding matters of personal status, but claiming that the apostate loses other legal privileges. As Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein and Prof. Ya'acov Blidstein have documented, several medieval rabbis ruled that an apostate loses his inheritance rights, while others permitted Jews to charge him interest for loans, usually prohibited to fellow Jews. In other words, an apostate can retain his rank as a Jew for certain purposes, but lose it for others.
Nonetheless, regarding the central question of their personal status, most scholars ruled that the apostate retains his Jewishness. This position eased the path for apostates to repent. Especially in cases of forced conversions, rabbis permitted remorseful apostates to return to the community immediately, at most requiring a symbolic immersion in the mikve or minor penitent actions. This ruling, however, sometimes tragically stranded women as agunot (abandoned wives unable to marry), since their still technically Jewish husbands, fully absorbed into the frequently hostile non-Jewish society, would not issue them a formal divorce allowing them to remarry.
A few sages took an interesting fourth position that directly addresses your question. They contended that while the apostate remains a Jew, we treat his children as gentiles. This position, sometimes attributed to the author of Halachot Gedolot (eighth century), might stem from the child's assimilation at birth into gentile culture. R. Ya'acov ibn Habib (16th century) gave a different explanation, postulating that while the apostate was "conceived and born in holiness" to faithful Jews, his children, offspring of sinners, were not.
Yet few accepted this opinion, contending that the "holiness" of Jewish identity granted at birth stems from formal biological criteria, not the spiritual commitment of the parents. As long as their biological mother was born Jewish, the children of apostates retain their legal Jewish identity, and require no formal conversion process should they return to the fold (Pit'hei Teshuva YD 268:10).
If the details you provide are accurate, then the overwhelming majority of rabbis would affirm your Jewishness. One notable exception is Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who ruled that a child born to a non-Jewish father and an apostate mother requires full conversion (Igrot Moshe EH 1:8). Although Rabbi Feinstein creatively advocates this position in a fascinating excursus (Dibrot Moshe Yevamot 1:13), the rabbinic consensus rejects this opinion (Tzitz Eliezer 13:93). Therefore, your case will thankfully not erupt into a dispute between different denominations.
As someone born into the Catholic community, however, you will need to prove your mother's Jewishness. As with all cases of personal status, you should consult with a local rabbi to certify your Jewish pedigree and prevent any future doubts regarding your status.
The writer, a rabbi, is the on-line editor of TraditionOnline.org and teaches in Jerusalem, where he is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University.
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