Saturday, January 13, 2024

Does religion get passed down from the mother or the father?

I came across the official teaching of Orthodox Judaism (the most strict/traditional form) that Judaism teaches that a person's "Jewishness" depends strictly on whether his mother was Jewish. This is called "matrilineal descent", which is opposed to "patrilineal descent" where the child's religion is determined by the father's religion. The only exception to this is if someone formally converts to Judaism, then it doesn't matter if his mother was Jewish. Most of us have grown up thinking that the Bible and ancient cultures passed down their lineage, religion, inheritance, etc, through the father. Thus, I was shocked and wanted to look into this more, especially to see if there was some theological error or problems with this claim.

The first thing that came to my mind was all the lineages listed in the Bible. In every case, it is one long list of fathers and sons. This strongly suggests that the son's tribal/ethnic and religion were passed down from the father. The next thing that came to my mind was the "Patriarch" language used throughout the Bible, especially Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. The language of "Abraham's seed" being the blessed seed/dna/semen would strongly suggest that the father is the ultimate (or at least preferred) determination of one's religion/ancestry/linage. This I just took as an accepted truth that everyone else was fine with, so I was shocked to see this so strongly opposed by the Orthodox Jews. This led me to delve into what "Biblical proof texts" they had going in their favor.

The wikipedia page on this issue (here) cites the main Biblical claims that I've seen on other sources, so I think it's easiest to just address the examples they cite. 
  • They first point to Abraham's two sons, the first was Ishmael from the Egyptian concubine Hagar, and the second son Issac from his wife Sarah. They say Sarah's son Issac was the one considered Jewish, thus it is determined by the mother's religion/ethnicity. This is quite a strange claim, because the whole reason Sarah's maidservant Hagar is even part of the story is because Sarah was barren, so that it was Sarah's own idea to tell Abraham to use her maid Hagar to bring forth the promised son (Gen 16:1-2). But if Abraham and Sarah were aware of Matrilineal Descent (MD) then why in the world would Hagar even be an option, since Hagar was Egyptian? So either Hagar converted, which is possible, especially if she was supposed to follow Abraham's household religion, or the MD theory is not supported here. In fact, the story says when Hagar conceived, Sarah became immediately upset and began mistreating Hagar and sent her away (Gen 16:5). Why is this if Sarah knew all along that Ishmael didn't count as legitimate heir? Why did God reiterate the blessings of Abraham include Ishmael (Gen 16:10ff; 21:13)? More problematic is that in Genesis 17 is where God gives the covenant of circumcision and has Ishmael circumcised on that same day God appeared and told Abraham to circumcise the whole household. Ishmael was thirteen years old and by now Abraham was living as if Ishmael was indeed the promised son. To confirm this idea, Ishmael is now circumcised, while the real promised son Issac is not even conceived yet and only now first mentioned. So Ishmael was absolutely at minimum a convert here, and it was only by very unusual strange circumstances did God have to appear and make it clear Ishmael was not the promised child. Thus, Patrilineal Descent (PD) makes much more sense. 

  • The next example given is that of Jacob and Esau. Both sons were born of Jewish parents Issac and Rebekah, so both sons were fully Jewish, but it was Jacob's children who were Jewish because their mom Rachel was Jewish, whereas Esau's descendants were not Jewish because Esau married non-Jewish wives. (Note, the term "Jewish" is not technically accurate here, since Judaism as it much later came to be called didn't exist and refers specifically to the tribe of Judah.) This example fails to consider the actual narrative whereby Esau lost both his birthright and his blessing, thus passing it onto Jacob. That is the real emphasis on the story, that Jacob did not originally have the blessed lineage, but later took it on. This narrative absolutely emphasizes PD. Surely the story is not that the younger born Jacob would have been the promised lineage just by marrying a Jewish while while Esau kept the birthright and blessing all along. 

  • The next example given is of Moses, who married a non-Jewish woman, and had two sons, and the article says there is no linage of Moses given in the Levite lineages, only Aaron's sons are listed in the Levite lineages. This is silly for it implies that one of God's greatest righteous men, Moses, blatantly was not living like a good Jew by settling down to have two non-Jewish children. It is also silly for it implies Moses did not circumcise his sons, so as to bring them fully into the covenant and raise them as Jews. Furthermore, the sons of Aaron (firstborn in the family, older that his brother Moses), these sons of Aaron are who determine who are the Levitical priests. So this is explicit evidence of PD, which even the Orthodox accept, they just say that is only for priests and the mom still has to be Jewish herself.

  • The article goes on to give examples of women not born Jewish who give birth to Jewish children. This doesn't really prove anything because we can just assume the women converted upon marrying a Jewish husband. In the rare 1-2 cases of a Jewish woman marrying a non-Jew and having a Jewish child, this is too big of an issue to create a whole theory from those rare situations, and there could be very reasonable explanations, such as the child got circumcised and welcomed into the Jewish tribe formally.

  • The article in a later section gives quotes from Jewish scholar Shaye Cohen, where he points out MD is not really Biblically based, and he makes very fair points:
    The preexilic [before Babylonian exile] portions of the Hebrew Bible are not familiar with the matrilineal principle. Numerous Israelite heroes and kings married foreign women; for example, Judah married a Canaanite, Joseph an Egyptian, Moses a Midianite and an Ethiopian, David a Philistine, and Solomon women of every description. Although Exod. 34:16 and Deut. 7:1–3 prohibit intermarriage only with the Canaanites, a prohibition that was supposed to have originated with the patriarchs Abraham (Gen. 24:3) and Isaac (Gen. 27:46–28:1), some Israelites extended the prohibition to include all foreigners (Judg. 14:3). But it never occurred to anyone in preexilic times to argue that such marriages were null and void. Marriage was the non-sacramental, private acquisition of a woman by a man, and the state had little or no legal standing in the matter. The foreign woman who married an Israelite husband was supposed to leave her gods in her father's house, but even if she did not, it never occurred to anyone to argue that her children were not Israelites. Since the idea of conversion to Judaism did not yet exist, it never occurred to anyone to demand that the foreign woman undergo some ritual to indicate her acceptance of the religion of Israel. The woman was joined to the house of Israel by being joined to her Israelite husband; the act of marriage was functionally equivalent to the later idea of conversion.
    It is this kind of examination of the Biblical evidence that seems to me the most honest and true to the Biblical text. To go around looking for obscure "gotcha" verses seems to be less interested with following the Bible and more about pushing some agenda.

This leads us to the two main "proofs" that I have seen cited online by pro-MD sources. The first is Deuteronomy 7:1-4 and the second is Ezra 9-10. Unless these passages are clearly talking about the MD issue, it would seem that this is not to be taken as definitive evidence, especially not evidence that would overturn clear language like a descendant "out of your loins" and "Abraham's seed" and "X was the father of Y" type talk blatantly throughout the Bible. Let's take a look at these two chief proof texts.

Deuteronomy 7:1-4 says:

When the LORD your God brings you to the land that you are about to enter and possess, and He dislodges many nations before you - the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations much larger than you - and the LORD your God delivers them to you and you defeat them, you must doom them to destruction: grant them no terms and give them no quarter. Do not intermarry with them; do not give your daughter to his son and do not take his daughter for your son. This is because he will turn away your son from following Me, and they will worship foreign gods. God’s wrath will be kindled against you and He will quickly destroy you.

On the plain reading of this text, the issue isn't about descent or lineage, it is about getting rid of these evil nations, wiping them out, not even trying to salvage what you might want to salvage, such as beautiful foreign brides. As noted above in the Cohen' quote, this text isn't even a blanket statement against marrying foreign brides in general, just these specific nations in particular. Anyway, the dogmatic claim here made by the Rabbis is that this text only speaks of "he" (the foreign husband) will turn away "your Jewish child" from following God, but there is no mention of the the foreign wife turning away a Jewish child, and thus this definitively proves the foreign wife cannot produce a Jewish child. This is really troubling to use this small of evidence to make such a grand claim. The text plainly says do not give your Jewish daughter to a Canaanite son, and it explicitly also says do not give your Jewish son to a Canannite daughter. Clearly, the focus is that in either case the intermarriage is dangerous and corrupting. The idea that a Canaanite daughter cannot corrupt a Jew is completely refuted by the clear evidence of other Biblical texts, especially Solomon marrying foreign wives who were the ones who introduced idolatry into the nation. Such women turned the entire nation away. A foreign husband taking on a Jewish wife could only negatively reach just her small circle.

Consider the tragic situation of 1 Kings 11:

1 Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, 2 from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love.

Clearly, the danger applies to both Jewish men and women when it comes to marrying foreign wives. In Genesis 31:19-35 we see that Jacob's "Jewish wife" Rachel had taken along her family idols in her travel bag because she felt these idols would protect her. This idolatry would even suggest she wasn't (fully) converted to Judaism, and thus call into doubt the whole theory! Clearly, both men and women can put the other side in danger, so it would be silly for God to suggest in Deuteronomy 7 that the danger is only one directional. 

The second chief example I've seen given is of Ezra ch9-10, where the Jews who returned from Babylonian Exile had intermarried with the foreign wives. There is repeated the prohibition talked about above, "do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons" (Ezr 9:12, citing Deut 7:4). In chapter 10, Ezra gathers all the men of the tribes and says those men who married foreign women must put the women and their children away, that is completely disown/divorce them. The Orthodox claim is that there is zero mention of the Jewish women given to Canaanite men having to divorce their Canaanite husband nor get rid of her Canaanite children, and thus they say it must have been perfectly fine to remain in those marriages because the children would be good solid Jews. If I am reading this argument correctly, that's simply outrageous. We know for sure Ezra would not approve of Jewish women given to pagan husbands, and the point was that these pagans are dangerously impure (9v11). These commentators might as well conclude no Jewish women married any pagan men since the text doesn't give any names, like it does for the Jewish men who did. Most likely, the Jewish women were given over precisely as an exchange, for otherwise why would you give your daughter away unless you got either money or a beautiful woman for your son in return? A Jewish daughter who was tragically given away to a Canaanite husband was probably lost for good. She cannot just divorce her husband, especially since she was more akin to his possession in those days. So it is not likely the woman could get out of the situation, whereas the men could send away the women they were done with.

On that last note, to Conclude, while I can say I am completely baffled why MD would even be a doctrine in the first place, making such a big deal out of something with virtually zero clear Biblical warrant, I would say the Ezra example gives the best reason why MD was pushed so heavily. Generally speaking, men will often have no problem marrying a pagan woman as long as she is "hot," and thus there has always been a far stronger danger of a Jewish man to marry a pagan woman and thus corrupt the family religion. Thus, it makes sense the Rabbis would come up with a law that the father's religion doesn't matter, since if he's going to marry a pagan wife then that whole family can just be written off as no longer Jewish and thus not taint the wider community. But there is relatively less danger of a Jewish woman marrying a non-Jewish man, because historically a woman could only marry someone her dad and community approved of, and thus a good Jewish father would make sure his daughter was only given to a practicing Jewish man. Thus the Rabbis say religion comes from the mother since she would already be in the Jewish community and could only be given away to a practicing Jewish man in that community, thus assuring both parents are Jewish. That's my theory.


Abraham looking to the heavens, God says the
number of stars are the number of his offspring



Nick said...

I found an Rabbi who wrote an article on the problems with the Matrilineal theory. I will largely cite his testimony below:

The plain meaning of the Genesis narrative is overwhelmingly patrilineal – that is the child of a Hebrew father and non-Hebrew mother is considered a Hebrew. For one thing if Abraham was the first Hebrew and there is no record of Sarai/Sara converting then without patrilineality the story of our people would have been very short. Isaac’s wife, Rebecca, daughter of Bethu-el seems to be descended from pagan ancestry on both the side of Nahor and his wife, (Gen 24:15) and yet there is no questioning the status of her children as Hebrews. We do not know the genealogy of the mothers of Jacob’s wives, the Bible only deeming it necessary to tell us of their father (Gen 29:10); again suggesting the patrilineal principle is dominant. Joseph’s wife Asenat (Gen 41:45) is clearly an Egyptian (Gen 41:45) but his children, Ephraim and Menashe are seen as Israelites. The pattern of the avot is replicated in the rest of the Biblical narrative. Moshe marries Zipporah, daughter of the Priest of Midian (Ex 2:16, 21), Samson asks for Philistine girl for a wife (Judg 14:2), Solomon marries foreign women (I Kings 11:1-16) and so on, but nowhere is there a suggestion that the children of these couplings are not considered Israelite. Indeed Rehoboam’s mother was an Amonite women (I Kings 14:21) yet he ascends the throne of Israel, as does Ahaziah son of Jezebel, another non-Israelite. (I Kings 22:40). Of course rabbinic exegesis is unable to accept such heretical notions and this leads to creative attempts to ‘demonstrate’ that these wives did in fact convert.[6] But these efforts should be seen more as drash than an accurate reflection of the straightforward meaning of the text.

Nick said...

More quotes:

//Deuteronomy 7:3 is also cited, but this verse applies only to the seven nations and in any event is not proof that the offspring of a coupling of Israelite male and Canaanite female is not considered an Israelite, only that such coupling should not take place.

//While the Ezra incident clearly stresses the Biblical perception of the evils of intermarriage there is no suggestion on the face of the text that a matrilineal principle is being applied. The question of why Ezra only sought the expulsion of the women and their children (as opposed to non-Israelite men and their children) does require explanation, but there is no need to read these verses as giving evidence of the Biblical origin of the matrilineal principle. As Cohen suggests it might be that the children of non-Israelite fathers and Israelite mothers were so obviously not to be considered part of the Israelite nation that there was no need to expel them. Alternatively the reason Ezra spoke only to the Israelite men is that these were the only people over whom he had jurisdiction. I will return to discuss the problem of intermarriage later, but it is important to stress that this text is not strong proof of the Biblical historical origin of an application of a principle (exegetical origins are of course something quite different).

//Apocryphal texts also operate in similar fashion to texts from the Bible. Examples of the insistence of keeping the ‘seed’ pure are common, unambiguous applications of any supposed matrilineal principle are absent. The Book of Jubilees for example does not suggest the Hebrew/Cananite couplings of Shimon and Judah result in children that are not Hebrews. (34:20). In fact while Jubilees does note that ‘Simeon repented and took a second [possibly Hebrew] wife from Mesopotamia’ (34:21)[15] there is no mention of Judah marrying anyone other than ‘Betasuel, a Canaanite,’ a coupling which in would, if the matrilineal principle were in effect, render all the decedents of the tribe of Judah paradoxically not-Jewish!

//Philo calls the children of both Israelite father and non-Israelite mother and Israelite mother and non-Israelite father bastards. Josephus is also un-aware of the principle

//One other pre/non-Rabbinic pair of texts warrants comment. Matthew 1:1-17 (dated between 70-115 CE)[17]and Luke 3:23-37 (circa 80 CE)[18] were both written by self-defined Jews who wished to make a claim for the noble lineage of Jesus. Despite their shared belief that Joseph was not the father of Jesus both trace Jesus’ lineage through Joseph, Jesus’ ‘non-father.’ These Gospels’ desire to lay claim to a worthy patrilineal heritage for Jesus is so great that they are prepared to ignore paternity.