Tag Archives: Orthodox Judaism

Why is Judaism Matrilineal?

In this week’s parasha, Va’etchanan, God cautions His people about intermarriage (Deuteronomy 7:3-4). Although the Torah is speaking specifically about intermarrying with the Canaanite nations, the verses have always been understood as prohibiting intermarriage with any and all other nations. This is especially true because the Torah goes on to say that intermarrying will lead to the children being led astray and being turned to idolatrous ways. In those days, the Canaanites were not the only idolaters, of course—just about everyone was an idol-worshipper—so all intermarriage was forbidden. The Torah phrases the prohibition in an interesting way:

You shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughter to his son, and you shall not take his daughter for your son, for they will turn away your son from following Me, and they will worship the gods of others…

While the Torah makes it clear that one must not marry their son to a gentile woman, or their daughter to a gentile man, it goes on to only mention that the son will be turned away from God, not the daughter. The Sages explain that women tend to be of greater faith than me, and as the primary builders of the home, it is the women who set the spiritual tone of the family. A faithful Jewish man who marries a non-Jewish woman will, sooner or later, be led astray. Such was the case with a great many Jewish men following the Babylonian Exile, and when they finally returned to Israel, they admitted (Ezra 10:2-3):

We have broken faith with our God, and have married foreign women of the peoples of the land; yet now there is hope for Israel concerning this thing. Now therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives, and such as are born of them, according to the counsel of Hashem, and of those that tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law.

“Ezra reading the Law in the hearing of the people” by Gustave Doré

From all of the above, the Sages conclude that Judaism passes on maternally. Scripture makes it clear that only the non-Jewish mother will turn a Jewish man astray, and as we learn from Ezra, only those born to “foreign women” are not part of the Covenant. Aside from this, there are a number of other practical and spiritual reasons why Judaism must be matrilineal.

Since the mother is the one actually giving birth to the child, it is pretty much clear every single time who the child’s mother is. The same cannot be said of the father. Throughout history, when raping and pillaging was unfortunately very common, and there were no paternity tests, only the mother’s status as parent was evident. This may be why the ancient Greeks and Romans tended to be matrilineal as well.

Shaye J.D. Cohen points out (see chapter 9 of The Beginnings of Jewishness) that in Athens, only the offspring of an Athenian man and an Athenian woman could have Athenian citizenship, a law introduced by Pericles around 451 BCE. If an Athenian man married a foreign woman, the children would not be Athenians. Later, the Romans similarly held that only two Roman citizens can have a child who was a Roman citizen, and if a Roman married a foreigner or someone of a lower social class, the status or identity of the child would be that of the mother.

While these rules make sense from a logical perspective, they also recognize the profound connection that a child and mother have—far superior to that of child and father. And this ties into the deeper biological, and spiritual, reasons for why Judaism is matrilineal.

The Genetics of Motherhood

When it comes to the genes and traits of children, people tend to think that they are a 50-50 mix of mother and father. We learn in school how 23 chromosomes from the father (carried by sperm cells) meet 23 chromosomes from the mother (in the egg cell) to produce a new child. We are made to believe that even if the child may look more like one parent, they are nonetheless perfectly half-half. This is completely untrue.

A karyotype showing 23 pairs of chromosomes. (Credit: National Human Genome Research Institute)

First of all, when it comes to boys, the Y chromosome of the father is far smaller and carries significantly less genes than the mother’s X chromosome. Girls do have half of their father’s and half of their mother’s genes (receiving an X from each, along with the other 22 chromosomes). However, this only refers to nuclear DNA. The cell has other forms of heritable genetic material, too, most notably in mitochondria.

The mitochondrion is one of the most vital components of any cell, and provides the bulk of a cell’s energy. The main reason that you breathe is to provide oxygen for mitochondria. They are involved in countless processes, including calcium storage, cell signalling and communication, metabolism, hormone production, the breakdown of wastes (such as toxic ammonia in the liver), and apoptosis, or cellular death. A single cell could have over a thousand mitochondria.

Mitochondria under a microscope.

These mitochondria have their very own DNA, carrying hundreds of additional genes. This DNA, called mtDNA, is passed down strictly from mother to child. A father’s mitochondria play no role. In fact, because of this, geneticists are able to trace a person’s maternal lineage fairly accurately thousands of years into the past by analyzing mtDNA. (My own mtDNA—haplogroup U6a—dates back to a woman who lived in North Africa about 1000 generations ago!)

There are multiple other cellular components that are passed down almost entirely from mother to child. Because the sperm essentially donates only its nucleus (with its chromosomes) to the egg, it is the egg cell itself that begins to divide in producing an embryo. Thus, the bulk of a person’s cellular structure comes from their mother, too. Back in university, I had one biology professor who estimated that inheritance is not 50-50, but more like 80-20. From a scientific perspective, we are far, far more like our mothers.

This is one reason why mothers have such a deep and profound connection to their child. Amazingly, scientists have recently discovered that when a woman is pregnant, DNA (and whole cells) from the child actually goes into the bloodstream and ends up in the mother’s brain! Fetal cells have also been found in lungs, muscles, and heart tissue of mothers. A mother will literally carry the DNA of her children in her body for the rest of her life.

Just as children are physically more connected with their mothers so, too, are they more spiritually connected to their mothers. (After all, one of Judaism’s central principles is that the dynamics of this physical world are only a reflection of the spiritual realms.) And this is yet another key reason why Judaism is, and must be, matrilineal.

What About Conversion?

The genetics perspective brings up an important question: what about converts? A person who converts to Judaism is, of course, a full-fledged Jew. But their DNA hasn’t changed! It goes without saying that Judaism is not genetic, and the discussion of genetics above is meant to only be an analogy for spiritual processes.

Having said that, we have an opportunity here to bust another common myth: that a person’s DNA is unchanging. People are often taught that whatever DNA they are born with, they are stuck with. If they have a defective gene for a particular condition, then they will definitely develop that condition. Today we know that this, too, is not entirely correct.

As discussed before in detail, our body has epigenetic machinery which allows gene expression to be controlled. Just because a person has a certain gene does not mean that the gene will be operational. It can certainly be “shut off”. While it was once thought that our lifestyle choices have no impact on our genes or epigenetics, new research continues to show that the choices we make have a tremendous effect on our genes. We’ve known for a long time that things like diet and physical activity impact gene expression, and now we even have evidence that prayer and meditation affects our genes.

Therefore, a person who sincerely converts to Judaism, and begins to live a Jewish lifestyle, eat like a Jew, think like a Jew, and pray like a Jew, will very likely experience changes on the genetic (or epigenetic) level as well. And these epigenetic changes are hereditary.

This is yet another reason why it is so important to convert to Judaism properly. Converting means not only converting in name, but becoming Torah-observant and living a Jewish life. Otherwise, what’s the point of the conversion? This is precisely why Orthodox conversions tends to be so difficult and time-consuming. The rabbis want to ensure (as much as possible) that the person is serious about becoming a Jew, and will actually live as one.

The process is far from perfect, and sometimes they do make it too difficult and tedious. We have addressed this in the past as well. Some point out that it was never so difficult to convert in past centuries. This is true, as the Talmud (Yevamot 47b) explains the procedure thus:

Once healed [from circumcision], we immerse him immediately; and two scholars stand above him, and teach him a few easy commandments and a few difficult commandments. Once he has immersed and come up from immersion, he is part of Israel for all matters. If the convert is a woman, women sit her in the water up to her neck and two scholars stand outside, and teach her a few easy commandments and a few difficult commandments.

That’s all it took back in those days. A person was just taught a few introductory mitzvot while already immersed part way in a mikveh. They would pick up the rest when going on to live as Jews and marry into Jewish families. Even in the time of the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) hundreds of years later, he codifies this exact procedure as law (Mishneh Torah, Issurei Biah 14:6). Yet, in those days just about everyone was religious (whether Jewish or not). This isn’t the case in today’s secular society. A person who converts to Judaism wouldn’t necessarily learn how to be a Jew by simply marrying into a Jewish family. It is necessary to carefully teach them everything beforehand.

It is just as necessary to determine their real intentions, and affirm their absolute sincerity. In a world where people change their identities faster than they change their socks, it isn’t surprising that Orthodox rabbis take conversion very seriously and are extremely stringent about it. It is important to keep this in mind as we continue to hear about intermarriage and the “who is a Jew?” debate in the mainstream media.

Are More Restrictions Good for Judaism?

This week’s parasha is Nasso, the longest portion in the Torah. Among many other things, Nasso relates various laws pertaining to the nazir, commonly (and loosely) translated as a “monk”. Nazirite status was typically conferred on a person temporarily, for a minimum of 30 days. During this time, the nazir abstained from wine and grape products (and likely anything else that might have put them under the influence), from being contaminated by the impurity of death (and therefore avoiding contact with corpses or visits to a cemetery), and desisted from cutting their hair. At the end of the term, the nazir would immerse in a mikveh and bring a series of offerings in the Temple.

The Torah describes a person who has undergone the nazirite process “holy”. At the same time, the Torah instructs this person to bring a sin offering. As such, the Jewish Sages debate whether becoming a nazir is something commendable, or actually sinful! The most likely possibility is that a person who felt a great deal of guilt over some sin they had done would take on the nazirite vow as a form of expiation or spiritual purification. A person could even take on the nazirite vow for life.

Rabbi Elazar HaKappar taught (Taanit 11a) that a nazirite is likened to a sinner for practicing such abstinence, and the sage Shmuel taught that anyone who fasts voluntary for self-affliction is a sinner, too. Separating one’s self from the joys of this world and taking on more and more restrictions is not a path to spiritual enlightenment. The Jewish way has always been about finding balance. It is not about separating from this physical world, but properly engaging in it. And more than just restrictions, the Jewish way focuses on positive actions.

It is said that this was Abraham’s revolution: What the first Jew did was introduce people to spirituality not by way of abstinence from the physical, but rather, spirituality by way of elevating the physical. Abraham did not invent negative mitzvot, but presented the right way to do positive mitzvot. This is hinted to by his name, for the numerical value of Abraham (אברהם) is 248, which is the number of positive mitzvot in the Torah. Meanwhile, Moses brought down the complete Torah, balancing the positive and the negative – both deeds and restrictions – in 613 mitzvot, also hinted to by his name and title Moshe Rabbeinu (משה רבינו), which equals 613.

Dealing with Stringencies

If taking on more and more stringencies and restrictions is not the proper path, how do we deal with the ever-increasing expanse of halachic prohibitions and “fences”? The Talmud Yerushalmi (Shabbat 1:4) writes how the more stringent Beit Shammai once took hold of the Sanhedrin and enacted 18 restrictions, among them rules like chalav yisrael and pat yisrael. This day is described as being as tragic for Israel as the day of the Golden Calf! While Rabbi Eliezer said that on that day the scholars “filled the measure” (ie. did a good thing), Rabbi Yehoshua said that they completely erased the measure!

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow explains that Rabbi Yehoshua believed more restrictions would end up destroying Judaism in the long run. While it may be different for the serious scholar, the average person is unable to keep taking on more and more restrictions, and will only be frustrated by the ever-increasing stringencies. Soon enough, these people will cast off the yoke of Torah completely.

It appears that Rabbi Yehoshua’s words were prophetic, for this is precisely what has happened in the Jewish world. Today, Orthodox Judaism has so many fences that the average Jew wants nothing to do with the religion, and fears taking on even a little more observance. Non-observant Jews often critique (and rightly so) that the restrictions have gone so far that they bear little resemblance to what the Torah initially instructed! It therefore isn’t surprising that the vast majority of Jews today are completely secular.

On the other hand, repealing fences can also be dangerous. The thinking is that once people start taking things out, there will be no end to it. This is what happened in Reform Judaism, which started out fairly innocent, but quickly became just about completely secular. Where is the line to be drawn?

Finding the Right Balance

The above issue is possibly the central challenge of modern-day Judaism: How do we return to a logical, spiritual, uplifting Judaism, without destroying its fundamental base? To continue adding more and more fences does not work, nor does forcing people into observance through guilt and fear. On the other hand, how do we avoid being ensnared by the descending spiral that plagues the Reform and Conservative world?

At present, it appears we are unable to remove any stringencies at all for the masses, and it is highly doubtful that any great halachic figure alive today feels they have the authority to do so. Perhaps, then, the secret to success lies solely within the individual. There were 600,000 Jewish souls at Mt. Sinai, and the Arizal taught that every one of them received their own unique explanation of the Torah. Each person needs to find their own unique path within the vast world of Torah and halacha. Every individual must continue learning, digging deeper, and getting to the bottom of why they are practicing what they are.

What is the origin of the halacha in question? Does it have a Biblical or Talmudic basis, or is it simply a long-outdated local custom? Do all rabbinic authorities agree on its necessity, or do major authorities hold against it? Is there a good, logical reason to keep certain fences? Do particular restrictions enhance one’s religious experience, or constrain it? And most importantly, does a person feel like they are growing closer to God through their chosen path of halacha, and becoming holier and more righteous, or do they feel like they are actually falling backwards because of it?

These are vital questions that each person should be asking. We must never simply submit unquestioningly to the words of a wise man or a charismatic leader, whether a rabbi or anyone else. It is a central tenet of Judaism to always ask questions, and find good answers to them. If the answers don’t satisfy us, we must prod further. And if there is still no answer, we must seriously reconsider what we are doing. This is all the more significant in our generation, in the footsteps of Mashiach, which the Talmud (Sotah 49b) describes as a period where “the meeting place of scholars will be used for immorality… the wisdom of the learned will degenerate… and the truth will be missing…”

May Hashem give us all the strength and wisdom to see the truth and find the proper Godly path.