The Problem with Gendered Descent

The author. Photo by Lucy Jean Brettler

Religions, many of them, lag and drag on issues of gender equality. We see this in the patriarchal texts and liturgies, the dearth of women in religious power, the resistance to full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people. A growing percentage of young adults no longer feel any need to affiliate, or any use for religious institutions. One reason at the top of the list is antiquated perspectives on gender and sexuality. Another interrelated reason: exclusion of interfaith families.

Gendered descent, the idea that religious identity is passed down, but only through the parent of a particular gender, is a corrosive, archaic, unworkable concept in the 21st century. It is deeply troubling to me as a “patrilineal Jew,” and as a human being. And it is found in multiple religions. The Orthodox and Conservative Jewish movements, and the state of Israel, go by matrilineal descent in deciding whom they consider to be Jewish. Meanwhile, many other religious cultures (from Muslims to Zoroastrians) traditionally go by patrilineal descent. Either way, interfaith families have a problem, and that means young adults who want to engage with religion, generally, are going to have a problem.

If we accept gendered descent, what is the religion of an interfaith child with two moms? Two dads? Two non-binary parents? Two trans parents? Multiple co-parenting parents? An egg or sperm donor? And, why should only one parent have the “right” to pass down a religion, based on their gender?

The painful absurdity of gendered descent is made plain, once again, in a recent decision by a rabbinical court in Israel. A Jewish mother gave birth to a baby conceived with an egg from a Jewish donor. But a state rabbinical court has now ruled that because the donor was anonymous, they can’t be sure the donor was Jewish enough and they refuse to register the baby as Jewish. (Was there a convert in the lineage somewhere? Were the rabbis who oversaw that conversion kosher enough?). So the baby does not get Jewish religious identity according to the state. This has real consequences in Israel, since, for instance, religious courts control marriage (there is no civil marriage) and interfaith couples have to fly to Cyprus or elsewhere to get married.

The decision takes place in a context of increasing bullying of the more progressive Jewish movements by Israeli rabbinical courts. These courts are now suspicious of anyone with Reform Jewish identity in ruling on who can immigrate, who can marry whom, who can be buried where. The Israeli theocracy seeks to disempower and disenfranchise Reform Judaism, pushing back on this movement’s adoption (in 1983) of gender-neutral policies on Jewish descent. In Israel, the religion of the father is chopped liver–irrelevant.

An egg has no religion. At birth, a baby has no religion. As adults, we create religious rituals to claim children. We create practices to immerse them in our religious culture. We create systems for their formal religious education. And then they grow up, and make their own decisions about beliefs, practices, affiliations, and identity. As the Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran writes: “They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”

And, none of this has anything to do with gender. Trying to police religious identity based on the gender of parents (and grandparents, and great-grandparents) is just one more way to exclude interfaith families, exclude LGBTQ families, and exclude those who might actually want to participate in what remains of progressive religious culture. It is past time for gender-neutral religion.

Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Another Form of Interfaith: A Christian From a Jewish Family

Sarahbeth Caplin

Jewish identities are diverse. Christian identities are diverse. And, interfaith identities are diverse. I often write about the idea that every child, no matter which religious label and education parents give them, grows up to choose their own beliefs, practices and affiliations. Today, guest blogger Sarahbeth Caplin recounts her journey, from a Jewish childhood to her conversion to evangelical Christianity, and her sense of being interfaith.–SKM

No one, not even myself, can figure out where my fascination with religion came from: I wasn’t raised in a religious family, and I certainly wasn’t raised within any Christian tradition. I don’t know what my Jewish parents thought about my early fascination with saints and martyrdom; surely it wasn’t normal, at an age when most girls I knew were into reading The Babysitter’s Club and Boxcar Children series. As an adult, it’s clear to me that God had a firm grip on my life. The question is which God.

My fascination with Christianity, particularly the idea of a god in human form, led to inevitable conversion. I spent many years trying to shoehorn my new Christian beliefs into a Jewish identity while trying to ignore the dramatic differences between the two faiths: evangelical Christianity places heavy emphasis on an afterlife, which is not a top priority in Judaism. Some Christians define sin as a state of being, while Jews view sin as an action only. And that’s just the beginning.

Messianic Judaism was a loophole I thought I found in college that would allow me to “be both,” but it quickly proved to be another branch of Christianity, albeit with some Hebrew and Jewish worship garb tossed in. I was treated like as much of a novelty in those congregations for being a Jew by blood, as I was in elementary school for being the only Jewish kid in a school full of Christians. Most disturbingly, the sermons and discussion groups centered on “outreach” and emphasized Jesus “fulfilling” the Old Law, and that never sat well with me.

If I’m being honest with myself, another huge appeal Christianity had for me, besides the Incarnation, was something that Jews in my home town lacked: community. There is no shortage of churches where I’m from, but only one synagogue: a building that used to be, incidentally, a church. I was Bat Mitzvahed there before the crosses in the stained glass windows were replaced. You could say my conversion was almost prophetic.

If I’m being even more honest with myself, I feel more like “me” wearing Hebrew jewelry than I ever have with a cross. I cannot fluently speak the language that many evangelical Christians use – phrases like “Born again,” “Time in the Word,” “Washed in the blood,” etc. But my ears can’t help but perk up whenever I hear the expressions my mother and grandmother use: kvetching, chutzpah, mitzvah, oy vey. My cupboards are filled with coffee mugs labeled “Jewish penicillin” and other Yiddish-isms instead of Bible verses with cutesy floral designs. I feel a more instant connection with other Jews than I ever do when I meet a Christian, because there are so few of us. Clearly, there is more to being Jewish than a set of beliefs, and even those are not uniform among Jews (though to be fair, beliefs aren’t uniform among all Christians, either).

I now fully accept the reality that Judaism and Christianity are two very different faiths. A Jewish identity, however, is something a bit more fluid, something I have room to work with. No matter what I believe, my childhood of lighting Hanukkah candles and having Shabbos dinners cannot be erased. My strong sense of tikkun olam cannot be denied, particularly when I hear of missions groups choosing to send bibles overseas to tsunami victims instead of food or water. These are just a few of the things that make up my still-Jewish identity.

My biggest problem, however, is figuring out the best way to explain it to people. I am constantly paranoid about killing a chance for meaningful conversation because someone might not be able to accept my interfaith self. Those people are not my friends, but rejection and accusations of hypocrisy and even apostasy still hurt.

It’s actually something of a comfort for me to remember that everyone is considered an apostate to someone. For instance, I know there are Christians who won’t consider me a “true Christian” because I support gay rights. At some point, one must own who one is and where one has been, no matter how contradictory. Life journeys, particularly religious ones, are deeply personal. If there’s anything I’ve learned from being interfaith, it’s not to condemn a person for having beliefs I might find distasteful in some way. Diversity thrives when the journey behind the belief is respected, even if we disagree with the beliefs themselves.

Sarahbeth Caplin is a stay-at-home author, blogger, editor, and freelancer in northern Colorado with a degree in English Literature from Kent State University and an MFA in progress at Colorado State. Her first book, Confessions of a Prodigal Daughter, is a memoir of her religious journey. Follow her blog at http://www.sbethcaplin.com.

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