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Rep. Giffords and the limits of matrilineality
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Rep. Giffords and the limits of matrilineality

As a Conservative rabbi and a member of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, I cannot officially consider Jewish descent to be determined patrilineally — that is, a child born of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother. In its Code of Professional Conduct, the R.A. writes unequivocally, “Matrilineality determines Jewish status.”

Yet like many Jews who regard Jewish status to require a Jewish mother or proper conversion, I admit to feeling pride in successful Jewish athletes or celebrities, even if their “Jewishness” isn’t technically defined by halachic standards. Consider Ryan Braun, who won the National League Rookie of the Year award in 2007. Braun considers himself to be Jewish, and his Israeli-born father lost most of his family in the Holocaust.

The 1983 decision by the Reform movement to recognize Jewish status by either the mother or father continues to raise questions for the other streams of Judaism. The debate over “Who is a Jew” is back in the headlines following the shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that critically injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Giffords is the daughter of a Christian Scientist mother and a Jewish father who is the grandson of a rabbi. She considers herself a proud Jew who is an active member of her Reform congregation. She was married under a huppa by a rabbi, albeit to a non-Jewish man.

Giffords cochaired the Jewish Outreach Institute’s 2007 conference and is active in her congregation. President Obama called Rabbi Stephanie Aaron, Giffords’ rabbi at Congregation Chaverim, to offer his prayers for a speedy recovery for the congresswoman.

Since the Jan. 8 shooting, we have learned quite a bit about Gabrielle Giffords and her Jewish pride. Her paternal grandfather, the son of a Lithuanian rabbi, changed his name to Giff Giffords for reasons of anti-Semitism.

On her campaign website, Giffords wrote, “Growing up, my family’s Jewish roots and tradition played an important role in shaping my values. The women in my family served as strong role models for me as a girl. In my family, if you want to get something done, you take it to the women relatives! Like my grandmother, I am a lifetime member of Hadassah and now a member of Congregation Chaverim.”

She describes her visit to Israel as a state senator: “It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I will always be a strong supporter of Israel. As the only functioning democracy in the Middle East, Israel is a vital strategic ally of the United States. As a woman and as a Jew, I will always work to ensure that the United States stands with Israel to jointly ensure our mutual safety, security, and prosperity.”

As Giffords lay in a hospital bed recovering from an assassination attempt by a domestic terrorist, her Hebrew name has circulated the world to be used in the traditional Mishebeirah prayer for healing. And yet, some rabbis have questioned whether her non-Jewish mother’s name should be part of her Hebrew nomenclature for the prayer, while others have referred to her as Jewish but added the caveat “not halachically speaking.”

The Jerusalem Post was perhaps the first publication to state emphatically that Giffords’ status as a “Jewish role model” should not be questioned. In fact, in its editorial “Learning Judaism From Giffords,” the Post wrote, “With all our desire for a universally accepted definition of ‘Who is a Jew?’ that would unify the Jewish people, we cannot ignore the complicated reality that many ‘non-Jews’ are much more Jewish than their ‘Jewish’ fellows. Congresswoman Giffords is one of them.”

Blogger Kung Fu Jew posted an angry rant on the JewSchool blog about a Jewish establishment that “frowns on the very substance of her life” as a patrilineal Jew. Giffords, he wrote, is “Jewish enough for the Jewish community to own a side-show of the media circus. Jewish enough to be our martyr, it seems, but not Jewish enough to be treated equally in life.”

Kung Fu Jew has a point here. I’m sure many synagogues will offer prayers of healing for Giffords and recognize her as a Jewish member of Congress, yet they would be violating their own religious policy if they ever called her to the Torah for an aliya honor.

I really wish we had a consensus on what determines Jewish status through lineage, even if only in the non-Orthodox Jewish community. Certainly we cannot continue to make an exception for athletes, celebrities, and politicians of Jewish patrilineal descent. I’m in agreement with The Jerusalem Post on this matter. If Rep. Gabrielle Giffords considers herself Jewish because her father is Jewish and she lives a Jewish life, then she’s Jewish.

May Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — Gavriela bat Gloria v’Spencer — be granted a speedy and complete recovery.

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