Matrilineality of Jews [Part 2]


I’m continuing from where I left off, in the previous post.

For the second point, we know that even in our modern times, it is still the men who initiate courtship in virtually all instances leading to family formation. If one refers to how things happened historically, the institution of marriage was usually in the hands of either the groom-to-be or the parents (most often, fathers) of both the groom and the bride. It has never been the case, until women’s emancipation of the last century or so, that brides exercised any significant control in such matters.

Continuing the second point’s explanation, we can now pose the question: if the Rabbinical authorities wished to preserve their communities in exile, what would be the best route to positively affect the likelihood of Jewish identity preservation? Obviously, the best route would be to keep the pillars of the community, i.e. the families, Jewish. But to keep the families Jewish, it is important to keep the members thereof, beginning with the parents, but especially the fathers, given the patriarchal and patrilocal nature of most societies until recently, Jewish.

Given the Rabbinical need for keeping tabs on the Jewishness of family life, how to ascertain that fathers are Jewish? Since the brides never (till recently) controlled the outcome, the channels of influence were via fathers and grooms-to-be. In other words, the males of the community ought to be restricted in their choice of marriage partners for themselves or their sons vis-a-vis their ability to stay in the Jewish community. Put differently, the grooms and their fathers are likely to decide in favor of marrying a Jewish bride, if the arrangement is such that if they do otherwise, they or their descendants don’t stay in the community.

Before I commence unraveling how matrilineality in the Jewish communal context helped to preserve the Rabbinic control of Jewish family, we need to better address what that context was, beyond the mere fact of Jews being patriarchal and patrilocal, like most of the surrounding gentiles.

Most prominently, it needs to be noted here that being steeped in Jewish learning has always been not just a historic requirement but a marker of high status of men in Jewish communities, most of which were likely either established or, at the very least, glued by Talmudically learned men. Not just that, but also the fact that many Jews were involved in trading and finance, both of which required being connected to high-trust networks — all of these reasons clearly pushed Jewish males into finding themselves Jewish wives and de facto leaving bride fathers no choice but to marry their daughters into a Jewish, or more desirably, a learned or connected Jewish family.

Also, historically, many Jewish communities lived in Christian Europe, where Jews, since 5th century AD on, were explicitly forbidden from converting Christians to Jewish faith. Hence, the Jews had to be extremely cautions to when it came to accepting converts: an elaborate, lengthy process (called “giur”) was set up. Before 5th century, Roman Jews were quite open to proselytizing, and conversion was merely a formality.

For a rich Jewish man to marry out of Jewish community would often be an unwise decision. More often than not, the security, if not the very viability of their business depended on being integrated in high-trust financial and trade networks. Being a part of family whose Jewishness was questionable if at all real, jeopardized such arrangements — if not for the groom, then for his descendants, who would not be considered Jewish.

Of course, there surely were sometimes political, if not economic, reasons to marry out of faith and out of community for a even a rich Jewish man or his family (his parents desiring to make a new alliance via their son’s marriage, for instance, or maybe sheer absence of Jewish brides in the area). And technically yes, one could, for example, marry a gentile woman, but in order to preserve offsprings’ Jewishness, the matrilineality requirement necessitated converting their gentile brides or wives to Judaism, the non-trivial “giur.” A giur is very involved  technically, requiring stringent Rabbinical oversight, and can last a year or so, thereby both putting a serious obstacle for a Jewish man with aspiration to marry a woman not from Jewish community and putting such decisions into discretion of Rabbinic authority. Obviously, women who were either not capable or serious about adopting Jewish way of life as it was mediated by Rabbis would not get accepted.

Most problematic was, of course, the situation of poor Jewish men, who, even when desiring a Jewish wife, could possibly be not as attractive to a potential bride’s parents as a wealthier groom. Quite possibly, some of the poorest, unlearned Jewish men would marry out of faith, thereby “dropping out” or, to use, Greg Cochran’s expression “boiled off.” That was the case, as historic evidence clearly attests, unless the faith and Jewish learning of the poor Jewish groom were so strong that they could command respect of the entire Jewish community that this man was part. In that case, many parents of said community’s brides, including the the wealthy, were quite willing. Marrying one’s daughter to an esteemed Talmudic scholar was a prestigious thing to do. This social dynamic, by the way, likely contributed to selection for cultural cohesion among Jews, a cohesion based around values espoused by Rabbis.

The situation of poor Jewish brides was better. Firstly, until around 1000 AD,  preceding the contrary change introduced by Rabbeinu Gershom of the Ashkenazim, even early Roman proto-Ashkenazi communities, not to mention Sephardim/Mizrahim, could practice polygyny*, albeit the practice was very much on the wane among Ashkenazim a long time before Gershom ben Judah. Thus, a more wealthy member of the community could, at least in theory, take and support two wives. Secondly, and more importantly, the Talmudic scholar respect argument I posited above also applied to brides, but in a slightly different way: a bride coming from a poor Jewish family would be valued much more if her father was a Rabbi or a scholar or a teacher. Lastly, a poor bride marrying a poor, of an “am ha-aretz” (common) provenance Jew could get a bit of community’s support, especially later, with expansion of Jewish numbers and emergence of shtetls (self-contained Jewish towns). Said newly formed poor family would probably be on the margins of existence, but would still be able to survive with one or two children during tough times. I don’t have the information right now, but I am sure that any community support to the poor would be predicated on the entire family being Jewish, so in the very unlikely case when parents of a Jewish woman made the decision to marry her out of community, or if the woman on her own volition rebelled into doing so, she would be automatically dropped from the community.

A Jewish bride, poor or wealthy, could, rather only in theory, marry a wealthy gentile, with her children being counted as Jewish. Nonetheless, because of stigmas of gentile societies against Jews, especially, pre-Industrialization, such cases were extraordinarily rare. In gentile societies surrounding the Jewish communities in exile, historically, rich or powerful men would almost always marry into other rich or powerful families.  For a gentile, crucially, given patrilocality of both Jews and gentiles, to “marry a bride” meant also “bring the bride into home/community.” To marry an explicitly Jewish woman, not to mention a poor Jewish woman, would have been a very bad idea, if not an anathema, in those types of arrangements. And either way, again, due to patrilocality, even if such cases did happen, for all practical purposes (until Reform Jewish emancipation), said Jewish woman would de facto drop out of her Jewish community, along with her children, even if they could be qualified as technically Jewish.

I want to reiterate the important point: since being a learned Talmudic scholar or a Rabbi or a teacher** was always considered high status, independently of wealth, cohesion among Jews was centered around their faith and knowledge of the tenets thereof, with Rabbis being intimately involved in the day-to-day workings and drive of this process.

In the next, final post, I will summarize on matrilineality in Judaism.



*I will later post on how monogamy evolved both among Jews and gentiles. How it arose in the first place is still not clear and worth exploring.

**Teachers’ job was inculcating knowledge of Tahakh and basics of Halakhah in Jewish children.


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