Matrilineality of Jews [Part 1]

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Ever wondered why Jewishness gets passed via mother? No? Even despite the fact that the Tanakh (Bible) has virtually always cared only about paternal lineage? Per Shaye Cohen, a Jewish historian of Near Eastern Studies at Harvard, the author of “The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties,” this is an innovation of early Mishnaic Period, a borrowing from Roman law.

His detailed article is one of the most well-reasoned pieces I have seen in a long time.

To  me, it marks the emergence of Jewishness as a post-tribal national concept  – of Jewishness as that of a communal identity, beyond that of a set of related tribes and clans. The adoption of matrilineality, in fact, is also an accident of history.

While Cohen didn’t go into actually explaining the reason for the switch, but merely elucidating on the most likely inspiration source(s), it must be further clarified that, in my opinion, given all presented evidence, the Roman law is the likeliest origin for the practice.

In light of the inward-looking nature of the Halakhah, the “forbidden mixtures” argument that he cites as a potential source for matrilienality seems like a convenient, if abstruse and rather forced justification. The need for such a justification becomes clear if we account for the fact that Roman culture, from which such rule sprang, was viewed as highly antithetical to Jews, hence anything to arise from it, both due to preceding and forthcoming events, would have been viewed as an undesired, if not outright unacceptable, innovation. Hence, “forbidden mixture” seems more of a veneer to conceal the de facto nature of the foreign influence.

Given the drastic changes entailed by the emergence of Jewish diaspora, whether on willing basis via Hellenization (e.g. the Alexandrian community established around 300 BC) or galut (exile, e.g. in Babylon and, subsequently, Roman domain), the pressure to assimilate and, thus, culturally disappear, became hard to ignore. Hence the need to define and delineate Jewish identity, as well as come up and follow the actual mechanisms to achieve the above. It is important to keep in mind that before one can even speak of Jewishness, one needs to define it. This exact process was in full swing around the time of the Babylonean exile, and picked up even more during Alexander the Great’s conquest. Shaye Cohen describes this in his book, “The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties.”

The first step, one of delineation of polity and ethnos, of divorcing culture from ethnicity, was achieved by the Hasmonean revolt. It was a reaction to Greeks’ same differentiation, which made Jews, the ethnic majority and citizens of a Hellenic state, feel the need to explicitly define and, therefore, re-assert the identity of their polity, its non-Hellenic cultural character, instead of remaining content as being just one of the ethne inhabiting Judea. In doing so they established the Jewish state not merely as a state of Judeans, descendants of Moses’s Israelites, but a state of explicitly Jewish character, where other ethnics (like Edomites/Idumeans) could exist, provided they accepted the overall Jewish-Judean cultural character of the polity (Hasmoneans went even further in that they forcefully culturally converted the other minor ethnicities into Judaism.)

The next step, the emergence of Pharisees, as priests of the people, the righteous ones, was instrumental in preparing the ground to achieve the cohesion and portability of the Jewish culture — especially, as the Judean Jewish polity went through being re-conquered by Romans, experienced attempts at imperial assimilation, and finally, after resistance and bloodshed, gone.

But I’d like to concentrate here on the matrilineal principle, its usefulness in helping Jews to culturally and genetically survive in exile. It is hard to say with absolute confidence, but we can reason, based on at least two arguments, about how it actually became the established practice:

1. Empirical evidence: the relative fecundity and spread of Jewish groups practicing matrilineal vs patrilineal descent.
2. Cultural evolution modeling insight: performing a thought experiment to understand Jewish family-communal interactive dynamics based on current and historical practices of courtship and marriage.

To illustrate the first point, we know that the only surviving patrilineal Jewish group that is older than a few hundred years is Karaite Judaism. The numbers of Karaite Jews is in the tens of thousands — a pittance, as compared to size of worldwide Jewelry, represented by Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, etc. communities, which, until secularism and Reform Judaism’s relatively very recent emergence, numbered in millions.

I will delve into second argument in the next post.

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