The subject of why the Rabbis adopted a matrilineal principle is the subject of much debate; as yet no clear answer to this question has been put forward. Indeed there may not be one single factor involved in the Rabbis change to matrilineal descent but a variety of influences that reflected the social and economic reasons of the period in question. This article offers one possible explanation, encompassing the ideology of hesed, which was an attribute specific to women, and an ideology, which was of paramount importance in the salvationist aspect of post Temple Palestine.
A child can be regarded as a Jew only if its mother is a Jew. The Encyclopaedia Judaica says that in one respect the Jewish law discriminates against men and vests women with an advantage: children take their national identity from their mother, with the result that children from mixed marriages will only be regarded as Jewish if their mother is Jewish, not their father. (1) The matrilineal principle is not attested in the Hebrew Bible or in any other literature of the Second Temple period. In the 1st century CE writers such as Josephus and the gospel writers are not familiar with the idea, although Maren R. Niehoff has shown in a recent article, (2) that Philo was at least considering the matrilineal principle, that a child takes its mother's identity. Niehoff claims that Philo defined Jewish identity by reference to maternal pedigree; accordingly, a child could only be regarded as Jewish if it had two Jewish parents who were legally married at the time of the child's birth. However, the Mishnah gives an explanation of the matrilineal principle, not only considering the status of a child born to a Jewish man and non-Jewish woman, but the status of a child born to a Jewish woman and non-Jewish man. (3) The outcome is that the child takes its Jewish status from its mother, irrespective of the status of the father. The Mishnah provides no reason for this change, but according to rabbinic law, from the 2nd century CE onwards, this has been the rule.
In his recent book, The Beginnings of Jewishness, Shaye J.D. Cohen rightly says:
"This is surprising within the context of ancient culture especially Jewish culture, where the important parent was always the father". (4) With only a few exceptions rabbinical family law is patrilineal, the status of kinship succession is determined through the father. "The family of the father is considered family, the family of the mother is not considered family". (5)
So why did the Rabbis use the matrilineal principle for the offspring of mixed marriages?
The Matrilineal Principle
The central rabbinic text concerning a matrilineal principle can be found in m.Kiddushin 3:12 and reads as follows:
A. Wherever there is potential for a valid marriage and the sexual union is not sinful, the offspring follows the male. And what is this? This is the daughter of a priest, Levite, or Israelite who was married to a priest, Levite or Israelite.
B. Wherever there is potential for a valid marriage but the sexual union is sinful, the offspring follows the parent of the lower status. And what is this? This is a widow with a high priest, a divorcee or a related woman with a regular priest, a mamzeret (6) or a natinah (7) with an Israelite, an Israelite woman with a mamzer or a natin.
C. And any woman who does not have the potential for a valid marriage with this man but has potential for valid marriage with other men, the offspring is a mamzer. And what is this? This is he who has intercourse with any of the relations prohibited by the Torah
D. And any woman who does not have the potential for a valid marriage either with this man or with other men, the offspring is like her. And what is this? This is the offspring of a slave woman or a Gentile woman. (8)