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President Woodrow Wilson signed a Proclamation designating the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day on this date in 1914. The holiday had been launched by Appalachian activist Ann Jarvis (not Jewish) in 1858 to promote sanitation and lower the rate of infant mortality. After the Civil War, abolitionist Julia Ward Howe (not Jewish) made a Mother’s Day call to women to protest the carnage of war. These political meanings were steadily stripped from the observance, however. Mother’s Day nevertheless offers a fine chance to outline the role of matrilineality in Jewish life. In brief, the Torah does not discuss the conferring of Jewish identity through matrilineality — to the contrary, it provides several examples of Hebrew men, including Moses himself, whose children were mothered by non-Jews but accepted as members of the tribe. Once the Hebrew people are given the Torah however, they are instructed in the text to refrain from intermarrying with other peoples. Rabbinic Judaism, as represented by the Mishnah, shifted from patrilineal to matrilineal descent — perhaps because of the frequency of rape under Roman occupation — but Karaite Judaism maintained patrilineality as its rule. In modern times, both Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism moved to accept as Jews children with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother who are raised with some degree of Jewish consciousness and no other religious tradition. This reinstitution of patrilineal descent has been highly controversial, however, and is not recognized by the dominant Orthodox rabbinate in Israel.
“God couldn’t be everywhere, so God created mothers.” —Jewish proverb