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A review of: "The Role of the Supportive Non-Jewish Spouse in the Conservative/Masorti Movement" by Rabbi Charles Simon, (Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, 2005).
According to Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, there have been two approaches within the Conservative Movement to the high rate of intermarriage between Jews and gentiles in America--a phenomenon well documented in the 1990 and 2000 National Jewish Population Studies. One is to discourage intermarriage and reinforce the boundaries between Jews and non-Jews. The other approach places less emphasis on the importance of boundaries, believing that the community's focus should lie on strengthening the nucleus of Jewish life. According to this view, gentile spouses of Jews are seen as potential participants in the Jewish community and they are to be welcomed in--even if they might not be seeking to become, through conversion, full-fledged members of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Simon believes that there has been too much emphasis on the first approach and not enough on the second within the Movement. He makes this point in a slim pamphlet entitled "The Role of the Supportive Non-Jewish Spouse in the Conservative/Masorti Movement." Given the number of intermarried families who are already affiliated with the Movement and the even larger number who might yet join if only they were welcomed more enthusiastically, Rabbi Simon believes that it is vital to "reevaluate our attitudes toward the supportive non-Jewish spouse" (p.4). Moreover, given the current demographic realities, he points out that it is urgent that this re-thinking and re-orienting take place at once, and that follow-up actions proceed speedily (Ibid.).
Rabbi Simon is not the first within the Conservative Movement to call for such a re-evaluation. (See our review of A Place in the Tent), but he is the only national leader to come out publicly in favor of re-evaluating communal norms regarding the role and participation of gentiles in the synagogue. On the whole, the other national leaders in the movement, most notably Rabbi Jerome Epstein, Executive Director of the USCJ (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), the author of several restrictive responsa in the 1990s (see p.15), have focused on maintaining boundaries. Realizing that change is unlikely to proceed from the top down, Rabbi Simon has issued a call in this pamphlet to local Conservative rabbis to make use of their power as marei d'atra (local halakhic [Jewish legal] authorities) to alter Conservative Jewish practice "on the ground."
Rabbi Simon acknowledges that the Conservative movement has a nuanced approach to interfaith families. For example, although the movement refrains from sanctifying interfaith marriages, it warmly welcomes non-Jewish partners to consider converting to Judaism and encourages interfaith couples to raise and to educate their children as Jews. Thus, although the movement recognizes that a boundary exists between Jews and non-Jews, that boundary is hardly impermeable.
It is also the case that the practice in individual congregations often differs from national policy. For example, several restrictive positions toward interfaith families taken by the CJLS (the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards) are routinely overlooked throughout the movement. Rabbi Simon wholeheartedly supports this, but wants the movement to go further. Rather than simply being disregarded, these restrictions can--and should, according to him--be formally changed by local rabbinic authorities in order to demonstrate the Movement's regard for supportive non-Jewish spouses and the role they can play in our communities.
Rabbi Simon is hardly a rabble rouser. He is a pragmatic leader who is responding to the facts he has seen "on the ground." He has visited hundreds of synagogues and has found that, increasingly, supportive non-Jewish spouses are serving important roles within affiliated Jewish families and within Jewish communities. Without compromising the integrity of the synagogue or its religious leaders, they can, he believes, be recognized, welcomed and nurtured. In addition to writing this pamphlet, he has also gathered together groups of Conservative Jewish leaders, including many rabbis, to explore these highly charged issues and to strategize approaches.
It is important to stress that Rabbi Simon does not believe that the Conservative movement needs to abandon halakhic boundaries in its desire to reach out. "The Conservative Movement is appropriately concerned with boundaries" (p. 19). "The Conservative/Masorti Movement [need not] compromise its religious standards" (p. 3). But "the leadership of the Movement must assume a more proactive role and demonstrate that positive effects can be gleaned from the Conservative Movement's guidance to synagogues and families with Supportive Non-Jewish Spouses" (p.4). The stakes are high: "If the Conservative/Masorti Movement is to continue in the future, it is necessary for us to shift our public stance from one of exclusionary indifference to one of inclusionary outreach" (p.2) .
It seems as though Rabbi Simon is urging a rather modest attitudinal change within the Movement, rather than a radical change in substantive Jewish law. Yet such a change can go a long way.
We recently had the opportunity to attend Shabbat (Sabbath) services in another synagogue. Many simchas (joyous occasions) were acknowledged during the Torah service: a fiftieth wedding anniversary, an aufruf (celebrating an upcoming wedding), and then, finally, toward the end of the Torah service, a baby-naming. As soon as the baby's father came up onto the bimah (the raised platform in the center of the synagogue) with his infant daughter, it was clear that something unusual was taking place. Although he was wearing a kippah (skullcap), he was not wearing a tallit (prayer shawl). As the rabbi joyfully recited the naming prayer, and the Hebrew name of the baby was proclaimed, it became clear that the father was not Jewish. And yet there he was, singing and clapping with the other officiants on the bimah.
This was an Orthodox congregation, where boundaries are certainly taken seriously. (For example, no women--not even the Jewish mother of the baby--were present on the bimah.) It was clear that there were things that this gentile father could not do and places he could not go. For example, although he was standing on the bimah, he had not been given an aliyah (invited to recite the blessings before and after a reading from the Torah). Yet those boundaries did not prevent this community from sharing a joyous occasion with him, much less from treating him with honor and respect.
This may be a misleading anecdote. That congregation is unusually committed to outreach. But the point is clear: it is possible to be "m'karev" (welcoming and hospitable) even without abandoning halakhic boundaries. It is obvious to Rabbi Simon that the Conservative movement can and should act accordingly: respectful of the supportive human beings of various religious backgrounds who enter the community--without compromising its principles.
We support Rabbi Simon's call for the Movement to re-evaluate its approach to interfaith families. It is not necessary to alter halakhic standards to be more welcoming and respectful toward supportive non-Jewish partners who are involved in the congregation. Moreover, Rabbi Simon is correct that reaching out to this population is "actually in-reach, since they are already part of our existing families" (p.5).
This pamphlet is, unfortunately, marred by numerous spelling, typographical and editing errors, which should be corrected before the second edition is published. It also reads more like an internal report than a work intended for the general public. But anyone curious to read the proposals of one particularly bold, visionary and humane national Jewish leader for a new balance of approaches in the future should read "The Role of the Supportive Non-Jewish Spouse in the Conservative/Masorti Movement."