Opening the Gates

Leading up to and during my vacation there have been three big intermarriage stories in the media. They all revolve around whether, and how, Jewish communities are going to open their gates and draw in interfaith couples and families.

First came a JTA story by Uriel Heilman, The War Against Intermarriage Has Been Lost. Now What? The title pretty much tells the content of the article: Jewish institutions and in particular religious denominations are not “fighting against intermarriage” so much any more; the question now is how to react to the intermarriages that are going to happen; the overall strategy appears to be to engage with the intermarried in an effort to have them embrace Judaism; the denominations differ in how far to go in that embrace, and how strongly to push for conversion. Heilman says there has been a shift in attitudes so that intermarriage is viewed as “a potential gain, in the form of the non-Jewish spouse or children who may convert.”

I’m not sure how widespread the shift in attitudes is – there have been lots of recent anti-intermarriage comments from Jewish leaders – and I think it’s unfortunate to see gain only when there is conversion. But the real issue is, what are Jewish institutions and denominations going to do to engage with the intermarried. I would be more interested in seeing a JTA article on the efforts that are underway to do exactly that.

Second was a series of three essays on MyJewishLearning.com about patrilineal descent. A Conservative rabbi, Alana Suskin, in The Non-Jewish Rabbi? The Problem of Patrilineal Descent, tells how badly she feels about not recognizing patrilineal Jews as Jewish in large part because it’s easy to convert. Then an Orthodox rabbi, Ben Greenberg, in Patrilineal Jewish Descent: An Open Orthodox Approach, also feels badly, and says that a child of Jewish patrilineal lineage, must be respected greatly for their identification with the Jewish people, their love of Judaism and of Israel… people of patrilineal descent [should] be referred to as Jews who need to rectify their status vis-a-vie Jewish law.” But Greenberg says that the Reform rabbis’ decision on patrilineality was a mistake from a “balcony perspective” because of the impact the decision had on recognition of people as Jews by other denominations.

I would say, from what I would respectfully suggest is perhaps a more important “balcony perspective,” what about the impact the decision had on the thousands of patrilineal Jews who are now engaged in Jewish life and community? I couldn’t help but make this connection when reading the Forward’s profile of Angela Buchdahl, First Asian-American Rabbi, Vies for Role at Central Synagogue. Rabbi Buchdahl is an amazing Jewish leader – and yes, a patrilineal Jew. (At least, that is, until her college years; we proudly reprinted Rabbi Buchdahl’s essay originally in Sh’ma, My Personal Story: Kimchee on the Seder Plate, where she says she went to the mikveh at that time to “reaffirm her Jewish legacy.”)

The Reform rabbi who wrote for MJL, Rachel Gurevitz, I think gets it right. In Patrilineal Descent: Why This Rabbi Feels No Angst she first acknowledges Rabbi Greenberg’s concern with complications for klal yisrael but says

[T]his is a red herring. The truth is that such questioning exists along a continuum that exists even within movements. Within the Orthodox branches of Judaism, only certain rabbis are recognized by the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel as performing accepted conversions. So yes, I agree with my colleagues that we have a responsibility to make our converts and our patrilineal Jews aware of the larger context, although I admit to doing so apologetically because I don’t find these explanations to make Judaism very appealing.

Rabbi Gurevitz then focuses on what I would agree is most important:

[T]he individuals whose lives and identities we are talking about. Here’s the bottom line. The reality is that if someone is observing Jewish practice, celebrating in Jewish time, identifying with the Jewish people, or perhaps doing none of these things but, when asked, makes a claim to be Jewish or “part Jewish” because of their ancestry, it is largely irrelevant to them whether you or I agree or approve. When it does become relevant is when they seek access to our institutions, and especially our synagogues. At that point, we rabbis become the gatekeepers. And we are entitled to abide by whatever formulation of what makes a Jew that we, or our larger denominations, decide. We all have our requirements. And we all have good reasons for those requirements that we can articulate to those seeking entry. But let us recognize that what we are doing is gate-keeping, and let us be mindful of how and when we act as gatekeepers and what our purpose in those moments is. And let us celebrate and be proud of sustaining and sharing a religious heritage that others wish to claim as their own and live by.

The third major story was an excerpt of a “live discussion” on interfaith marriage on Huffington Post, where Rabbi David Wolpe, widely-regarded as one of the most influential rabbis in America, explains why he won’t officiate at weddings of interfaith couples. Contrary to Uriel Heilman’s perceived shift in attitudes towards seeing intermarriage as a potential gain, Rabbi Wolpe actually says (I don’t have a transcript but I made notes when listening to the video) that “invariably,” in an intermarriage, the chances that the children will be raised as Jewish are much less, and that intermarriage “almost always” results in a diminishment of Judaism. That is the first reason he gives for not officiating at weddings of interfaith couples. I would respectfully suggest that the chances of the children being raised as Jewish and the chances of the intermarriage not resulting in “diminishment” would be increased if interfaith couples could find officiating rabbis for their weddings and be spared from hearing Rabbi Wolpe’s rationale.

Rabbi Wolpe also says that he doesn’t officiate because a Jewish wedding involves a marriage according to Jewish law and a person who isn’t Jewish isn’t subject to Jewish law. I can’t argue with any rabbi who takes that position, although I think he goes too far when suggesting that it’s “bad faith” for a rabbi to officiate because he or she isn’t representing Jewish tradition. He says that is true “at least for me” but it comes across as a cheap shot at all of the serious committed rabbis who do officiate for interfaith couples

The common thread of all of this press is, how open are our gates going to be – in our efforts to engage interfaith couples and families, in who we recognize as Jews, and in for whom we officiate. Those are the key questions. I’m for wide open gates.

Now back to vacation.

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One thought on “Opening the Gates

  1. I’m pretty sure Angela Buchdahl presided at my mother’s funeral in Westchester in 2005. She was lovely to us, having never met my mother, or me, for that matter. My brother and his (non-Jewish) wife were members of the congregation.

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