Rabbis and Intermarriage

I recently read an article, Debatable: Should Our Seminary Admit Students with Non-Jewish Partners?, in the spring 2013 edition of Reform Judaism Magazine. In sum, Daniel Kirzane, a current rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in New York, says yes. His classmate, Brandon Bernstein, says no. You can read their rational online.

I’ve been thinking about their respective points of view. If Reform Judaism truly represents progressive ideologies, then I agree with Daniel:

The Union for Reform Judaism’s Outreach brochure opens with, “Intermarried? Reform Judaism welcomes you” and explains: “The prophet Isaiah said: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’ (Isaiah 56:7). We know from the Torah that from the very earliest days, there have been individuals who lived with the Jewish community but who were not themselves Jewish….You are welcome.”

As a congregational educator and communal professional, I can’t tell you how many times the “active parent” in bringing a child to religious school or Jewish functions was the parent who was not raised with Judaism. Often this parent has made a commitment to raising Jewish children but for a variety of reasons is not Jewish. This does necessarily undermine religious participation by the family.

Brandon notes that “we have a covenantal responsibility to God, Torah, and Israel that extends beyond the self.” Reform Judaism does not propose to follow traditional Jewish law (halakha). Therefore, Reform Judaism does not have a covenantal responsibility. Already the URJ has evaluated and adapted its understanding of halakha to embrace patrilineal descent, welcoming children born to a Jewish father into our community whether or not the mother is Jewish.

It seems to me that it is time to evaluate this “rule” and consider permitting our leadership to truly represent our membership. I have found that the best leaders experience the same life experiences as their constituencies. Well over 50% of Jews marry someone who was not raised Jewishly. Won’t those families feel the most welcome and comfortable if the leadership and clergy of our congregations and organizations are the same as them — also intermarried?

Brandon also states that “applicants to HUC-JIR (the Reform Movement’s seminary) are not held to any standards of theological belief, ritual observance, or life choices.” The one exception ? “[An] agreement not to be ‘engaged, married, or partnered/committed to a person not Jewish by birth or conversion.’”

I propose that we hold clergy and professionals to a higher standard. A standard of practice of modeling Jewish behavior, lifelong Jewish learning, active involvement in the Jewish community, and living a Jewish life. And that this standard must be upheld regardless of who they end up partnered with, Jewish or not.

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3 thoughts on “Rabbis and Intermarriage

  1. I’m not the typical reader of Interfaith Family (though I’ve been reading the blog and website for over 10 years!) My husband and I are Orthodox Jews, but most members of my family are not Jewish.

    Both Rabbis Kirzane and Bernstein make great points. As an Orthodox Jew, I would be against intermarriage from the outset-but had I not been, I wouldn’t have been persuaded by Rabbi Bernstein’s artice.

    Rabbi Kirzane– While your work with interfaith families makes me hopeful, you don’t acknowledge that you’re not seeing a full spectrum of intermarried families–because many such families have no relationship to Judaism or Jewish institutions. Just because you’ve seen families where the non-Jewish parents make excellent partner in raising children Jewish doesn’t mean that having a non-Jewish partner will ensure that you have someone interested in perpetuating YOUR heritage. What about the partner who wants to bring his/her children to their own house of worship–or doesn’t want to deal with religion at all? What about the Jews who marry non-Jews and never go to any sort of synagogue, or convert to their spouse’s religion? You see a fraction of intermarried couples in your work–but not all intermarried people.

    Furthermore, there is the concept of l’hatchila and b’dieved. L’hatchila means to start with you–as in, a Jew should always try to doing things l’hatchila-correctly. Sometimes, mistakes are made or situations arise where Jews do something b’dieved. The endorsement of intermarriage by SOME Reform Jewish rabbis is b’dieved, or trying not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. As a Rabbi, one is expected to do things l’hatchila, and to be a role model for ones congregants and fellow Jews. If young Jews see that their Rabbi is intermarried, they’ll ask: “What’s wrong with me intermarrying?” They may be lucky enough to meet someone who has an interest in Judaism, but they may also meet someone who is more interested in perpetuating their own heritage or religious beliefs than their partners.’ It’s a toss up.

    If one is truly committed to perpetuating a Jewish future, marrying Jewish is a great place to start. (Of course, perpetuating Judaism has to go beyond marital choice and into doing mitzvot, educating ones children, ect.) The Reform movement has left aside so many ritual mitzvot — Kashrut, refraining from melacha on Shabbat, optional kippot and tallism, tzizit, taharat haMishpacha, mandatory prayer 3x/day, dam brit with conversion is option. A belief in G-d isn’t even necessary to go to Reform rabbinical school! Can the movement at least keep this one last mitzvah?

  2. Preventing the decline in active congregants in the shules by up-playing the value of Jewish marriage has been a valiant and worthy effort of the past few generations. But it’s not working so well. I urge the URJ an the HUC-JIR to consider allowing the very people who have experienced intermarriage and have chosen to return to or remain a part of Judaism a chance to become leaders and reach out with unique insight to others like themselves.
    I am a mid-life convert to Reform Judaism. My wife, with full support of my conversion, chose not to convert. My children, born before my conversion are being raised reciting the Shema at least twice a day, lighting Shabbat candles and saying blessings. I love Judaism and the Jewish people. I write a blog about Jewish Mindfulness and meditation, am naturally spiritual advisor and have considered the possibility of becoming a Rabbi or chaplain. Yet I would be automatically turned down by the HUC-JIR even though a Reform Rabbi, a congregation and a Beit Din have all accepted me as Jewish.
    Although my case is different than many intermarried Jews, I urge the URJ and HUC-JIR to not base their decisions on who to allow to study for the Rabbinate on such a broad policy. To lose potential new leaders who can reach out to others like them should be as distasteful to Reformed Jews as the exclusion of women, people of color or the LGBT. Let every candidate be judged by what is in his or her heart and not on the never ending argument about what outward appearance makes one Jewish. Torah is not written about people who kept the letter of the law. It is about imperfect people who felt a desire for relationship with Hashem and each other. It is about leaders who came from unexpected places and backgrounds.

  3. I’m a rabbinical student myself (not at HUC), and I’ve been having a lot of conversations about this topic lately – in any marriage or partnership, the thing that I’m most concerned about is whether a couple is honestly building a mutually supporting relationship, and that extends to religious practice. And people change over time, which means that the support that partners offer each other needs to change over time. If a rabbinical student is partnered with someone who is not Jewish, but is totally committed to helping build a Jewish home and life with all that entails, great. If a rabbinical student has a partner who has no interest in Judaism, that’s not going to work at all in the long term. But to be honest, I see rabbinical student with halakhically Jewish partners who are totally uninvolved in Jewish life and avoid any relationship to their spouse’s work, and if that’s ok, then it seems a small step to go beyond that. In any case, I’d love to see all of the liberal seminaries offering to open certain classes to partners & spouses, since they are often seen as partly-rabbinic by association. I try to imagine: if I as a Jew had married a Methodist minister, for example, how comfortable would I be as a non-Methodist participating in that community as the visible partner of the minister? What kind of education or counseling would I want before making that decision? My answer is: a LOT.

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