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This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.
The discussion about Conservative rabbis officiating for interfaith couples has quieted, other than a terrible piece by one of the Cohen Centerâ€™s own researchers, that IÂ blogged about separately. Iâ€™d rather focus on the positive responses to intermarriage as the High Holidays approach, and fortunately there is are five of them!
Back when Mark Zuckerberg was marrying Priscilla Chan, there were all sorts of derogatory comments from critics of intermarriage to the effect that his children would not be Jewish. So I was very pleased to see Zuckerbergâ€™sÂ Facebook postsÂ showing him with his daughter in front of lit Shabbat candles, what looked like a home-baked Challah, and a message that he had given her his great-great-grandfatherâ€™s Kiddush cup. The fact that such a super-influential couple clearly are making Jewish choices for their family is the best news with which to start the new year. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan could really change the course of Jewish history if they got involved in efforts to engage interfaith families in Jewish life.
Second, Steven M. Cohen, in aÂ new pieceÂ about declining number of Conservative and Reform Jews, says that arresting the decline â€śmeans encouraging more non-Jewish partners and spouses to convert to Judaism.â€ť Thatâ€™s not the positive news â€“ the positive news is a much different response: the â€śradical welcomingâ€ť recommended by Rabbi Aaron Lerner, the UCLA Hillel executive director â€“ a modern Orthodox rabbi, who grew up in an interfaith family himself. Rabbi Lerner writes thatÂ on college campuses, the intermarriage debate is already overÂ â€“ meaning that they regularly serve students who come from intermarried households, and sometimes those with only one Jewish grandparent, who they serve as long as they want to become part of their community in some way. Cohen could learn a thing or two from Rabbi Lerner:
Hillel and our Jewish community benefit enormously from that diversity.
Nobody can know for sure whether someone will grow into Judaism and Jewish life just because of their birth parents.
A Jewish student in an interfaith relationship may be inspired by our Shabbat dinners to keep that tradition for his entire life, no matter who he marries.
If these young students feel intrigued by Jewish learning, choose to identify with their Jewish lives and take on leadership roles in our community, they will be the ones shaping the future of Jewish life in America. But none of that happens if we donâ€™t make them welcome and included members of our campus communityâ€¦ I understand the communal sensitivities to intermarriage. But it happens whether we like it or not. If we donâ€™t give these young men and women a right to be part of our community, we risk losing them forever.
A third inclusive response is reported by Susan Katz Miller inÂ a piece about PJ Library. She notes that PJ is inclusiveâ€”when it asked in its recent survey about Jewish engagement of subscribers, it asked if children were being raised Jewish or Jewish and something else; it also asked how important it was to parents that their children identify as all or partly Jewish. She reports being told that 50% of interfaith families in the survey said they were raising children Jewish and something else, and 45% Jewish only. She quotes Winnie Sandler Grinspoon, president of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, as saying â€śâ€śThis entire program is for interfaith families, and non-interfaith families, whether itâ€™s the exclusive religion in the home or notâ€ť she says. â€śIf your family is looking for tools, and youâ€™re going to present Judaism to your children, whether itâ€™s the only thing you teach them or part of what you teach them, then this is a very easy tool.â€ť
(There were other brief news items that are consistent with the value of an inclusive approach. The Philadelphia Jewish Exponent had a nice pieceÂ about interfaith families celebrating the High Holidays(featuring Rabbi Robyn Frisch, director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia), and the secular paper in Norfolk, Virginia had aÂ nice articleÂ about Rabbi Ellen Jaffe-Gillâ€™s work with an interfaith couple. The national past president of the Reform movementâ€™s youth group wrote anÂ inspiring pieceÂ about how she discovered the Jew she is meant to be â€“ revealing incidentally that she comes from an interfaith family. Batya Ungar-Sargon, theÂ ForwardÂ opinion editor,Â notesÂ the element of coercion in the Orthodox approach to continuity, with disavowal of coercion and embrace of freedom the point of being liberal. Thereâ€™s also an interesting article inÂ America,Â a Jesuit publication,Â When a Jew and a Catholic Marry. The author interviews four couples to illustrate different ways they engage with their religious traditions.)
In the fourth important item, Allison Darcy, a graduate student, asksÂ Are Your Jewish Views on Intermarriage Racist?Â She had decided not to date people who werenâ€™t Jewish because there was â€śtoo much pushback from the Jewish communitiesâ€ť in which she felt at home. A seminar on race theory prompted her to examine the implications of Jewsâ€™ prioritizing of in-marriage. For religious Jews who want to share their religion, it stems from a religious source; otherwise some amount of the conviction that Jews should marry Jews is based on ideas of racial purity.
Itâ€™s not a religious argument. Itâ€™s a racial one. Itâ€™s about keeping a people undiluted and preventing the adoption of other cultural traditions, which are clearly evil and out to usurp us. Itâ€™s a belief that itâ€™s our duty to keep everyone else away, rather than to strengthen our own traditions so that they can stand equally and simultaneously with others. In my mind, itâ€™s the easy way out.
Darcy acknowledges that the difference in Jewish engagement between children of in-married vs. intermarried parents â€“ but aptly points to the Cohen Centerâ€™s study on millennials to say that â€śby encouraging engagement with the community, we can near even this out.â€ť Her conclusion: aside from religious-based objections,
This idea that intermarriage is dangerous is a judgment, pure and simple. It implies that other lifestyles are inferior, and that we ourselves arenâ€™t strong enough to uphold our own. And at the end of the day, itâ€™s racist to insist on marrying within your own race for no other reason than they are the same as you.
The fifth itemâ€”I was startled by this, given past pronouncements by theÂ Jerusalem Postâ€”is anÂ editorialÂ that takes the position that Israel should allow everyone the right to marry as they chose, not subject to the control of the Chief Rabbinate.
If at one time it was believed the State of Israel could be a vehicle for promoting Jewish continuity and discouraging intermarriage, this is no longer the case. We live in an era in which old conceptions of hierarchy and authority no longer apply. People demand personal autonomy, whether it be the right of a homosexual couple to affirm their love for one another through marriage or the right of a Jew to marry a non-Jew. Dragging the State of Israel into the intricacies of halacha is bad for personal freedom and bad for religionâ€¦.
â€¦ Instead of investing time and energy in policing the boundaries of religious adherence, religious leaders should be thinking of creative ways to reach the hearts and minds of the unaffiliated.
â€¦ Those who care about adhering to the intricacies of halacha should, of course, have the right to investigate the Jewishness of their prospective spouse.
But for many Israelis, love â€“ the sharing of common goals and values, including living a Jewish life as defined by the couple, and a mutual willingness to support and cherish â€“ is enough.
TheÂ Jerusalem PostÂ endorsing interfaith couples living Jewish lives as defined by the couplesâ€”now that is another great start to the new year. I hope yours is a sweet and meaningful one.
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission
Thereâ€™s been a steady stream of intermarriage news related to the Conservative movement. In April Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, an emeritus rabbi who weâ€™ve applauded before, who was expelled from the Rabbinical Assembly because he officiated for interfaith couples, was published in theÂ Washington Post:Â I performed an intermarriage. Then I got expelled.
Then in May a much younger Conservative rabbi, Steven Abraham, a 2011 JTS graduate, offeredÂ Itâ€™s Time to Say â€śYes.â€ťÂ Our friend Rabbi Brian Field (a Reconstructionist himself) responded that Rabbi Abraham is not alone, and gave a wonderful explanation howÂ The Torah of Inclusion Offers Us a â€śYesâ€ť to Interfaith Couples.Â But another young Conservative rabbi wrote aboutÂ five steps to â€śsave Conservative Judaismâ€ťÂ â€“ with no mention of interfaith families.
In June an article in theÂ ForwardÂ about rabbis trying toÂ make the Conservative movement more gay-friendlyÂ mentions Rabbis Adina Lewittes and Amichai Lau-Lavie as leading advocates within the movement for intermarried spouses; â€śLau-Lavie will not perform any weddings until the movement revisits its blanket prohibition on rabbis officiating marriages for them; Lewittes resigned from the R.A. in order to lead interfaith ceremonies.â€ť
Lau-Lavieâ€™s Lab/Shul hadÂ announced an annual celebrationÂ on June 13 featuring â€śthe revelation of our groundbreaking response to intermarriage and the evolving identities of Jewish Americansâ€ť â€“ but the news is out in an piece by theÂ Forwardâ€™sÂ Jane Eisner,Â Why This Renegade Rabbi Says He Can Marry Jews â€” And The Jew-ish.Â As Eisner describes it, Lau-Lavie plans to use theÂ ger toshav, resident alien, concept â€świthin a halachic framework to justify intermarriage under certain conditions.â€ť He will ask prospective couples to devote six months to learn about core Jewish values and to demonstrate a genuine commitment to community (he wonâ€™t co-officiate). He will engage academics to â€śstudy whether this explicit welcome-with-conditions will result in a strengthened Jewish commitment.â€ť He will most likely have to resign from the Rabbinical Assembly.
Eisner, who is hostile to intermarriage, says she is â€śfascinatedâ€ť by the experiment, but skeptical. She apparently lined up Steven M. Cohen, also hostile to intermarriage, toÂ simultaneously commentÂ that while we â€śneedâ€ť Lau-Lavieâ€™s approach, it wonâ€™t succeed unless Jews â€śunderstand that Judaism believes that Jews should marry Jews.â€ť
I have enormous respect for Amichai Lau-Lavie. I look forward to his own explanation of his approach, and I hope that it helps the Conservative movement address intermarriage. Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, hasÂ expressed open-nessÂ to the experiment â€” but cautions that itâ€™s the Rabbinical Assembly that makes halachic rulings. But creating a status that confers certain benefits, which necessarily means that another status does not have those benefits, is not the inclusivity that liberal Judaism needs to thrive in the future.
In the newÂ ForwardÂ piece Cohen says that about 8% of the grandchildren of intermarried couples are being raised as Jews-by-religion, but last fall he gave me data that showed a total of 38% were being raised as Jews-by-religion, partly Jews-by-religion, and Jewish but not by religion. He of course will say that if children arenâ€™t raised Jews-by-religion, itâ€™s not really good enough. Cohen and Sylvia Barack Fishman, also hostile to intermarriage, have aÂ new paperÂ released by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute with their tired analysis that intermarried Jews donâ€™t measure up on their traditional scale of how Jews ideally would behave, and offering policy suggestions to get Jews to marry Jews.
That train has left the station and trashing intermarriage just pushes those who intermarry away. Â Eisner says she wants to â€śsustain and enrich modern Jewish life;â€ť Cohen says â€śBeing Jewish gives us meaning because it makes demands upon us â€“ to treat others kindly; to help improve the world; to engage in Jewish learning; to imbibe in Jewish culture; to mark the Jewish holidays and live the Jewish calendar; to be involved in the affairs of the Jewish people, State, community and, yes, family.â€ť We will experience more people gaining that meaning and doing their best to follow those demands â€“ and thereby sustaining modern Jewish life â€“ with a radically and totally inclusive, truly audacious welcoming, of interfaith couples.
In an otherwise really nice article,Â How My Daughterâ€™s Bat Mitzvah Almost Didnâ€™t Happen, Peter Szabo, who is intermarried, marvels that somehow, the Judaism within his family â€śsurvived assimilation in Hungary, Holocaust machinery, suburban assimilation in America.â€ť Â Szabo can be excused for incorrectly citing the Pew Report as saying that 80% of the children of intermarriages are not raised Jewish, but theÂ ForwardÂ editors surely know that the correct figure is 37%.
In an otherwise fine article titledÂ College doesnâ€™t turn Jews away from Judaism, Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, senior director of research and analysis at the Jewish Federations of North America, says that Jews with and without college degrees are just as likely to have a Jewish spouse, then says â€ścollege education and assimilation do not go hand in hand.â€ť In other words, he equates not having a Jewish spouse â€“ being intermarried â€“ with assimilation. He should know better.
Reza Aslan and Jessica Jackleyâ€™sÂ TEDx talkÂ about how they are raising their children withÂ Christianity and Islam has interesting parallels to Jewish-Christain couples doing both.
Iâ€™ll be writing more about new editions of two books that are great resources for interfaith couples. The second edition of Jim Keenâ€™sÂ Inside IntermarriageÂ â€“ I was honored to write the Foreword â€“ will be available on August 1 but can beÂ pre-orderedÂ now. The third edition of our friend Anita Diamantâ€™sÂ The New Jewish WeddingÂ â€“ now titledÂ The Jewish Wedding NowÂ â€“ came out this past week.