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We’re back from Passover and there was a flurry of commentary about intermarriage in the Jewish media. Last week Benjamin Maron blogged about Rabbinical Students and Intermarriage, picking up on Rebecca Goodman’s February post on Rabbis and Intermarriage. This is all started when Daniel Kirzane, a rabbinic student at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College and the child of intermarried parents, wrote in a debate in Reform Judaism magazine that that seminary should admit students with non-Jewish partners — which it currently does not allow. (This debate has been going on at least since I blogged about it in 2009.)
Benjamin pointed out that a Reform rabbi, Mark Miller, wrote a rather scathing article in the Times of Israel, lamenting Reform Judaism’s supposed “embrace of assimilation.” I want to bring to your attention Aliza Worthington’s very powerful response, also in the Times of Israel, Rigidity is the real threat to Jewish continuity. Worthington tells her personal story of Jewish engagement despite — or perhaps because of — her own intermarriage, the welcome she and her husband received, how she shares Judaism now with her children — and then describes Miller’s response to Kirzane as follows:
You are taking people who have chosen Judaism — chosen it! — and shoving them away. Here is someone [Kirzane] who was born of an intermarriage of faiths, and he not only chose Judaism to follow, to study, but to live and to teach! And you belittle his parents’ love because it somehow makes his Judaism less authentic to you? You deny him his learning and his future livelihood should he fall in love with someone who is not Jewish? You’re worried that a rabbi who marries a gentile is threatening and disgraceful to the Jewish faith? Even though he cherishes Judaism?
I respect your education and career. I admire your devotion to our shared faith. I worry, though, that you have grossly misidentified the real threats to Judaism: Sanctimony, Superiority, and Judgmentalism.
Sadly but not surprisingly, Worthington’s essay attracted vituperative comments which spurred Adin Feder, a high school student at Boston’s Gann Academy — a pluralistic Jewish day school — to write in The Threat of Warrantless Hatred:
…the problem is the absolutism and rigidity of those who write off and bash Jews who intermarry or subscribe to a different religious philosophy. Attacking and disowning a fellow Jew who decided to marry a Catholic isn’t just wrong. It’s also impractical.
In a recent survey I took of my grade at my pluralistic Jewish high school, I found that over half of the grade, 51%, is “open to marrying someone who is not Jewish”. A further 19% said that they “don’t know” if they would be open to it. Only 30% of the grade said that they are not “open to marrying someone who is not Jewish”. Keep in mind that these results are from students at a Jewish school!
Is the peanut gallery that claims to have been invested with the power to define “real Judaism” and therefore insult all other Jews who don’t fit that definition, prepared to repudiate a huge portion of the next generation of American Jews? Perhaps their energy would be better spent appealing to rather than insulting Jews, in order to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people.
Sadly, again, Feder’s article attracted more nasty comments — but Worthington had what I hope is the last word: “Thank God for kids like you who are thinking, educated, engaged, open-minded, compassionate, and articulate. You are the future of a strong, healthy Judaism. Thank you.”
The nasty comments are unfortunate but they aren’t really the point. There will always be people at the extreme who see their way as the only way and intermarriage as intolerable — just as there will always be people who are extremely passionate about the potential for positive Jewish engagement by interfaith families. But I wonder what this exchange of commentary demonstrates about the attitudes towards intermarriage of the “great middle.”
With the same-sex marriage cases recently before the Supreme Court, there has been much in the secular press, less about the extremely pro and extremely con voices in that debate, but much more about the revolution in attitudes of the “great middle” in favor of marriage equality. Is Feder’s survey — and remember, it’s from a Jewish high school — representative, indicative of a great shift in attitudes among younger Jews which will push negative views like those of Rabbi Miller to an ineffectual extreme? I wonder.
If you wanted to explain Humanistic Judaism in one sentence, it would be “Humanistic Judaism celebrates Jewish culture through our human-focused philosophy of life.” Since I have room for more than one sentence, I’ll expand a bit.
a logo for Humanistic Judaism
For Humanistic Jews, Jewish identity is an ethnic, family, cultural identity. This can include elements understood as “religious” like life cycle ceremonies or holidays, but also art, history, literature, food, language, jokes and more. And this is not unique to our movement; many Jews connect to Jewish culture more strongly than to Jewish religious beliefs or practices. There is no “Methodist-land,” while there is a sense of a Jewish homeland and a feeling of connection to other Jewish people, however diverse that peoplehood may be. Even the most traditional definition of “who is a Jew” is an ethnic definition: who your parents are rather than theological beliefs or rituals. Our cultural Jewish identity is who we are and where we come from, as well as what we do.
There are several implications from a cultural Jewish identity. First, culture evolves and changes, was created by people to respond to their time and place, responds to new circumstances and is open to new creativity. So what Jews 2000 ago believed or prescribed may or may not still inspire us. Second, cultures are available to choose from, just as we may connect with certain aspects of American culture and not others. In weddings I perform, couples choose which elements they want to include, and how to include them; for example, sometimes each one breaks a glass, rather than only one (male) partner. Most important [for this audience], we live in multiple cultures, multiple families at once. I am part of my own family, and also my wife’s family; even though both families are Humanistic Jewish, we learn from each other’s traditions and celebrate each other’s milestones. So, too, with intercultural families who are connected to both partners’ traditions (and both sets of grandparents!).
Humanistic Jews celebrate our identity, or our identities, through our human-focused philosophy. All too often religion is not about people — read a siddur/prayer book, particularly the Hebrew text or a clear translation. The focus is on what people CAN’T know, what people CAN’T do, how much help we need from above and beyond. Our Humanistic approach is to change the focus: instead of looking above and beyond for help, let’s celebrate what we CAN do, how much we HAVE achieved (individually and together). Let’s learn what really happened in our past, through critical study and archaeology, so we can discover how we really came to be who we are. And let’s celebrate the reality of the world we know, the life we share, the power we have, the inspiration we seek.
What are the implications of this philosophy? We can learn from our tradition, since it was created by people, and we also learn from modern human knowledge in the sciences, psychology, genetics and all the rest. We believe that all cultures, including Jewish culture, are responses to the human experience, and so we can find parallels and points of common ground between ours and others, and even learn from them. It’s not an accident that other cultures also have light-lighting holidays in the depths of winter! Most important, you are in charge of your own life — whom you choose to marry, how you create your family, what values you want to live. That means more responsibility, but also potentially great satisfaction for a life well lived.
This is why Humanistic Judaism has officiated at interfaith marriages and welcomed intercultural families from the very beginning, including our first policy statements in support of these families, both intermarriage and co-officiation, in 1974 and 1982.
Humanistic Judaism can be a comfortable Jewish home for intercultural families who share core human-focused values; we are very meaningful as the Jewish piece of an intercultural mosaic.
You can hear more about our/my approach to intermarriage in this audio podcast.
Two current students at HUC in New York, argued opposing sides in Reform Judaism Magazine. Rebecca summaried, “Daniel Kirzane, a current rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in New York, says yes. His classmate, Brandon Bernstein, says no.”
Fast forward, and the debate is still raging. Not surprising, Kirzane has faced some attacks from classmates and rabbis, both Reform and those from other denominations.
a Reform Jew could not legitimately believe in Jesus and a Reform Rabbi could not marry a non-Jewish spouse.
He continues, explaining that while Kirzane’s position is grounded in the Reform movement’s outreach and inclusion of interfaith couples and their families, Miller actually sees that as the demise of Reform Judaism.
This position is the logical and lamentable outcome of Reform Judaism’s embrace of assimilation, of wanting to be everything to everyone, and of exalting the individual at the expense of the community. There are simply no standards, imperatives, or obligations. The adoration of autonomy led first to compromise, then to appeasement, and now to anarchy. For Rabbis to say there is no difference between the marriage of two Jews and a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew has led to the spectacle of Reform Rabbis officiating at intermarriages with non-Jewish clergy on Shabbat in churches. The response from Reform officialdom, if any, is tepid.
There is no greater threat to Jewish continuity than intermarriage. As Steven M. Cohen and Arnold Eisen conclude in The Jew Within, their study of American Jewry, “Group identity cannot but weaken when Jews increasingly find themselves on both sides of ethnic boundaries.” For all the anecdotal “success” stories, interreligious marriage is not Jewish. Period! As for the wedding, you can stand under a chuppah, wear a large tallis, recite ceremonial texts, drink l’chaims, invite the non-Jew to utter Hebrew words, and break a glass, but the ceremony will remain a charade. The officiating Rabbi can impose conditions, offer counseling, and modify the rituals, but one-hundred Rabbis will not make a non-Jewish union into a Jewish marriage.
Ah, yes, intermarriage as the great assault on Judaism. We’ve seen this argument many times before. I don’t think there’s anything I can say here that would dissuade Miller. But I do think it’s a shame that he believes that “intermarriage usually occurs between people whose faith is not central to their lives, but an afterthought.” For some couples, sure, but for all? Couldn’t it also be argued that when Jews marry other Jews oftentimes their faith is an afterthought? How else would we explain the many Jewish families not marking Shabbat or celebrating holidays, not giving their children any sort of Jewish education? I’d rather see faith as an afterthought than no thought at all. But I digress.
What do you think of Miller’s arguments against admitting to rabbinical school those students who have intermarried?
Edited to add: As so quickly pointed out on our Facebook wall about this blog post, “Why are these the only two lines? Can a Reform Jew legitimately commit murder?” Other lines are listed too. And the idea of officiating weddings on Shabbat is called in too. Respond with your thoughts on Facebook, or here!
“I am worried that our present policy is internally conflicted and thus strategically self-defeating,” the rabbi said. “The idea of refusing to be present for the wedding and then expecting the couple to feel warmly embraced by the Jewish people strikes me as a policy constructed by someone who doesn’t know the mind of a young couple…. I am not exactly clear on the message the Conservative movement is sending out into the world, and I am not sure if it is a viable policy in the long term.”
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of NYC's Park Avenue Synagogue
This quote is from Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, a Conservative shul in NYC. He’s not talking about a policy shift within his synagogue or the Conservative movement, but sharing his thoughts on conversion and intermarriage, as reported in the New York Jewish Week (Time To Rethink Conversion Policy).
He likened [the current approach] to joining a gym, noting that a potential gym member is not told first to exercise, get in good shape and then join. Rather, if the person is willing to join, he or she signs up and then the work begins. Moreover, the rabbi added, this logic is not just one of good consumer policy but is consistent with traditional Jewish teaching.
In one of the most famous Talmud stories, the man who wants to learn all of the Torah while standing on one foot is shooed away by Shammai, who has no patience for him, but welcomed by Hillel.
“First, Hillel converts, and then Hillel teaches,” Rabbi Cosgrove said. “First you join and then, once you are a vested member, you figure out what it’s all about.”
In that way, the rabbi suggested that it might be more effective for Conservative rabbis to first accept converts and then teach them.
This would be a huge shift! Compare it to the usual course of action someone follows if converting within Conservative Judaism: a year of study followed by formal conversion (going to the mikveh, and brit milah or brit hadam if the convert is a male).
Imagine if, when an interfaith couple approached a Conservative rabbi to officiate their wedding, the response wasn’t “I can’t officiate, but consider conversion!” or “I can’t officiate, but you’re still welcome to come to synagogue!” but instead was “Welcome! Let’s bring you into the community, celebrate your wedding, and then, as you and your partner establish this next phase of your lives together, let’s make sure Jewish learning is included!”
“My priority is to create Jewish homes, and everything I do is toward that goal,” he said. When a congregant’s adult child comes to him with a non-Jewish partner and wants to get married, he now describes the yearlong conversion program requirement that is a prerequisite to the wedding. Many of them, he says, never come back, choosing a justice of the peace or other [Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal] clergy to marry them.
As Rabbi Cosgrove points out, “love trumps religious affiliation, with the result being that few families are immune from the situation of a child coming home with a non-Jewish partner and wanting to be married in a Jewish ceremony.” So the question becomes: how do rabbis keep up? Do you think Rabbi Cosgrove’s idea to convert the partner who isn’t Jewish so that Conservative rabbis can officiate their weddings and then bring them to study would work? Do you have other ideas?
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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