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The debate in Jewish communities about interfaith marriage is heating up. Rabbis and Jewish professionals are arguing both sides and predicting the future of Judaism based on whether or not they will officiate at interfaith marriages. I’ve seen articles that talk about “caving on intermarriage” and “coming to terms with it” and “addressing the problem.” This kind of language infuriates me because it makes interfaith marriage about the rabbis, and not about the people getting married.
By telling someone we will not marry them, we are not stopping them from marrying someone of another faith background. What we’re stopping them from (and I have heard this time and time again) is engaging in Judaism and being part of the Jewish community.
We need to change the way we talk about interfaith marriage. It’s not a disease. It’s not a shameful act. It’s a beautiful reflection of the world in which we live. It’s about people who have strong identities and familial connections, who are secure enough in who they are that they can love someone with a different background. Interfaith marriage is an amazing example of people with different experiences coming together and finding common ground.
When I took the job as director of InterfaithFamily/LA I was terrified that my rabbinic colleagues would turn their backs on me and lose respect for me. What actually happened is beautiful. My colleagues have said, “Thanks for doing the work that I’m not allowed to do.”
So many of my rabbinic colleagues come to me for advice on working with an interfaith couple who has approached them for a lifecycle event, usually a wedding. These colleagues don’t deal with this scenario frequently, but know that I work with interfaith couples every day. The couples who are told by rabbis and communities that “We accept you and your partner” and also, “I cannot officiate your wedding, but you can still buy High Holy Day tickets.” These couples often come to me dejected and confused and wondering how to fill their desire for Jewish engagement. During my first meeting with an interfaith couple who has been turned away by another rabbi, I spend most of the session repairing the hurt and rejection they are feeling.
One such couple came to me through our officiation referral service at InterfaithFamily, looking for a rabbi to talk to about marriage. In my first meeting with this couple—a Jewish woman and a man who was raised mostly agnostic—they said, “We never even imagined we could have a Jewish ceremony. We were planning on having a friend do our ceremony, but now we’re excited to have a rabbi.” I hear this refrain over and over from interfaith couples as they are searching for a way to engage Jewishly and are hearing “No, you’re not welcome here” either explicitly or by liberal rabbis who mean well but whose boundaries are so tight that they do not allow them to see the people sitting on the couch in their office.
Just this morning I had a conversation with Becky Herring, a Jewish professional and the new associate director of our Atlanta office. She recently got engaged and this was her experience: “My fiancé is not Jewish and when we talked about who would officiate our wedding, he didn’t want a rabbi because he was worried he’d feel uncomfortable. I totally get it. The thought never dawned on me; I just thought rabbis were rabbis. And then I met Rabbi Malka [director of InterfaithFamily/Atlanta] and it was amazing to see that she would work with us.”
I do this work every day. And I love it. I feel that working with interfaith families makes a true impact not only in their lives, but in the larger Jewish community.
I hear a lot of people say that interfaith marriage is always bad for Judaism and always leads to disengagement and the decline of Jews. But the truth is, life is not that simple.
Families are complicated and most people’s religious experience lives somewhere in that gray area between full observance and secular identity. To flat out deny someone the possibility of Jewish engagement at the beginning of their union ignores the real life experiences of people in our communities.
Whether or not we (the rabbis) decide interfaith marriage is OK, doesn’t matter. People are not choosing to end relationships and find Jewish partners just because a rabbi has told them she won’t marry them. While we rabbis are sitting in our offices behind the walls of synagogues and institutions, people are falling in love, getting married and trying to find their place in Jewish communities.
Photo credit: Tom The Photographer
I applauded in 2013 when Rabbi Rick Jacobs announced the Reform movement’s audacious hospitality initiative, and again in 2015 when my colleague April Baskin was appointed to lead it. But the recent release of the Audacious Hospitality Toolkit surfaces a deep question: just how audacious will our hospitality to interfaith families be?
The Toolkit is an excellent resource. I recommend it to every congregation, not just Reform. It offers guiding principles and concrete steps synagogues can take to self-evaluate, develop and implement efforts to welcome diverse populations. It builds on pioneering work by the Reform movement’s own Outreach Department, Big Tent Judaism and InterfaithFamily.
But missing from the Toolkit is discussion or guidance about the difficult issues that I believe must be addressed for interfaith families to engage in Jewish life and community.
In 2000 I wrote an op-ed, Redefine Jewish Peoplehood, for Reform Judaism magazine, and a longer We Need a Religious Movement that is Totally Inclusive of Intermarried Jewish Families for InterfaithFamily. I said that we need to include – indeed, embrace – not only Jews but also their partners from different faith traditions, and their children, as “in,” as part of “us,” as included in the Jewish people more broadly defined as the Jewish community. Not as “out,” “other,” not allowed to participate and engage fully in Jewish life. Instead of focusing on identity, on whether a person “is” Jewish, I said we needed to focus on engagement, on whether a person wants to “do” Jewish.
It’s not surprising that in the seventeen years since there has been some but not enough change. This kind of fundamental shift is hard, and generates exactly the issues that I believe Jews and their communities need to address.
One issue is the preference Jews express for their children marrying other Jews. A friend who has a lesbian daughter in a long-term relationship told me last week that he hated it when well-intentioned people said to him, “it’s wonderful that your daughter has a partner – but wouldn’t you prefer that she were straight?” No, he wouldn’t, thank you.
The same kind of preferential thinking applies to interfaith couples, and I’ve been guilty of it myself; once when a friend wanted to introduce my son to a young woman, I said “is she Jewish”? right in front of my daughter’s husband who is not Jewish himself. (Fortunately, it gave me a chance to tell him I loved him just as he was.) Jewish leaders and their communities need to address the attitudes that Jews have about partners from different faith traditions, and that consider relationships with them to be “sub-optimal.”
Another issue is the attitude that partners from different faith traditions are welcome but with limitations, that their patrilineal children aren’t “really” Jewish or Jewish enough, or that conversion or some new special status like “ger toshav” is the answer to inclusion and recognition. Partners from different faith traditions want to be welcomed as they are, without ulterior motives that they convert, and they don’t want their children’s status questioned. Creating new categories of who is more “in” or “out” and which status confers more or less benefits, is not inclusive. Jewish leaders and their communities need to examine and explicitly address their policies – and assert the Jewishness of patrilineals in dialogue with other movements.
A third issue is ritual participation policies, like the parent from a different faith tradition not being allowed to pass the Torah or join in an aliyah at the bar or bat mitzvah of the child they have raised with Judaism. Those parents could say the Torah blessing with full integrity because their family is part of the “us” to whom the Torah was given. They want to feel united with their family and want their child to see them participate and be honored fully. Maintaining the boundary that only a Jew can have an aliyah excludes them. Jewish leaders and their communities need to examine and articulate their policies, and whether they will allow anyone who wants to participate fully to do so.
After the Cohen Center’s recent research showed strong association between officiation and interfaith couples raising their children as Jews and joining synagogues, it is no longer tenable for liberal rabbis not to officiate on the grounds that intermarriage is not good for Jewish continuity. Jewish leaders should ensure that that at least some of their synagogue’s clergy officiate. It is time for the Reform rabbinate to change the resolution still on the CCAR’s books that disapproves of officiation. Statements of position set a tone that matters, and bold leadership helps people adapt their attitudes to address new realities. That’s why Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary, should follow the Reconstructionists’ lead by admitting and ordaining intermarried rabbinic students. The growth and vitality of liberal synagogues depends on engaging more interfaith families. What better role model for them could there be than an intermarried rabbi?
Finally, the real frontier of audacious hospitality is how Jewish communities will respond to couples who think they may or say they want to “do both.” What appears to be a growing population wants to educate their children about both religious traditions in the home, without merging them together. When they knock on Jewish doors – when couples ask rabbis to co-officiate at their weddings, or parents ask synagogue religious schools to accept children who are receiving formal education in another religion – they mostly get “no” for an answer. While more rabbis appear to be officiating for interfaith couples, most won’t co-officiate, saying they want a commitment to a Jewish home and family. But participating in those weddings holds the door open to later Jewish commitment for couples who haven’t decided yet, while refusing to risks shutting that door. Similarly, while we don’t have to recommend or favor raising children as “both,” providing Jewish education to them if they seek it opens doors to later engagement.
The more confident we are that Jewish traditions are so compelling that people will gravitate to them once exposed, the more we will openly discuss these issues, dismantle barriers, and articulate and implement a totally inclusive – yes, a truly audacious – hospitality. People who say Jewish communities are already welcoming enough, and don’t need to talk about or do anything specific for interfaith families, are out of touch; Jewish communities can do a lot to attract and engage interfaith families with explicit statements, invitations, and programs designed for them, especially meet-ups and discussion groups where new couples can talk out how to have religious traditions in their lives.
As summer approaches, many congregational rabbis are thinking about their High Holiday sermons. The Reform movement will gather again in December at its biennial. Will Jewish leaders seize these occasions to forthrightly address just how audacious their hospitality to interfaith families needs to be?
When I became a rabbi, my own rabbi at home told me that the most important thing I had as a rabbi was my integrity and I’d have little left to offer if I ever let that go. I think about that almost daily and certainly when tough decisions come up. Yet what I find the most difficult about maintaining integrity is not knowing what my boundaries are, what I believe in, stand for and represent but rather how to express and enact all those things. Sometimes it’s easy and the choices are obvious but more often than not, the nuance and shades of gray make integrity anything but easy to maintain. Moreover, while integrity can and should be a constant, it does not preclude evolution of practice, thought and boundaries nor does it give us the right to be judgmental or unkind.
I meet with a wide variety of interfaith couples on a regular basis, whether through a simple email exchange or a series of in-person counseling sessions. By far, the most common story I am told breaks my heart every time. It usually starts with the joy of an engagement and ends with the sting of rejection and judgement, whether from family members, community members or more often than not, clergy.
I have the utmost respect for those rabbis and cantors whose integrity, ideology and sense of purpose precludes them from officiating at interfaith ceremonies. I have seen the struggle amongst my colleagues and the true thoughtfulness with which so many make their decision. But I also see the struggle of so many interfaith couples who are less likely to engage in Judaism not simply because a rabbi said no to marrying them but because of the way in which a rabbi said no.
In an effort to practice what I preach and acknowledge the gray, I of course recognize that there will always be a certain number of couples who will only hear the no, no matter how kindly it is given, and will feel rejected. This is our reality. But I think we can do better for those who come to us, wanting a connection, no matter how tenuous. We owe it to ourselves, to our integrity and to the greater Jewish community, to express first the joy, purpose and possibility of Judaism rather than just the boundaries. We know Judaism has so much to offer: Why else would we want to protect it and cultivate it? Why else would we have spent years learning in order to make it our lives work?
Why not start with words of yes even when we have to say no?
In the face of what we don’t understand, practice kindness.
Toward that which makes us uncomfortable or worried, practice kindness.
To those who make different choices than we do, practice kindness.
To those who yearn to belong, practice kindness.
In March Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, a Conservative rabbi at Ansche Chesed in Manhattan, explaining “Why I Will Not Simply Accept Intermarriage,” wrote for the Forward that “Celebrating interfaith weddings… [would] diminish a sacred covenantal tradition, and risk making liberal Judaism into a jumble of traditional gestures that might please individuals but demand nothing from them.” I wrote a letter to the editor which appeared in the March 20 print issue of the Forward (it’s not on the Forward’s website):
Today another Conservative rabbi, Michael Knopf from Temple Beth-El in Richmond VA, had a very important response published in Ha’aretz, “Getting over intermarriage: Judaism’s guide to finding the right partner.” Rabbi Knopf says that “Jewish leaders’ obsession with discussing intermarriage through the prism of permissibility risks trivializing Judaism as a religion of policies, rather than as a fountain of relevant and enduring wisdom and values.” Stating that Jewish tradition has much wisdom to offer about finding a partner that is just as relevant to those who intermarry, he says “What if, instead of trying to finger-wag Jews into endogamous relationships, we offered compassionate and nonjudgmental support to people, drawing from the riches of our tradition, as they seek to couple?” Among his many refreshing comments are, “Judaism teaches that marrying Jewish is not a guarantee of a successful relationship” and “people of different backgrounds can be oriented to faith in harmonious ways” and “two people of different backgrounds can sharpen each other in myriad ways.” Rabbi Knopf concludes,
We applaud Rabbi Knopf’s novel approach and the welcoming attitude he expresses. But what happens when interfaith couples are brought closer to Judaism, specifically to Conservative synagogues? In March, Rabbi David Lerner of Temple Emunah in Lexington, MA, wrote a blot post for The Times of Israel describing a New Conservative/Masorti ceremony for interfaith couples, which is described in greater length on the website of the Rabbinical Assembly (the association of Conservative rabbis).
Rabbi Lerner was a co-chair of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Commission on Keruv (Outreach), Conversion, and Jewish Peoplehood and he concentrated on creating a ceremony to welcome interfaith couples, “a ritual through which a couple could celebrate their love and the Jewish choices they were making, while including family and friends… within our understanding of halakhah (Jewish law).” The core of the Hanukkat Habayit ceremony is putting up a mezuzah; the ceremony is described at length in the blog post and on the RA website and it does appear to offer a lovely and meaningful ritual and celebrate the Jewish choices the couple has made. It also comes with a three- to six-month learning period with the rabbi before the ceremony and continuing conversations with the rabbi afterwards, all aimed as supporting the couple’s Jewish growth.
We applaud this effort to support and recognize interfaith couples who make Jewish choices in a Conservative context, but it’s important to note that very clear Jewish choices are required for the ceremony: It is “for interfaith couples who have decided to build an exclusively Jewish home and family together;” “if the mother is not Jewish, the children would undergo a halakhic conversion;” “There should also be the clear expectation that non-Jewish symbols and observances would not be a part of the couple’s home, such as a Christmas tree.” Many interfaith couples who might want to make Jewish choices in a Conservative context may note be quite as far along in terms of their decision making as is required for the ceremony. And there is continuing tension with those coming from the perspective of tradition – as Rabbi Lerner says, “some” in the movement may be uncomfortable with the ceremony, even with its requirements, “as we seek to straddle the space between our tradition and keruv.”
This will surely be a continuing discussion worth following.
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:
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:
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.
This is a guest post by Rabbi Adam Chalom, written after a recent presentation on Humanistic Judaism to a program of InterfaithFamily/Chicago for soon-to-be or recently married couples. He thought it could be useful both as a basic explanation of Humanistic Judaism and to explain why his denomination is a good fit for many intercultural couples and families. This is cross-posted from his blog.
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.
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.
Back in February, my colleague, Rebecca, blogged about a debate between two Reform rabbinic students: should the Reform rabbinical school, Hebrew Union College, accept students who are intermarried?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.
The most recent comes from Rabbi Mark Miller, who shared his opinion in The Times Of Israel. He starts by explaining that there are two remaining lines that “cannot be crossed in Reform Judaism”:
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.
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!
Crossposted to Jewschool.
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).
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!”
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 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:
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.