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Intermarriage and the Survival of Judaism and the Jewish People

September 28, 2012

Editor's note: This sermon is shared, unedited. It was delivered by Rabbi John L. Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah of this year (Monday, September 17, 2012 - 5773). He called his sermon, "Intermarriage and the Survival of Judaism and the Jewish People."

This summer I came across these words written by the great 20th century Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik about how we make decisions:

The major decisions of [our] lives are made spontaneously and suddenly, in response to an aboriginal command from within, and are not necessarily dictated by external considerations or conditions, nor necessarily affected by pragmatic considerations... Decisions of faith, of marriage, choice of profession, solutions to financial problems... and [the] most pivotal resolutions in life are reached intuitively.... (Reflections of the Rav, "Mt. Sinai-Their Finest Hour", p. 91)

I believe Soloveitchik was right, for every major decision of my life has come to me precisely in the way he describes, and though at times I've had doubts and have second-guessed my intuitions, they've usually turned out to have been right.

So often the hesitations I've had have been based on voices other than my own, of other people, a deceased parent, an aunt or uncle, teacher or mentor ? in other words, an internalized "other."

As a serious student of Judaism, I've come to understand that many voices also speak to me out of our tradition, including the biblical prophets, sages and mystics, philosophers and poets, as well as contemporary Jewish leaders and thinkers in America, Israel and around the world.When I'm challenged by an ethical or moral issue, so often I ask myself what would each of these people say and do in my situation. If I take the more radical less-traveled path, will I break the sacred trust that I promised to uphold when I was ordained to carry forward the life and dignity of Judaism and the Jewish people? Will I disappoint my mentors and teachers? Will I disappoint you, my friends and congregation? What will the wider Jewish community say and think about me?

Yes ? I admit it - I hear lots of voices in my head!!!!! Some of them are deeply wise and kind, and others, not so much.

Though I want to speak with you about a particular issue facing the American Jewish community today, this matter of voices in our heads is common to us all, whether they carry the wisdom we received once upon a time that helped to shape our values and principles is still relevant today, or whether they hold us back out of obligation and duty and we've become enslaved to them.

In this High Holiday season, we all need to be asking ourselves which voices we still wish to listen to and which not, and where our own voice is relative to the challenges we face.

That was Rabbi Soloveitchik's greater teaching, that each of us does indeed have a voice, as King George VI learned in "The King's Speech," and we need to hear our own voice and allow it to speak directly, rather than filtered through the voices of others.

As a religious leader, I carry an added burden in that many people give greater weight to what rabbis and cantors say and do and some may then follow our lead. Consequently, we clergy have a greater responsibility to consider our words and actions and their potential impact on our community.

As the years have passed, I've been asking myself more and more rigorously which positions that I've taken are legitimate and relevant, and which are not, which have Jewish integrity and are consistent with my own faith, and which serve your best interests and the best interests of the Jewish people?

Which brings me to the issue of intermarriage. I've served the American Jewish community as a congregational rabbi for 33 years in three great American cities (San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles), and in all that time I've never officiated at a wedding between a Jew and a non-Jew. I confess to you that for most of that time my decision has tortured me because I know love when I see it, and I've often seen it flourish between two people of different faiths. One can't help but honor and respect the love that flows between two human beings who wish to commit themselves one to another for the rest of their lives.

Members of my own family have asked me to officiate at their interfaith weddings, as have dear friends, and though I always explained why I did not do so when one of the partners was not Jewish, my heart was nevertheless torn and conflicted. In recent years, this decision to abstain has become even more difficult because more and more of those couples want to maintain their connections to the synagogue and Jewish life and want to raise Jewish children.One of the great blessings that has come to me as a congregational rabbi is that I've been privileged to be a part of the lives of young people from their birth. For some, I officiated at their parents' weddings and when they were born I named them. I've presided over their becoming bar and bat mitzvah. I was their 10th grade teacher in the course leading to Confirmation. I wrote them recommendations for middle school, high school, college, and vouched for them on their military and employment applications. I officiated at the funerals of their grandparents and in some cases of their parents. And then when they met their beshert, their soul-mate, I officiated at their weddings — but only if their beshert was a Jew.

My "policy" of officiating only when both partners were Jewish was based upon voices from Judaic texts and tradition, teachers and mentors who taught me that I was ordained a rabbi to help fulfill three vital purposes: to preserve the integrity of the Jewish covenantal relationship with God, the viability of the Jewish family and the survival and continuity of Judaism and the Jewish people. Those voices have sounded inside my head for decades along with the voice that commanded, 'Thou shalt not officiate at an intermarriage ceremony!'

I am passionate about Jewish survival. Despite our small global population of just 16 million Jewish souls in a sea of six billion, ours is the oldest surviving religious tradition anywhere in the world. We've walked the earth and put down roots everywhere over the past 3500 years since the days of Abraham and Sarah. As we've developed our faith and tradition over these millennia the wisdom of our sages has had much to offer the world. Our prophetic tradition expounds a vision of justice and mercy that has informed the development of international legal systems and that is still sorely needed. Our rabbinic commitment to high ethical and moral standards has the potential to lift the quality of life everywhere. Our communal ethos of generosity and mutual responsibility is second to none among the peoples of the world. And our faith that every human being is created b'tzelem Elohim, in the Divine image, is a principle that would bring greater peace and kindness into the world if all humanity behaved accordingly.

We American Jews are fortunate today to live in an open society. Unlike the generation of my parents who came of age in the years of the Great Depression and World War II, Jews now have access to all colleges and universities, every business and profession, and we can live in any neighborhood we choose.

We've raised our children in a multi-cultural society, and they intermingle freely and comfortably with people from virtually every religious, racial, ethnic, and national background at school, work, in neighborhoods, clubs, sports, the supermarket, bars, and social circles. Their groups of friends are often mini-United Nations, and that is a great blessing.

Of course, every positive development is prone to unintended consequences. Though they may not have originally intended to fall in love and marry someone who isn't Jewish, young Jews are doing so now. Today, 50% of all marriages involving a Jew are intermarriages. Only 50 years ago the intermarriage rate was just 10%.

I have always urged Jews to marry Jews because I believe that in-group marriages in which both partners are Jewish are far more likely to assure Jewish continuity and survival than inter-religious marriages. Most research studies, including the most recent survey by Dr. Steven Cohen of the Hebrew Union College, have shown that 98% of children of in-married Jewish couples tend to be raised Jewish while only 25% of children of intermarried Jews are raised as Jews. That's a four to one difference.

Dr. Cohen has determined as well that there's almost no chance at all that children will identify as Jews if they're raised in homes in which two religions are practiced or in which no religion is practiced. In such situations, the most likely result is confusion, resentment and alienation.

Though many intermarried couples are stable and loving, the divorce rate in such unions is twice that of marriages in which both partners are Jewish.

All this being said, in most cases today the two people who fall in love are indistinguishable from each other on most measures of values, interests and background, except that one was raised Jewish and the other was raised Catholic or Protestant.

In most cases today, neither is particularly religious beyond the fact that Christmas and Easter are important to the Christian. Passover Seders, lighting the chanukiah and attending High Holiday services are important to the Jew.

When I've met with couples and asked Jews what defines their Jewish identity, they talk about the importance of family, history, ethics, and tradition. When I ask Christians to define the role of religion in their lives, they speak about the centrality of God and spirituality because they were raised to understand that religion is expressed in Church through rite, ritual and sacraments. They are legitimately confused that the person they love does nothing particularly Jewish in their lives but insists that s/he has to be married by a rabbi and must raise the children as Jews.

"But you aren't religious!" the Christians say, and the Jews respond, "What's God got to do with this or anything?" The Christian partners are left baffled and the Jewish ones have no clue as to why.

I know that intermarriage is for so many of you a deeply personal and sensitive issue. And so I want to be as clear as possible about my own position, and I want you and your children to hear it from my own lips. I will post this sermon on our Temple web-site after the holidays so anyone who wishes to understand my thinking and chief concerns will be able to do so directly.

I've come to the conclusion that based upon the new reality in which we find ourselves and the fact that many intermarried families are seemingly successful in raising their children as Jews here at Temple Israel, I now believe that I can better serve the Jewish people by officiating at their weddings, and that it's time for me to change my policy.

Though all surveys indicate that intermarriage brings about a much lower rate of Jewish identification in succeeding generations, I believe that the close personal relationships that are created and nurtured between intermarried couples and their rabbis, cantors and synagogues can increase the likelihood that the couple and their children will identify as Jews. Though there are no statistics to confirm this, my instincts and my observation of our intermarried families and their children here at Temple Israel tell me that it is so and that this can only be good for their Jewish identity and the viability of the Jewish community over the long term.

Therefore, after long and deliberate consideration, I have reached this decision: Going forward when a Jew and a non-Jew in our community here at Temple Israel come to me and state that both partners are willing to commit to a Jewish future, Jewish education for their children and the creation of a Jewish home I will officiate happily at their chuppah.

I would hope that they will decide to raise their children as Jews. And I would hope that the couple will become active members of our synagogue community.

Of course, there are no guarantees, but I believe that their mutual appreciation of the importance of and their mutual commitment to Jewish continuity and survival make my decision to change my policy worthwhile to do despite the risks.

In our Torah service this morning I will offer a blessing of gratitude to all our synagogue members who are not formally Jewish but who feel that Temple Israel is their spiritual home, who have supported their Jewish spouses and Jewish children, who have given of themselves to this community, and who feel they belong here. I want my blessing to affirm and solidify their sense of belonging.

Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism in America, once spoke with my cousin who was a member here until his death ten years ago. Rabbi Kaplan asked him one day while emphatically thrusting his finger into his chest, "Where do you belong?" My cousin told him and Rabbi Kaplan said, "More important than what you believe is where you belong!"

This is an extraordinary statement from a man who was as powerful an intellect as there was in 20th century American Judaism. He understood well that heart trumps belief and that home is where the heart is.

I now want to say a few words about conversion. Many people choose to become Jewish in order to marry a Jew and create a unified religious home. Some decide much later to convert long after they've married and are raising their children. I believe, in accordance with our tradition, that conversion to Judaism is not appropriate for everyone and should never be undertaken to please the Jewish partner, his/her parents or grandparents.

Conversion to Judaism is a profound life-choice, and it should only be undertaken by someone who has thought deeply about it, is not allied with another faith tradition, someone who wants sincerely to formally enter into the covenantal community of the people of Israel, and who understands fully what being Jewish means.

If this is something anyone here wishes to consider, we clergy at Temple Israel welcome the opportunity to talk with you about it. But let me be as clear as I can be: converting to Judaism is not a pre-requisite for your membership in this community alongside your Jewish partner and children.

What is my goal today? I want to say to every interfaith couple who may want to be married by me under the chuppah with the intentions I have noted; 'Yes, come in. Judaism and this community at Temple Israel want to elevate your sense of belonging here in a new and deeper way. We want to be able to love you, your spouse and your children, and for you all to be able to love us and give to us of your hearts and souls as you desire. We want you to feel that you belong here, that when you are here you are home.'

Intermarriage need not necessarily be a loss for the Jewish people or a tragedy for Judaism, but rather an opportunity, a challenge and in some cases a precious gift.

I'm hearing a different voice these days - not the voice of my teachers and mentors who dissuaded me from officiating at intermarriages, but rather, the voice that Rabbi Soloveitchik (though he would have cringed at my decision as he was the embodiment of the best of American Orthodox Judaism) described as the "aboriginal command from within" that values the love between two people who've found their life-mates and wish to consecrate their love.

Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote in that same essay that every human being is subject to two wills; a lower will called ratzon tachton, and a higher will called ratzon elyon. It's the higher will that he said distinguishes human beings from the rest of creation. The higher will is in the center of our spiritual identity, and, as such is our real identity. The higher will he said is "...intuitive, dynamic, aggressive, and passionate. It bursts forth with fervor and emotional intensity. Its insights ... are inspired with the divine breath. [It gives birth to decisions that are] radical in nature, revolutionary and decisive, and [it] changes the direction of our lives" (Reflections of the Rav, "Mt. Sinai-Their Finest Hour", p. 91).

And so, when approached to conduct an intermarriage, in so many cases I will now be able to say happily, "Yes - I will be honored to stand with you under the chuppah and affirm before God and your loved ones that your marriage is worthy of God's blessing and the blessing of the Jewish people."

Carrying forward the sacred work of this community is central to our synagogue mission and the mission of the Jewish people. Let us open our doors ever wider even as we open our hearts to all comers. In our efforts may we work always to assure the integrity, viability and survival of Judaism, the Jewish people, and Jewish life and to affirm the dignity and precious nature of every human being created in the Divine image.

Amen!

Post-Delivery Reflections

It has become clear as a result of having delivered this sermon that far more of our congregants feel that our synagogue has not been as open-hearted towards intermarried couples as they would have liked, despite all our best efforts at inclusivity. Though most of the intermarried families at Temple Israel, I am told, feel comfortable in our community and many love who we are, my changed policy has made a difference to them and now feel that Temple Israel of Hollywood is their spiritual home in a deeper and more loving way than it had been.

They communicated their gratitude in a number of ways. The first and most dramatic happened the moment I said that it was time for me to change my policy about officiating at intermarriages (see page 4, paragraph 7). Hundreds of people among the thousand worshippers in our Sanctuary spontaneously rose to their feet in applause. Since Rosh Hashanah morning, I have been approached by many and received many emails expressing their gratitude and joy. In a number of cases I have been reduced to tears in hearing their stories, and I do not cry often or easily. They tell me that my sermon was a gift to them. I have come to feel that their response is a gift to me.

Acknowledgements

As I indicated above, I have struggled with the issue of intermarriage officiation throughout my career since I was ordained as a Rabbi in 1979. My decision to change my policy has come following years of intense conversation with many people. In particular, I wish to acknowledge a number of my friends and colleagues who have helped me to reconsider my position. They include Letty Cottin Pogrebin and her husband Bert Pogrebin, Lynn Povich and her husband Steve Shepherd, my cousins Susan Bay-Nimoy and Leonard Nimoy, my teacher and friend of more than 35 years, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, and my colleague, Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, the Senior Rabbi of Central Synagogue in Manhattan. Though I do not know Michael J. Fox personally, I was deeply moved by his description of his experience with his wife, Tracy Pollan, as their son Sam prepared to become bar mitzvah at Rabbi Rubinstein's synagogue (Always Looking Up: A Memoir, by Michael J. Fox). I was especially touched by Michael's reaction to a High Holiday sermon Peter delivered on this issue a number of years ago. It was Michael's experience and then a long talk I had with Larry Hoffman that persuaded me that the time was now to change my position.

I am grateful, as well, for the support of two of my synagogue's past Presidents Keri Hausner and Bill Simon, our current president, Steven Sloan, my fellow clergy colleagues at Temple Israel, Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, Chazzan Danny Maseng, and Rabbi Jocee Hudson, and my synagogue's Executive Director Bill Shpall. Most of all, I thank my wife Barbara who has been my greatest support and most honest and loving critic for more than thirty years. She was the first to challenge me to reconsider my position.

Last but certainly not least are the myriads of congregants who have responded so positively to my change of policy. I know that there are some in my community who do not agree with my decision, but as I respect them I hope they will respect me and the reasons I have chosen to now officiate at many intermarriage ceremonies of my congregation, if asked.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. A ceremony created by the Reform movement as a way for young adults to show their decision to embrace Jewish study and reaffirm their commitment to Judaism. Confirmation is typically held at the end of the tenth grade. Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "cantor," a member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. Hebrew for "canopy" or "covering," the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Hebrew for "master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Another word for "rabbi."
Rabbi John L. Rosove

Rabbi John L. Rosove serves at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

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