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No "Easy" Answer

Reprinted from the Forward with permission of the author. Visit www.forward.com.

This week Randy Cohen, known as "The Ethicist" in the pages of The New York Times Magazine, showed that when it comes to Jewish sensibilities, he is an equal opportunity offender.

First, in October 2002, Cohen upset Orthodox readers when he advised a letter writer to tear up a contract with an Orthodox male real estate agent who refused to shake her hand on religious grounds.

Now, Reform movement leaders are angered over Cohen's July 17 column, in which he suggested that it would be "easy" to find a Reform rabbi to marry an interfaith couple [who] were not planning to establish a Jewish household. Cohen was responding to "Anonymous From Philadelphia," who wanted to know if she was wrong to lie to the Reform rabbi who married her, telling the clergyman that she and her non-Jewish husband planned to have a Jewish home.

"It was something of a dig at Reform rabbis," said Edmund Case, president of the nonprofit InterfaithFamily.com. According to Case, Cohen seemed to be saying, "Oh, it should be easy to find a Reform rabbi who has no standards."

The movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis discourages members from officiating at interfaith marriages, though it recognizes the right of each rabbi to make his or her own decision on the issue. While about half of Reform rabbis would marry an interfaith couple in some circumstances, 63% of those who would do so require a Jewish commitment from the interfaith couples, according to a 2003 study by the Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling.

"I wish that more rabbis would officiate at intermarriages," Case said. "I think no matter how nicely they explain why they won't or can't, it is experienced as a rejection."

Cohen's gaffe came in the last line of his column, after telling the writer that it was unethical to lie to her rabbi. "With mixed marriages so common," Cohen concluded, "it should've been easy to find a Reform rabbi happy to perform your wedding, even when given an honest account of your plans."

After several dozen critical e-mails filled his inbox, Cohen called his own advice foolish and ignorant in an interview with the Forward on Tuesday. He acknowledged that he probably had been "overly optimistic."

"I just made a mistake," he said. "It just seemed so commonplace."

Cohen, who was raised Reform and whose sister married a non-Jew, said he sometimes consults others on doctrinal matters, but did not this time. "I based it on my own experience of friends who had no trouble finding a rabbi," he said.

According to Cohen the level of response to his latest column was typical, compared with the thousands of letters that he received from angry Orthodox readers in 2002. When asked which was worse, upsetting the Reform or Orthodox Jewish community, Cohen claimed neither. "I want everyone to love me," he said. "I take no pleasure in having these people be angry."

But, while conceding last week's mistake, Cohen stood by his earlier advice not to work with the Orthodox real estate agent who refused to shake women's hands.

"There we had a genuine disagreement about a question of values," Cohen said. "I was correct."

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.
E.B. Solomont

E.B. Solomont is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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