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Rabbis Grapple with Interfaith Inclusion

April 2004

This article is reprinted with permission of the New York Jewish Week.

NEW YORK, Oct. 28--Like every Conservative rabbi, David Lincoln, who is spiritual leader of Manhattan's Park Avenue Synagogue, occasionally finds himself faced with the need to involve a non-Jewish parent in a child's Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

He sets strict guidelines for their involvement: non-Jewish parents are allowed to stand on the bimah [podium] while the Jewish parent says a Hebrew blessing of thanksgiving. But they are not permitted to open the ark holding the Torah scrolls, or to wear a tallit [prayer shawl], or take on any of the other roles that they might be allowed in a Reform or Reconstructionist setting.

One time, though, an enthusiastic non-Jewish father at Park Avenue Synagogue bought a tallit especially for his child's Bar Mitzvah during a visit to Israel. While he didn't discuss his intention to wear it with the rabbi, someone else in the congregation tipped him off to the man's plan, said Rabbi Lincoln.

"I just let it go," said Rabbi Lincoln. In the delicate, emotion-laden environment of a synagogue at a lifecycle event, rabbis have to pick their battles. "They are touchy issues. It's particularly difficult for Conservative rabbis. We're stuck in the middle, trying to be modern and trying to keep halacha [Jewish law]," said Rabbi Lincoln.

His experience is just one of the wide range of ways in which rabbis in each of the liberal Jewish religious movements deal with the reality of non-Jewish family members in their pews.

For the first time, 183 Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis have been surveyed to see what those ways are. The Jewish Outreach Institute conducted its study, "Rabbis and the Intermarried Family in the Jewish Community," over the course of last year.

JOI is a Manhattan-based national research and advocacy organization that promotes the idea that synagogues should be more inclusive of interfaith families, including the non-Jewish members.

"Interfaith marriage is a reality. These rabbis are grappling with that reality," said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, a Reform rabbi and executive director of JOI. "The decisions that rabbis make with regard to interfaith families are dynamic and not static over the course of the family's lifecycle and over the course of their own career."

The study lumps together the Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis into one category on questions when the movements' policies are similar.

Findings include that:

  • In line with their denomination's policy, most Conservative rabbis want a completed conversion before they will officiate at a wedding. Eighty-six percent said that they will never officiate at an interfaith wedding even if the non-Jew is in the process of converting.
  • Just under half of Reform/Reconstructionist rabbis will officiate at an interfaith wedding in at least some circumstances, if the non-Jew commits to raising their children as Jews. Sixteen percent indicated that they would consider officiating where there is no conversion of the non-Jew and the couple intends to raise their children in two faiths.
  • Nearly all Conservative rabbis require that an adopted child be formally converted to Judaism, including the traditional requirement of immersion in a ritual bath.
  • If a child is raised as a Jew, formal conversion is not required by about 75 percent of Reform rabbis and close to 60 percent of Reconstructionist rabbis.
  • A slight majority--55 percent--of Conservative rabbis apparently see the act of brit milah [the circumcision ritual] being, in and of itself, a form of acceptable conversion for boys, since they said they would take an "active role" at the brit of the son of a non-Jewish mother, while 20 percent said they would participate in a girl's baby-naming. Their movement also requires mikvah immersion.
  • Almost all Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, as well as about three-quarters of Conservative rabbis, permit a non-Jewish parent to stand on the bimah at their child's Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

The Reform and Reconstructionist movements permit their rabbis wide latitude and encourage an actively inclusive approach to dealing with interfaith families--counting as Jewish, for example, the children of non-Jewish mothers and Jewish fathers, a policy called "patrilineal descent."

The Conservative movement hews to the traditional definitions of Jewishness and has stricter policies. Any rabbi officiating at an interfaith wedding can be expelled from the Rabbinical Assembly, for example.

But there are many other lifecycle rituals for which a Conservative rabbi's position may be informed by deliberations of the movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards but is not shaped by denominational policy.

One of those moments is the Bar or Bat Mitzvah. The JOI study shows that younger rabbis permit non-Jewish parents more active roles than do their older colleagues in both the Conservative and Reform/Reconstructionist categories.

Forty-one percent of Conservative rabbis ordained since 1980 allow the non-Jewish parent to also say something in English. Just 14 percent of their older colleagues permit that. They are more inclined to allow the non-Jewish parent to stand on the bimah without speaking (24 percent of those ordained before 1980 compared to 10 percent ordained since) or to recognize them "in the audience" (29 percent of those ordained before 1980 compared to 18 percent ordained since).

Just under one-third of Conservative rabbis allow the non-Jewish parent to say a prayer before the congregation. Slightly more older Reform/Reconstructionist rabbis permit it (69 percent) than do those ordained since 1980 (60 percent).

Fewer Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis ordained since 1980--31 percent--accept a 13-year-old's "self-identification" as a Jew as sufficient to consider them a member of the Jewish people than do their older colleagues, 52 percent of whom will go with self-identification.

These findings might reflect a swing toward more traditional Jewish values in some areas among the Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis.

"There has been a growing traditionalism among younger liberal rabbis, and this statistic may reflect that orientation," said Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and author of a newly-published book of essays, After Emancipation: Jewish Religious Responses to Modernity (HUC Press, 2004).

"At HUC virtually every student wears tallit and tefillin--that would not have happened 30 years ago. But they go on to serve people whose commitment may be very weak," he told The Jewish Week. "The irony is that at the same time you have this return to tradition among religious leaders of our community, you have record numbers of people abandoning Jewish identity altogether. Which is why there is this dissonance between rabbis on the one hand and the people they're going to serve on the other."

According to the JOI study, board members and congregants have more influence over how rabbis ordained since 1980 consider officiating at lifecycle rituals involving a non-Jew than they do on rabbis ordained before 1980.

When asked who has been most influential on these matters over the course of their careers, just 6 percent of Conservative rabbis ordained before 1980 said that it was laypeople, meaning board members or congregants. That more than tripled, to 19 percent, for Conservative rabbis ordained since 1980.

It also rose among Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis--24 percent of older rabbis cited laypeople while 37 percent of those more recently ordained did.

At the same time, reliance on "written sources," meaning Torah and its interpretations has plunged among Conservative and Reform/Reconstructionist rabbis.

Fifteen percent of Conservative rabbis ordained before 1980 cited written sources as the biggest influence on their views on the topic, while just 3 percent of those ordained since did. There was a similar divide among Reform/Reconstructionist rabbis.

"The questions Conservative rabbis grapple with are 'what are the boundaries here' between 'absolutely no' and saying 'how do I involve this person's non-Jewish mother/father/grandparent, who has committed to raising this child as Jewish?'" said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the movement's Rabbinical Assembly. "They try to deal with a complex situation."

He said that Conservative rabbis have to deal more frequently with these issues today--not because intermarriage has increased, but because "There is less stigma attached to intermarriage than years ago. People are more accepting and so more likely to say to their rabbi they want you to help us do something than they were 10 or 15 years ago."

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." Hebrew for "covenant of circumcision," a ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old. It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit." 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." Hebrew term derived from the word "to pray," and translated into English as the unhelpful word "phylacteries." A set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls on which the Torah verses are written, one goes on the upper arm (with the black leather straps wrapping down the arm and around the hand and fingers) and the other goes around the head (with the straps dropping down the back of the head). Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. 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.
Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. Hebrew for "prayer shawl," a ritual item that is worn and has knotted fringes (tzitzit) attached to the four corners. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. 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.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a staff writer for the New York Jewish Week.

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