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This article originally appeared in, and is reprinted with permission of, the Forward. Visit www.Forward.com. For subscription information, call 1-866-399-7900.
The top legal committee of Reform Judaism has reaffirmed the movement's little-known ban on ordaining intermarried Jews as rabbis or cantors.
The opinion is bound to surprise observers of the denomination, generally considered to be liberal on intermarriage issues.
Though the rule has been on the books for decades, it only recently became a subject of public debate when a rabbi in Pittsburgh raised the issue with the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis.
"We do not in the least regret our welcoming attitude toward the mixed married and our efforts at outreach to them," the conference's rabbinic guidance, or Responsa, committee stated in its opinion, which was recently posted on the conference's Web site. "But we should never forget that the ideal toward which we rabbis strive, teach, and lead is that Jews should marry Jews. Since one of the ways in which we convey our teaching is through personal example, a rabbi's life and home should embody this ideal."
The rabbi who raised the question, James Gibson of Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh, declined to comment on the ruling. According to the committee, Rabbi Gibson asked about the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's policy after one of his intermarried congregants complained that she did not qualify for the college's rabbinic program.
The movement's main ordaining institution, HUC historically has prohibited intermarried Jews from becoming clergy.
In recent decades, however, the movement has launched major outreach initiatives to intermarried families, and in 1983 adopted the controversial policy of patrilineal descent, which amended the Jewish legal tradition to say that a child born to either a Jewish mother or a Jewish father is considered Jewish.
Just last year, the Responsa Committee, which issues rulings on Jewish law, published an opinion stating that an intermarried Jew should be allowed to serve as a synagogue religious school teacher.
Even in cases where the movement has adopted a stringent stand, the position has usually been trumped by Reform's theological commitment to rabbinic autonomy. For example, Reform clergymen are free to perform intermarriages even though the conference has spoken out against the practice.
In the case of the ban on ordaining the intermarried, the commitment to individual religious liberty and outreach to the intermarried is taking a back seat to what Reform leaders describe as a need to promote the value of endogamy, or marrying within one's own group.
The committee, which is chaired by HUC professor of rabbinics Rabbi Mark Washofsky, rejected in its opinion the claim that it was hypocritical for it to approve of intermarried synagogue teachers, but not intermarried clergy.
"Most of our religious school teachers are drawn from the ranks of our congregants, and they teach our children on a part-time basis," the committee wrote. "Our rabbis, by contrast, like our cantors... have accepted upon themselves (and are properly expected by our community to live up to) higher standards of Jewish learning and observance than those which we demand of others."
The recently appointed president of HUC, Rabbi David Ellenson, said he agreed with the college's longstanding policy and the committee's supporting opinion. In this case, he added, the primary value at work is the need to ensure Jewish continuity.
Rabbi Ellenson rejected the argument, offered by at least one critic, that it was inconsistent for the college to ordain gays and lesbians, but not intermarried Jews. Thanks to adoption and artificial insemination, Rabbi Ellenson said, "the whole issue of sexual orientation has little to do with the question of continuity."
Several leading advocates of intermarried families declined to criticize the ban, including Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, who was ordained by the Reform movement and serves as executive director of the non-denominational Jewish Outreach Institute, a group that advocates outreach to intermarried and unaffiliated families. "Although we still believe that the community needs to be open and welcoming to interfaith families," Rabbi Olitzky said, "rabbis still retain a certain responsibility that is different from the rest of the community. It's more than just being a role model, it's a matter of living what they teach."
But Rabbi Olitzky's predecessor at the institute, Egon Mayer, said he objected to the ban, questioning the wisdom of such a hard and fast rule. "I would say that personal lifestyle choices shouldn't be the sole test of whether somebody is qualified to be a leader and a teacher and a role model," said Mr. Mayer, director of the Center for Jewish Studies of the Graduate School at the City University of New York. "You have too many examples in real life when unpredictable characters become enormously beneficial to the Jewish community."
Critics of the policy complained that it would actually work against preserving Jewish continuity by potentially robbing the rabbinate of candidates who could serve as effective ambassadors to the intermarried community. But one rabbi, Tirzah Firestone, who was married to a non-Jew at the time of her ordination by the Jewish Renewal movement, challenged the notion that intermarried clergy could serve as effective religious leaders.
"I don't really think it works," said Rabbi Firestone, author of With Roots in Heaven: One Woman's Passionate Journey into the Heart of Her Faith, a book that chronicles her experiences as an intermarried rabbi. In large part, she said, her marriage fell apart after she was ordained.
"My intermarriage spurred me to return to my Judaism," said Rabbi Firestone, founder of the Jewish Renewal Community of Boulder, Colo. "But once I started establishing my community and my congregation, and started being a leader, it didn't work anymore."