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The Last Taboo: Intermarried Rabbis

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week.

June 25, 2009

Not long after we got married, my husband and I went to the movies on a Saturday afternoon.

Settling into our seats for an R-rated flick about sexy young people engaged in various criminal and morally questionable activities, we noticed that a few rows ahead of us was the rabbi who had officiated at our wedding.

CheeseburgerNeither I nor more than a handful of my Jewish friends observed the Sabbath. Indeed, our Friday nights were usually marked by late-night poker games and our Saturday mornings by leisurely trips to a nearby diner.

But a rabbi at the movies on Shabbat? And a sexually explicit one at that? It felt disappointing to me, even though he was Reform, and thus not supposed to feel bound by Jewish law. Was it hypocritical, I wondered, for me to hold a rabbi to a higher standard of ritual observance than I hold myself? But then isn't that the role of a religious leader, what makes the profession of clergy different than, say, being an accountant or a bus driver?

I've been thinking of that Saturday a lot lately as a debate has swirled in progressive Jewish circles about whether Reform, Reconstructionist and other liberal rabbinical seminaries should ordain Jews married to gentiles.

Currently, only the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism and Aleph, the Jewish Renewal movement, do so.

A few weeks ago New Voices, a Jewish student magazine, published "The Coming of the Intermarried Rabbi," which leads with the story of a Berkeley, Calif., man denied admission to Hebrew College's rabbinical school because his wife is Christian. Earlier this year, InterfaithFamily.com raised the issue as well with "Why I Am Not a Rabbi," an essay about being rejected from the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College because the author's non-Jewish husband was deemed a "problem" to be "fixed." Both articles have been magnets for online comments, listserv discussions and blog postings, and in a few weeks the VeAhavta Collaborative, a new group of rabbis, rabbinical students and prospective rabbinical students dedicated to discussing this issue, is holding its first meeting.

Many advocates for the intermarried argue that while seminaries have defended the ban by saying rabbis must serve as Jewish role models, intermarried rabbis could serve as role models too, by demonstrating how intermarriage doesn't have to prevent one from living a deeply Jewish life.

For synagogues that "have a large interfaith population, there might be something positive to having a rabbi in that situation," says Ed Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily.com.

Nonetheless, there's something that feels, well, not kosher to me about intermarried rabbis. It's not that I agree with one overly simplistic online commenter who said, "If someone wants to devote his or her life to being a rabbi, he or she should love Jews enough to marry one." Loving Judaism and loving Jews does not preclude falling in love with a gentile; intermarrying is not an anti-Semitic act.

But while I disagree with another commenter's assertion that intermarriage is "the dark side of acculturation," I am influenced by his view that "to even suggest that it is OK for rabbis to marry non-Jews is to put the final nail in the coffin of removing [liberal Judaism] from any semblance of connection to the religion of our ancestors."

Ordaining intermarried rabbis feels like a truly radical act, one that--far more than officiating at interfaith weddings or accepting patrilineal descent--is provocative and alienating. I worry that such a policy could provoke a backlash and hurt more people than it helps. Rabbis are not just people, but symbols; they are not just communal leaders, but spiritual ones, and they spark visceral emotions.

If I, a liberal intermarried Jew, feel ambivalent about intermarried rabbis, then how would the large numbers of more traditional Jews who are gradually becoming more accepting of interfaith families react? Rather than fight for the right of a handful of intermarried Jews to take on the No. 1 spiritual role, I'd rather focus on the less volatile task of engaging the millions of intermarried rank-and-file Jews.

But it's not just that intermarried rabbis could spark a backlash. It's something more basic--I personally want the ultimate representatives and teachers of Jewish tradition to be more respectful of Jewish law and more immersed in Judaism than I am. I don't want a rabbi simply to be a mirror image of my values and behavior. Of course, rabbis are human and fall in love, just like the rest of us. But if a person can't, or doesn't want to, inspire his or her own spouse to convert to Judaism, can he or she inspire me to strengthen my Jewish commitment?

And maybe this is hypocritical, but even though I'm happily married to a lapsed Catholic--one who has encouraged me to become more involved in Jewish life--I am not quite ready to move into a new age in which Judaism makes absolutely no value distinction between in-marriage and intermarriage.

The fact is, intermarriage is complicated and challenging, and in such unions Judaism loses out as often, if not more often, than it wins. (Although Judaism loses out in plenty of endogamous marriages too!)

Having said all that, I keep coming back to another movie, not the R-rated one we saw on that Shabbat more than a decade ago, but The Prince of Egypt, the animated retelling of the Exodus that our 5-year-old daughter, Ellie, insists on watching at least once a week.

In it, Moses marries Tzipora, the daughter of a Midianite priest. Yet this intermarried man is chosen by God to become the most revered Jewish leader of all time.

Maybe intermarried rabbis are not so radical after all.

 

 

The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. 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 "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. 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.
Julie Wiener

Julie Wiener is an associate editor at The Jewish Week. You can reach her at julie.inthemix@gmail.com.

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