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Tomorrow's Men and Women and the Question of Intermarriage Officiation

Excerpts for an Outreach Workshop at the December 17, 1999 Reform Movement Biennial

As we approach the challenge of interfaith couples in our congregations, we cannot afford to be yesterday's men and women. It will be necessary for us courageously to look beyond where we presently stand. As Judaism moved through the centuries, it was not the voices of the gatekeepers for the status quo that led the way. Rather the voices urging necessary, responsible change opened the doors to the future. Similarly, I believe, as we seek to engage the interfaith families in our communities, we need to advance beyond the means of welcome, to a philosophy of acceptance. It begins with the recognition that once again we are confronting a demonstrably new world.

The question of intermarriage officiation has always been troublesome for me, but in recent years it has become much more pressing and painful. The spiraling rate of intermarriage means that those who do not officiate must turn away a high percentage of our own young people. More likely, because our position of refusal is well-known in the community, we are never even asked. According to Egon Mayer 60% of intermarrying couples never approach a rabbi.

But equally significant, the Jewish partner today, often, indeed very often, really wants a Jewish home, and if his or her spouse-to-be is truly ready to share in that endeavor though not yet ready to convert, refusal does not provide the encouraging support so desperately needed. Increasingly there are situations when I have felt I'm not doing what I should. I am no longer convinced that I am serving the Jewish people by saying no in all situations.

Early in my rabbinate, I was reasonably certain that the requests to officiate were usually for cosmetic reasons, and that my officiation would be perceived as condoning and thereby encouraging intermarriage in the congregation. I also believed I could not make judgments and choices, couple by couple. Today I am far from certain that these positions are correct. I see too many intermarried couples struggling valiantly to maintain Jewish homes, and too many Jewish couples who do not. Sometimes I felt I had locked myself into a position of being hostage to my own policy that is hurtful to many, unsatisfactory to me, and may be contrary to my goal of helping to sustain the Jewish faith into the next generation.

As rabbis we have tended to view the matter as black or white. In our zeal, we have criticized and sometimes even demonized the other. Now is the time, I think, for a fresh new look, for new definitions, guidelines and standards by which we as rabbis can make good, strong, productive decisions affecting the lives of individuals and the community.

This is a discussion in which rabbis have been reluctant to engage -- it's controversial and can be divisive. However, two years ago, with the encouragement of our movement's leadership, I called an informal conference of rabbinic colleagues to explore a new way of thinking about intermarriage. Over 50% of those in attendance did not officiate. The others did so under very limited circumstances. There have now been several such gatherings.

It has become clear to us, whatever our positions on officiation, that all intermarriages are far from the same, that when the couple plans an exclusively Jewish home, when the non-Jew has no other faith, when study, synagogue affiliation, a genuine openness to the possibility of conversion at a later time are part of stringent standards, Judaism will be strengthened by such a union.

Each rabbi in our Reform movement struggles with these issues in his or her own fashion. What is evident is the new reality that has become manifest in all our congregations -- the Jew and the ger toshav who, together as a couple, seek acceptance and blessing.

Now we rabbis and lay leaders must find new ground on which to stand. It need not be, indeed it is not, the so-called slippery slope that argues once a step is taken beyond traditional lines, there can be no distinctions, all situations tumble indiscriminately together.

Rather, the couple that commits exclusively to Jewish life, that decisively acts upon that conviction, is calling to us to open doors for them and guide them into the sacred places of our faith. Tomorrow's men and women will find a way.

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 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.
Rabbi Jerome K. Davidson

Rabbi Jerome K. Davidson is on the faculty of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. His interests include interreligious activities, religious pluralism in Israel, and welcoming the gay and lesbian Jewish community into synagogue life.

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