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The Standard: Commitment to a Jewish Future

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Sermon delivered at Central Synagogue, New York, Rosh Hashanah 5768 (2007).

After years of a relationship, there are matters that are so core to what we believe and the decisions that we make that we assume they are known. Such was the case until I was sitting in a meeting about Jewish peoplehood last spring, when I realized that there is one such matter about which I have never spoken directly to this congregation. Today is the day!

What you do know about me is that I believe that Jewish survival is our passion; some would even say our obsession. We measure our life work by it. We are a unique people with an extraordinary history and an unparalleled mission. We are a people for all time.

Intuitively sensitive, aggressively on guard against all hints of malice, we are a people this world needs. As we work from a creative impulse, our survival matters.

For these reasons, I am talking to you again about Jewish survival though I do so today from a single particular perspective, an issue which has precipitated viciously strident debates within Jewish institutional life and even split congregations. And it touches us here as well.

I am talking about intermarriage, what it means to us and our Jewish future.

For those of you who are in some way personally involved, the reality of intermarriage is more than a theoretical debate about the seismic impact of your love and your marriage on our Jewish future. For some the struggle began when your children first announced that they are dating, or they fell in love with, or married a non-Jew. For some, you are in love with, or married to, someone who is not Jewish. For some, by traditional definition, you are not Jewish and yet you are sitting in this sanctuary.

I want to be clear about my position on this topic. I want our children to hear it directly from me so that there is no ambiguity: I urge Jews to marry Jews. It is better for Jewish continuity and it is more likely to be better for you as a couple because "Jewish offspring" of inmarried couples will be far more likely to identify as Jews. Endogamous marriages, marriages between two Jews, will more likely make it easier to build a Jewish home, raise Jewish children and stay married. I do not foster nor encourage mixed marriage.

The results of the research on this topic by Dr. Steven Cohen, professor at the Hebrew Union College, demonstrate that while 98 percent of the children of inmarried Jewish couples will be Jewish, only one quarter of the children of intermarried Jews are raised as Jews. That's a four to one difference. And there is almost no chance that children raised in homes with two religions or with no religion will identify as Jews. There is also a great chance they will be angry and confused. (I meet many of them later in life.) The Jewish community appears to have a more certain future when Jews marry each other.

In addition, for couples that do not marry within their own faith, statistics show the chance of divorce terminating a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew is twice as great as when two Jews marry.

But the tide runs against what I prefer and so does love. In matters of love there are no guarantees. For the most part our children do not set out to marry non-Jews. Living in an open society, young Jews will meet non-Jews at college, in their workplaces, when they socialize with friends and at laundromats. Steven Cohen indicates "having random contact with other Jews" makes a difference as to whom our children meet and marry. Our children, however, generally do not make college choices by analyzing the percentage of Jews on campus, nor will they typically accept a job offer or decide where to settle dependent on Jewish density.

At Central Synagogue, we have clearly opted to live fully and boldly in heterogeneous communities. By our life styles and choices, we have signaled to our children that we should not retreat behind self-imposed ghetto walls, as some segments of the Jewish community have done to guarantee that their children do not meet non-Jews. We want our children to grow up in multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-religious environments.

We say to each other that all people are the same except, that is, when it comes to marriage. That is the paradox. We preach openness to all people and then tell our children we don't want them to marry non-Jews. If a child meets and falls in love with a non-Jew, they feel and are very much in, unfamiliar territory.

Often the scenario happens like this (typical of almost all the mixed couples with whom I meet). Two people in their late 20s have lived somewhat parallel lives, both raised in urban centers by educated professionally successful parents. They both went to the same prestigious university, though they didn't meet until some years after graduation. Their backgrounds are indistinguishable except that one was raised as a Jew and one raised Presbyterian. As youngsters they both had religious training, attended supplemental religious school and grew up with an element of religious observance in their parents' homes.

In college both young people engaged in, what I would describe as, equally minimal religious observance. The young man raised as a Jew returned home for the High Holy Days if his schedule permitted. Otherwise, he attended services on the evening of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at a liberal student-run service. He went to classes on Rosh Hashanah when school was in session and would never go near the Hillel, which made him, as a Reform Jew, feel inauthentic.

He would often be home at Hanukkah, since it was during winter break, but his family didn't always light the candles every night as they did when he was younger. And he would do his best to be home for Pesach, which was for him the most significant Jewish family celebration of the year. Except for the High Holy Days, he would never be in synagogue and didn't, in any way, celebrate Shabbat during the year.

His fiancée was raised as Presbyterian, but she is typical of most others in her situation who have been raised in other Protestant denominations or as Roman Catholic. She went off to college and followed a similarly minimal religiously observant life. Of course, she was home at Christmas, since it was a school vacation and the holiday was celebrated as a family occasion, the opening of gifts and a special meal with grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins. She would only go to Christmas services when her family did periodically, not as a matter of an affirmation of faith but for the mood of the season and to be with her family. If she was home for Easter during spring vacation, she would participate in another festive family meal but no church attendance. Except for Christmas and perhaps Easter, this non-Jew wasn't ritually involved and didn't attend church services.

This couple, therefore, lived parallel religious lives. They met through mutual friends, fell in love, decided to get married and after some discussion on their own came to see me.

When I ask this couple how they would define themselves religiously, the one raised a Jew in the blink of an eye affirms, "I'm Jewish." When I ask the young woman how she religiously defines herself her answer is: "I was raised a Presbyterian." She provides information about her background but neither defines herself presently as a Presbyterian or a Christian.

When I plumb deeper and ask this Jewish/non-Jewish couple what defines religion for each of them, the Jew talks about identity, family, history and tradition. The non-Jew talks about God, faith and spirituality.

The Jew defines himself by identity. The non-Jew sees religion as a matter of faith.

In such a mixed couple, the non-Jew, who was taught that religion is expressed at religious services and through ritual acts, is completely befuddled when the Jew with whom she has fallen in love, but whom she sees as doing nothing Jewish, suddenly proclaims he wants their children to be raised as Jews and he wants to be married by a rabbi. Puzzled she asks what he believes about God and his response approximates: "What does God have to do with anything?"--an answer which for her does not compute.

Jews and non-Jews think differently about religion. For many Jews: peoplehood trumps faith, Jewishness trumps Judaism, our identity trumps our beliefs. It is all very perplexing to someone who assumes that religion actually has to do with faith in God. No wonder that when the non-Jewish partner of a mixed religious couple is schlepped by their Jewish fiancé to a rabbi, it is so confusing and a bit frightening.

But, as is my practice, if that couple decides that they will raise their children as Jews, if the non-Jew is not affirming another faith, if they commit to relevant Jewish learning, connect to a synagogue and want me to be the sole officiant at their wedding, I will be there. If both Jew and non-Jew are fully comfortable with the words of the Jewish wedding ceremony, that their marriage is "according to the faith of Moses and Israel" ("k'dat Moshe v' Yisrael"), I will support their study, guide their conversations, respond to their questions and be honored to be with them under the huppah as their rabbi.

And, though I suggest that the non-Jew consider study towards conversion, I will not demand it.

It is abhorrent to me to demand conversion as the levy exacted for my participation in a marriage. I believe conversion is so profound and transformative and irreversible, that it is a more significant decision than even marriage and should not be beholden to it.

I love being Jewish. I love Judaism as I hope you do. I want everyone to find Judaism as an expression of their religious soul.

But the discovery of and love for Judaism demands integrity at its core and it should not be forced upon people. It should not be the price someone pays to make a fiancé happy or soothe the ire of future parents-in-law.

On the contrary I prefer that non-Jews see the best models of Jewish behavior in us. Let them appreciate in us the honor that we bring to Jewish tradition and how our commitments make us and our community stronger. Let them emulate the decency of Jewish values in us. Let them admire in us how traditional Jewish home celebrations strengthen the fabric of family life.

I prefer that they find their way to our doorsteps, not because they have been forced, but because they have been engaged and that is our responsibility.

Some of you here proudly chose Judaism for yourselves prior to your marriage. With her permission, I share the story of one I know intimately. When my wife Kerry studied for conversion in California where she lived, I said to her, with some concern after we had known each other several years, "You know, just because you convert doesn't mean we will get married!" She said to me, "I am more certain about being a Jew than I am about being married to you." Her answer made a difference to me. I found it comforting.

For you who chose Judaism as Kerry proudly did because you found a faith you love and a people you embrace before marriage, I tell you, "You make us proud. We are better because of you."

Some of you in this congregation decided to convert to Judaism after marriage and did so with incredible decency and principle and judgment. You found your own way. While you may have known all along that your spouses preferred you to be Jewish, you were permitted by them to your own journey to the Jewish people. You embraced us and even became leaders, officers of this congregation. You honor us and we reflect that honor back on you.

Some of you are married to non-Jews, who in every way are part of your Jewish life journey. Together you and your spouses are raising your children as Jews. Your non-Jewish partners and spouses stand beside you when your children are given their Hebrew names and when they become Bar or Bat Mitzvah. They are members of this congregation both by our policy and by their choice. They are full life partners. You have brought them to our family. You honor us and we reflect that honor back on you.

And some of you in this sanctuary are not Jewish, but have joined yourself to our people as righteous members of this community. You may even think of yourselves as Jewish, except in name. Many of you consider this synagogue your religious home. We are humbled by you, for the choices you have made, for your tenderness both to your birth family and now to your own Jewish family. You are remarkable and to you we are grateful.

Commitment to a Jewish future is the standard by which I decide whether or not to officiate at weddings even for two born Jews. In fact I have refused to do a wedding of two Jews who would not commit to Jewish life for their children.

Based on the conditions I have set, I believe my officiation at intermarriages serves Jewish life and our future. The experiences of many of you here support that decision.

Clergy refusing to be at a wedding of a couple willing to commit to a Jewish future and home will not keep them from getting married but may keep them away from the synagogue and that would serve none of us well. Refusing to do these weddings will not reverse the tide of intermarriage.

Though my policy bans me from membership in the New York Board of Rabbis, though our Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis is studying the matter again but presently officially opposes my position by resolution, I am committed to this struggle. I will continue to urge my colleagues that our future is better served by opening our arms rather than slamming our doors. At the same time, I will continue to urge those colleagues who officiate without any concern for a Jewish future to reset their standards. And I will respect the decisions of my colleagues who thoughtfully disagree with me.

We have a history of Jews marrying out of our people as far back as the stories of the Hebrew Bible. Joseph's wife As-nat was an Egyptian woman, not an Israelite. She was the Egyptian mother of Ephraim and Manasseh with whose names we bless our children to this day. Moses, whose faith we refer to in the marriage ceremony, was married to Tziporra, the daughter of a Midianite priest. King Solomon married foreign women. Ruth, the Moabite, joined our people only after her husband's death and became the great-great-grandmother of King David.

As I said at the beginning, we are obsessed by Jewish continuity.

We believe that our faith and our people are unique. We believe that our sensitivity to the disenfranchised and the stranger must endure. We believe that our history tells an exceptional story of our people's collected wisdom. Our survival has purpose.

We do have a mission. We need to do what we can to bring all our children and their spouses, Jew and non-Jew, along on that mission and into the framework of Jewish life.

I am passionately obsessed with Jewish survival. I believe that our future will be enhanced by bringing close our people's non-Jewish spouses and embracing those who choose to join us.

Let us be grateful to those who have chosen to become part of our destiny and our family; let us throw open our doors to all who would choose to enter; and let us open our arms wide to embrace the non-Jews, those are sitting among us today. They are precious and they are courageous and they are ours and they are part of our future and our destiny so let us all together, with them, be strong... with God's help. Amen.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. 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 "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. 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." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. 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 "canopy" or "covering," the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles. Hebrew for "Passover," the spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. 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 Peter J. Rubinstein

Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein is senior rabbi of Central Synagogue, a Reform congregation in New York.

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