By Rabbi Steven Abraham
The day I was ordained from rabbinical school was one of the proudest days of my life. I was thrilled to have completed my studies, knowing that my journey and learning as a rabbi was just beginning. As I entered the world of the rabbinate, I found fault with the education I had received: why had the Seminary not prepared me to discuss conversion with a family, oversee a youth director, prepare an agenda or run a meeting? What I came to realize is that the world of the academy can only do so much; it can never be everything to everyone, what it gave me is the ability to know where to find the answers to my questions. Whether that is in a book or knowing that my rabbis are only a phone call away, rabbinical school did not give me answers but the knowledge to know where to look. Perhaps today the job of rabbis in the field is to look back at their institutions and give them the answers they cannot seem to find on their own?
The thought of taking on the role of Mara D’atra, that of a religious decision maker, should cause fear and trembling in the heart and mind of a leader of any faith. It is one thing to sit in a classroom, whether as a student or a teacher and talk about Shabbat, Holy Days, questions related to the end of life, conversion, intermarriage or a host of other topics; it is a wholly different scenario to discuss those very same topics with congregants.
Having been in the rabbinate for about six months I was speaking with a colleague who had taken a solo pulpit position. We were trading war stories when he asked me, “Do people in your community sit shiva?” He asked with a sense of trepidation as if his community was deficient in some way. I took a deep breath and said, “No, perhaps they have a minyan for a day or two, maybe three, but the prevailing custom from before I arrived was not a full 7 days.” He asked me, “How is it that when we talked about death in multiple classes and seminars that not one of our rabbis, our teachers, mentioned that shiva was not observed like we were being taught?” How come no one took the time to teach us some ideas to make the tradition more meaningful or asked, “What are some creative ways of reinventing the ritual?” The ritual, after all, is especially important since the ritual is the means to having a stronger connection with God and the Jewish people.
Why were these questions never asked? My belief is not because the faculty wanted us to be surprised by the outside world, but rather they didn’t know what Judaism looked like outside the tristate area. How could they prepare us for something they didn’t know existed?
What I have been most challenged by in my 6 years in the rabbinate is the 180 degree change I have made on two core issues. These are issues to which I was confident I knew the answers when I sat in rabbinical school, but about which my mind changed when I walked outside.
The first about same-sex marriage. I had no issue with being present at a civil ceremony, but could not imagine officiating at a same sex ceremony, which I will do for the first time this coming August.
I wasn’t wrong in 2007 when I stood in opposition to performing a same-sex marriage; I simply had never been in the position of sitting across from a same-sex couple who wanted to have their marriage sanctified not just by the state, but by their religion. Who am I to say to say “no?” to this couple. Did we reinvent certain sections? Yes. Is it identical to kiddushin? No. Will the ceremony act as the beginning of this couple building a new world together? Absolutely!
The second topic, which is more pressing, is intermarriage. I grew up in family where my uncle married a wonderful woman who was not Jewish. They adopted a beautiful daughter, my first cousin, from Korea, who upon her arrival in America was taken to the mikveh supervised by an Orthodox beit din. They raised her in a Jewish home, she had a bat mitzvah, and married a nice Jewish man from Long Island. All of this occurred outside the movement where my uncle grew up.
What have we, as Conservative Jews, learned over the past 40 years? First, we have proved beyond a reasonable doubt that couples in an interfaith relationship are not going to convert simply because their clergy tell them they will not perform their marriage. While I understand why conversion was emphasized, it is also important to stop, see what we are learned and make the appropriate changes. We learned that interfaith couples either did not find religion important (i.e., interfaithless marriages) OR they believed that they could figure the interfaith thing out on their own. Either way we can never know how many Conservative Jews left the fold because of our unwillingness to listen and understand, never mind performing the ceremony. In my own research with couples, it is shocking to hear how many Jewish men or women walked into their Conservative rabbi’s office to chat about the fact that they were recently engaged to a non-Jew, only to be asked, “Will your spouse convert,?” and then told, “if not, we have nothing to discuss.”” These were Jews who took the time to meet with the rabbi, who thought they had a relationship! I hate to think about those who were already on the fringes to begin with and never even sought out an answer.
Today the answer is becoming much less clear and the hypocrisy much more present. We see a child born in our congregation, we bless him or her, and hope he or she will grow to love Torah, to be brought to the chuppah (wedding canopy), and to do ma’asim tovim (good works). We are present when children become a b’nai mitzvah, when they head off to Israel for the first time, and when they leave for college. From the moment when that young man or woman shows up to tell me, as their rabbi, that they fell in love with a non-Jew, I do everything in my power to ask if I can do pre-marital counseling, perhaps meet with the couple to discuss ways they could, if they so choose, incorporate Judaism into the ceremony. But then I step aside. I let someone else stand under the wedding canopy, and then the next day we send them membership paperwork, because of course we want them to come to all our programming which is built to be inclusive of interfaith families. We welcome this family’s children into our religious school (assuming the child was born of a Jewish mother, if not converted) and we encourage them to participate in USY and attend Ramah. And when the interfaith couple passes away we even have a section of our cemetery, per the approval of the law committee, to bury them. How can we be allowed, bedi’avad (ex post facto) to bury a couple whose marriage we are not allowed to sanctify? How is it that the only day we cannot be present in their lives is the day they most want us to be there, to be with them, not for us to say that we approve, but as representatives of a tradition that has welcomed outsiders since its inception.
I became a rabbi out of my love and passion for teaching Judaism. My senior colleagues, both in years and in knowledge know this far better than I, but I believe the time will come, in the not too distant future, when Conservative rabbis will no longer look at our young congregants who grew up in our congregations for whom we love and admire, and say “no” to being present at their wedding. The Conservative Movement can still be a place where we teach and preach Judaism with an eye toward history, while living in a modern world. We have a rich tradition, a history, a liturgy and religious practice, synagogues where daily services are the norm and not an occasion, where ritual items like tallit and tefillin are part and parcel of who we are as a people. I want families to live Jewish lives and so we should allow our Torah to impact the lives of interfaith families – not just the day after their marriage, but on the day of their marriage.
Rabbi Steven Abraham is the Rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in Omaha, NE. Rabbi Abraham graduated from the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in May of 2011, where he also received a M.A. in Jewish Education. Prior to attending JTS, he earned his B.S. in Business Management from the University of Baltimore.