Intermarried Rabbis – Responding to the Major Concerns

HUC LA campus ordination, 2009; courtesy.
HUC LA campus ordination, 2009; courtesy.

By Rabbi Daniel Kirzane

Liberal seminaries should admit, graduate, and ordain Jewish students with non-Jewish partners. I applaud the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) for recently changing its admissions policy to do just that.

There are passionate, knowledgeable, committed Jews across North America who create rich, vibrant Jewish homes with non-Jewish partners. Some of these Jews desire to dedicate their lives to serving the Jewish people, aspiring to become rabbis. I believe that each of these individuals deserves the opportunity to apply to a rabbinical seminary; and if they are determined to be qualified to serve as leaders of our people, they should be admitted as rabbinical students and ultimately ordained.

Currently, the Reform seminary, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) denies this opportunity to Jews who are in a committed relationship with someone who isn’t Jewish. In 2012, I argued in my HUC-JIR senior sermon that it is our Reform duty to change this policy.

My senior sermon coincided with a nascent effort already quietly in progress to reexamine HUC-JIR’s admissions policy toward potential applicants with non-Jewish partners. Following my sermon, the College-Institute publicly embarked on a thoughtful, sensitive, and open two-year process of deliberation about its admissions policy. Ultimately, rather than enforcing a simple policy of exclusion – simply barring Jews who are in committed relationships with non-Jews – HUC-JIR concluded that the seminary needs to articulate its admissions requirements positively rather than negatively. In other words, you need to be more than “not intermarried” to be a Reform rabbi, in particular committed to striving for wisdom, searching for God, supporting the global Jewish community, and engaging in ethical living and righteous deeds. In the end, though, HUC-JIR did not change its intermarriage policy, continuing to deny applications to potential students who are in committed relationships with people who are not Jewish.

I greatly admire my alma mater for its careful process of deliberation, and I respect its decision. Nevertheless, I still believe that RRC’s decision is the right one. As I’ve engaged in this debate for the past three years, I’ve encountered a number of serious challenges raised to changing these admissions policies. Below, I’ll address some of the major concerns raised about rabbis with non-Jewish partners.

Critics Say: Intermarriage is Bad for the Jewish People

The discussion over intermarriage is a vital one for our people today, and scholars such as Stephen M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer, from one perspective, and Riv-Ellen Prell and Sarah Bunin Benor, from alternative perspectives, keep the debate alive.

For those in the (overly simplified) anti-intermarriage camp, the general trends of intermarriage spell disaster for non-Orthodox forms of Jewish life. For those in the (over-simplified) pro-intermarriage camp, the general trends of intermarriage are nothing to worry about since they reflect the multicultural, postmodern North American society that Jews not only helped create but also continually benefit from.

As these camps debate one another, one question is repeatedly addressed by both: Given the current trends, what can we do to strengthen non-Orthodox Jewish life in North America? Whether we bemoan intermarriage or whether we celebrate it, we can still respond to it in any number of ways.

Discouraging intermarriage will not work; as Stephen Cohen has taught, “Over the past half-century, the strong disapproval of intermarriage articulated by some sectors of the community has visibly failed to diminish its incidence overall or bring about other desired effects.” So however our communities choose to create vibrant Jewish community, it is essential to embrace not only intermarriage but also – and more significantly – the intermarried. RRC president Deborah Waxman writes, “if we don’t truly open ourselves to the intermarried community, and welcome them as equals and potential leaders, then we may risk the Jewish future simply because we failed to reconstruct Judaism to be relevant for this generation.” For non-Orthodox Jews today, intermarriage isn’t bad for the Jewish people – it’s the lack of engagement of the intermarried that’s bad for the Jewish people.

I believe that the Reform Movement and its president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, share this perspective. There are plenty of Reform rabbis who happily sanctify Jewish weddings wherein one partner is not Jewish, and most, if not all, Reform communities in North America honor and include Jewish couples and families with non-Jewish members. In hundreds of liberal communities, interfaith families are expected to be just as involved – or non-involved – as any other families. Reform Judaism affirms the sacredness of Jewish families with non-Jewish members and seeks to create rich, vibrant Jewish life with all our families.

This approach to intermarriage in general can extend to liberal seminaries as well. Jews with non-Jewish partners can serve as heads of our synagogues, Federations, philanthropies, Hillels, social service agencies, etc. Why should the line be drawn at the rabbinate? HUC-JIR can best live out its Reform values by opening rabbinical school application to Jews with non-Jewish partners.

Critics Say: If the Partner’s not Jewish, that Shows Lack of Commitment

This argument comes from two directions. On the one hand, a Jew who chooses to marry a non-Jew has demonstrated that Jewish home life is not their prime concern. Since rabbis are meant to model ideal Jewish home life, it would be absurd to turn to a rabbi who had compromised on the richness of his or her Jewish home by intermarrying. And on the other hand, if a non-Jew agrees to make Jewish life primary at home, that person should convert to Judaism. So long as the non-Jewish partner does not convert, he or she signals that Judaism is not their prime concern.

Let us take each argument in turn.

A Jew’s decision to marry someone who is not Jewish does not automatically indicate that the Jewish person is not interested in a rich and vibrant Jewish life. In today’s society many people of no religion are actively spiritual, so religious Jews – those most likely to become rabbis – may well find a supportive spiritual partner who is not Jewish. Indeed, since many Jews do not practice any religion, it may even be easier for a religious Jew to find a non-Jewish spiritual partner than to find a Jewish partner who wants to marry a rabbi!

Deborah Waxman, RRC’s president, stated this point clearly: “the status of a rabbinical student’s partner is not a reliable measure of the student’s commitment to Judaism – or lack thereof.” In other words, the religious status of a spouse is simply not an adequate way of evaluating whether a Jew is committed to Judaism. After all, there are full-fledged rabbis in the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the Reform rabbinical association, who are married to non-Jews, and they enjoy successful rabbinates thanks in part to their supportive non-Jewish partners.

Secondly, a non-Jew’s decision not to convert to Judaism does not in and of itself indicate hesitancy at having a Jewish home. Perhaps the most sympathetic scenario that illustrates this point is a person whose parents are active members of another faith and who would be devastated if their child converted to Judaism. Our hypothetical non-Jewish partner may be fully encouraging and supportive of Jewish home life but refrains from converting because of family reasons – not religious reasons. Individuals may disagree whether these family reasons are, in fact, more important than religious reasons, but they must concede that a person may choose not to convert to Judaism for reasons wholly unrelated to his or her willingness to cultivate a Jewish home.

To summarize, all members of an interfaith family can fully be committed to a Jewish home. To prejudge otherwise fails to respond to the meaning of what it means to be religious in general and Jewish in particular in North America today.

Critics Say: Intermarriage is Against Tradition, and Rabbis Need to Uphold our Tradition

For thousands of years, it was impossible for a Jew to marry a non-Jew. Rabbinic law and Jewish custom frowned upon sexual relations with non-Jews, and when intermarriage became a possibility in the modern era, traditional Jews unfailingly opposed it. Who, if not our rabbis, will maintain our sacred traditions? How can we look to our religious leaders as exemplars if they abandon our fundamental approaches to Jewish life?

These arguments are appropriate for traditional or halakhic Judaism, but they are not appropriate for liberal approaches to Judaism such as Reconstructionism and Reform.

There’s no surprise that the Conservative Movement seminaries at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the American Jewish University explicitly forbid rabbinical students from dating or marrying non-Jews. Indeed, they also require their students to keep kosher and observe Shabbat, which are just as ancient and central to Jewish identity as endogamy – if not more so.

But things are different at RRC and HUC-JIR. Neither of these liberal seminaries requires any particular ritual observance; students need not observe Shabbat or keep kosher in any particular way, nor are there any other specific formulations of what constitutes “ideal” Jewish home life. It would be inconsistent to affirm Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis’ authority to determine whether and how to observe every component of Jewish life except for intermarriage.

In short, let’s not isolate intermarriage as a singularly important Jewish tradition that must be preserved. This approach not only denigrates the sincerity of committed Jewish families with non-Jewish members but it also impoverishes the Jewish tradition by boiling it down to a single issue.

Critics Say: What Will the Neighbors Think?

We’ve established above that more traditional seminaries, those of the Conservative and certainly Orthodox denominations, would certainly not admit rabbinical students with non-Jewish partners. What will it do to relations between these movements and more liberal streams if seminaries like RRC and HUC-JIR change their admissions policy? Reform rabbis have a hard enough time as it is receiving equal recognition; could this make things even harder? And will Orthodox faculty members – currently a vital part of HUC-JIR’s professorate – be able to continue to teach if the policy were to change?

These are serious considerations to which I’m sensitive and sympathetic. Some of my own Orthodox teachers have told me they’d have to leave HUC-JIR were the seminary to change its policy, and I perceive the hurt, even the betrayal, that would be felt on all sides. And I don’t doubt that RRC’s recent policy change will make it more difficult for their graduates to assert authenticity as rabbis before their Orthodox peers.

Nevertheless, I believe that these difficulties are the necessary birthing pains that accompany progress. Neither the Reconstructionist movement nor, I argue, the Reform movement should be held ideologically hostage by movements to their right.

The greatest analogy is the Reform movement’s stance on “patrilineal descent.” In 1983, the CCAR rejected birth as the “determining factor in the religious identification of children of a mixed marriage.” The CCAR concluded that “Jewish descent” is not a sufficient condition for being Jewish when a person has one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent; rather, timely acts of identification with the Jewish people are necessary in order to be considered Jewish.

This decision flew in the face of two thousand years of Jewish tradition. According to this tradition, behavior was in no way taken into account when determining a person’s Jewish status (outside of cases of conversion). Rather, the question was simple: Do you descend from a Jewish mother? If yes – you’re Jewish; if no – you’re not. The CCAR affirmed contra tradition that if a person has one Jewish parent (mother or father) and one non-Jewish parent, the child can be considered Jewish only if he or she takes an active role in the Jewish community. In other words, there can be children of Jewish mothers who are not Jewish, and there can be children of non-Jewish mothers who are.

Orthodox and Conservative Judaism continue to reel from the magnitude of this policy change and have – to greater and lesser degrees – found ways to adjust to the reality that there are both laypeople as well as rabbis in the world today that they would not consider Jewish. But regardless of the difficulty this change posed for dealing with these streams of the Jewish world, the Reform Movement held its ground and has continued to do so for more than thirty years.

I believe the same dynamic is at play with the discussion of ordaining rabbis with non-Jewish partners. Communal politics has identified intermarriage as the sacred cow of the continuity debate, and therefore I anticipate RRC receiving considerable abuse for its bold stance. (One need not look far for individual tirades, though official institutional reactions have not yet been made public.) Nevertheless, RRC has boldly stood its ideological ground, acting on what it believes to be right regardless of the disapproval of much of the Jewish world. Personally, I hope that not too many years will pass before HUC-JIR stands beside RRC as an ally in this arena.

Critics Say: It Just Doesn’t Feel Right

This last argument is the hardest to respond to – and also probably the most prevalent. Here’s one way to frame it: I had a conversation with a major leader in the Jewish world about HUC-JIR’s potentially changing its policy several years ago. I admire this leader tremendously, and what he told me has stayed with me: “All these arguments make rational sense; but I just couldn’t bear it. It just doesn’t feel right to have intermarried rabbis.”

I suspect this is a sentiment shared by many of my colleagues as well as laypeople in our communities. I know this is a sentiment shared by some individuals who themselves have non-Jewish partners or whose children do. We spend so much communal energy worrying about intermarriage – isn’t it “just wrong” to have intermarried rabbis enter the fray?

The Reform movement was founded in an era of rationalism; indeed, our ideological forebears could justifiably be accused of worshiping the intellect nearly as much as God. Reconstructionism likewise grew out of a scientific approach to religion, specifically focused on sociology. But today, both of these movements have distanced themselves from relying on reason and have embraced the value of trusting emotions. Is there not a place, then, to say “I can’t tell you why I’m opposed to this policy change, but it just means a lot to me that my seminary not ordain intermarried rabbis”?

Here’s my answer: Everyone can feel whatever they want to feel, but let’s not base policy on individuals’ gut instincts.

I’m very nervous about decisions to exclude a group of people that are based on passion rather than consideration. Person to person, I hope to dispel the “bad feeling” that people have about committed Jews who have non-Jewish partners. But on an institutional level, this kind of “bad feeling” is actively dangerous. The argument “it just doesn’t feel right” was the number one justification for barring from the rabbinate first women and later gay and lesbian Jews. This is the very definition of prejudice. I believe it is imperative to set these prejudices aside when making policy decisions. Emotions have been used to justify innumerable exclusions in the past, so we must be particularly wary of them when discussing whether to tolerate the presence of a particular group – in this case, potential intermarried rabbis.

Conclusion

Nearly fifty years ago, HUC-JIR President Nelson Glueck urged the Board of Governors, “I have been saying and reiterating for years that either we move ahead with vision and boldness … or we must inevitably go backwards. There just isn’t any standing still.” It was with this “vision and boldness” that Glueck welcomed the first women rabbinical students to HUC-JIR. The same embrace of progress led the movement to establish “patrilineal descent” and to open its seminary to gay and lesbian students. Each of these efforts is in line with Reform Judaism’s commitment to enfranchising marginalized members of the community.

Today, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has exercised courageous and principled leadership in opening its doors to rabbinical students with non-Jewish partners. There are many who critique RRC for this position, claiming even that the seminary’s move will irreparably damage the Jewish people. But I believe that RRC made the right choice for the Reconstructionist Movement and for our community at large. I hope that HUC-JIR will once again take up this issue and follow RRC’s lead.

Time will show how RRC’s decision will impact the Jewish world. As we wait to see how intermarried rabbis will change the face of Judaism, I for one am ready to welcome them as colleagues.

Rabbi Daniel Kirzane serves as rabbi at The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah, Overland Park, KS.