Intermarried Rabbis and Intermarriage Attitudes

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We’re back from Passover and there was a flurry of commentary about intermarriage in the Jewish media. Last week Benjamin Maron blogged about Rabbinical Students and Intermarriage, picking up on Rebecca Goodman’s February post on Rabbis and Intermarriage. This is all started when Daniel Kirzane, a rabbinic student at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College and the child of intermarried parents, wrote in a debate in Reform Judaism magazine that that seminary should admit students with non-Jewish partners — which it currently does not allow. (This debate has been going on at least since I blogged about it in 2009.)

Benjamin pointed out that a Reform rabbi, Mark Miller, wrote a rather scathing article in the Times of Israel, lamenting Reform Judaism’s supposed “embrace of assimilation.” I want to bring to your attention Aliza Worthington’s very powerful response, also in the Times of Israel, Rigidity is the real threat to Jewish continuity. Worthington tells her personal story of Jewish engagement despite — or perhaps because of — her own intermarriage, the welcome she and her husband received, how she shares Judaism now with her children — and then describes Miller’s response to Kirzane as follows:

You are taking people who have chosen Judaism — chosen it! — and shoving them away. Here is someone [Kirzane] who was born of an intermarriage of faiths, and he not only chose Judaism to follow, to study, but to live and to teach! And you belittle his parents’ love because it somehow makes his Judaism less authentic to you? You deny him his learning and his future livelihood should he fall in love with someone who is not Jewish? You’re worried that a rabbi who marries a gentile is threatening and disgraceful to the Jewish faith? Even though he cherishes Judaism.

I respect your education and career. I admire your devotion to our shared faith. I worry, though, that you have grossly misidentified the real threats to Judaism: Sanctimony, Superiority, and Judgmentalism.

Sadly but not surprisingly, Worthington’s essay attracted vituperative comments which spurred Adin Feder, a high school student at Boston’s Gann Academy — a pluralistic Jewish day school — to write in The Threat of Warrantless Hatred:

…the problem is the absolutism and rigidity of those who write off and bash Jews who intermarry or subscribe to a different religious philosophy. Attacking and disowning a fellow Jew who decided to marry a Catholic isn’t just wrong. It’s also impractical.

In a recent survey I took of my grade at my pluralistic Jewish high school, I found that over half of the grade, 51%, is “open to marrying someone who is not Jewish”. A further 19% said that they “don’t know” if they would be open to it. Only 30% of the grade said that they are not “open to marrying someone who is not Jewish”. Keep in mind that these results are from students at a Jewish school!

Is the peanut gallery that claims to have been invested with the power to define “real Judaism” and therefore insult all other Jews who don’t fit that definition, prepared to repudiate a huge portion of the next generation of American Jews? Perhaps their energy would be better spent appealing to rather than insulting Jews, in order to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people.

Sadly, again, Feder’s article attracted more nasty comments — but Worthington had what I hope is the last word: “Thank God for kids like you who are thinking, educated, engaged, open-minded, compassionate, and articulate. You are the future of a strong, healthy Judaism. Thank you.”

The nasty comments are unfortunate but they aren’t really the point. There will always be people at the extreme who see their way as the only way and intermarriage as intolerable — just as there will always be people who are extremely passionate about the potential for positive Jewish engagement by interfaith families. But I wonder what this exchange of commentary demonstrates about the attitudes towards intermarriage of the “great middle.”

With the same-sex marriage cases recently before the Supreme Court, there has been much in the secular press, less about the extremely pro and extremely con voices in that debate, but much more about the revolution in attitudes of the “great middle” in favor of marriage equality. Is Feder’s survey — and remember, it’s from a Jewish high school — representative, indicative of a great shift in attitudes among younger Jews which will push negative views like those of Rabbi Miller to an ineffectual extreme? I wonder.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

Rabbinical School and Interfaith Marriage, Part 3

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A new article in Tablet, Big Tent Country by Marissa Brostoff, sheds some light on the issue of rabbinical schools accepting and ordaining intermarried rabbis.

We blogged about this issue three months ago, when New Voices published an important article, The Coming of the Intermarried Rabbi. At the time, I wrote that “there could be no better role model for interfaith couples than an interfaith partner who is so Jewishly engaged that he or she is a rabbi,” and that “Intermarried rabbis would be particularly inspiring to the interfaith couples who they served — and there is no reason they could not be inspiring to in-married couples as well.”

The Tablet article tells about Ed Stafman, a former attorney who intermarried, became active in a Reform synagogue, and eventually was ordained by the Renewal-affiliated Aleph Rabbinic Program, the only seminary that does not reject intermarried students outright. Rabbi Stafman will be installed next week as rabbi at Beth Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Bozeman, Montana.

What’s most interesting to me in the article are the comments by the members of Beth Shalom, which support the notion of an intermarried rabbi as a role model and inspiration for interfaith couples. Beth Shalom is by all descriptions a heavily intermarried congregation. One person in the hiring process said that Stafman’s being intermarried “might be a great asset because we’re so intermarried here that you might have a better understanding of the congregation.” Another said, “I think it will be very beneficial to those interfaith families in the community, and that they will really feel they have a home at Beth Shalom.”

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

Rabbinical School and the Interfaith Marriage, Part 2

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Last week Ruth Abrams blogged about an important article by Jeremy Gillick in New Voices, The Coming of the Intermarried Rabbi, about men and women seeking to attend and be ordained by rabbinical schools that will not accept them because they are intermarried.  Shortly before the New Voices article came out, we published Why I’m Not A Rabbi, in which Edie Mueller explained her experience of this rejection 15 years ago. I’d like to now explain our position on this issue, prompted in part by a parallel discussion that is taking place on the Jewish Outreach Institute‘s JOPLIN listserv.

Years ago when David Ellenson, whom I respect tremendously, became president of Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement’s seminary, he was quoted in a publication as affirming the policy not to admit or ordain intermarried students because rabbis are “role models.” I wrote a letter to the editor suggesting that there could be no better role model for interfaith couples than an interfaith partner who is so Jewishly engaged that he or she is a rabbi.

For denominations that consider traditional Jewish religious law (halachah) binding, it may make sense to require rabbis to live in halachically recognized marriages. But the seminaries training rabbis for other denominations are free to consider that their graduates will be serving constituencies with many interfaith couples and families. Those rabbis presumably want to inspire their constituents to more Jewish engagement. Intermarried rabbis would be particularly inspiring to the interfaith couples who they served — and there is no reason they could not be inspiring to in-married couples as well.

When congregations hire rabbis, lay leaders are the ones who select them. Many congregations that want to promote in-marriage won’t hire rabbis that they perceive to encourage interfaith marriage. Presumably these lay leaders would chose not to hire an intermarried rabbi. Congregations that want to promote conversion as a solution to the issue of interfaith marriage presumably would chose not to hire a rabbi whose non-Jewish partner had not chosen to convert. But congregations that are focused less on these boundary lines and more on supporting the Jewish engagement of all community members might well welcome an intermarried rabbi. Congregations are diverse, and rabbis could be as well.

Over the years at IFF we have talked with a number of exceptional people who would have made great rabbis who were frustrated because they couldn’t be accepted at the seminaries because they were intermarried. David Curiel, the lead subject of the New Voices article, is one of them. Edie Mueller is another. We believe that turning these people away is a mistake.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.