I loved Rabbi Deborah Waxman’s explanation of why the Reconstructionist movement rebranded itself as “Reconstructing Judaism,” including her statement that “A critical path forward is shifting from a focus on ‘being’ Jewish – important but insufficient for providing substance and structure – to a focus on ‘doing’ Jewish.” That shift in focus is a fundamental basis of a radically inclusive approach to interfaith families, and it’s not surprising that Rabbi Waxman also says, “Let’s make sure our children can tell their non-Jewish friends, family members and life partners how Jewish organizations opened pathways to engagement.”
There’s been more ferment in the Conservative movement about intermarriage. In Jews Should Have Taught Our Children How To Intermarry, Philip Graubart, a Conservative rabbi who is now the “Chief Jewish Officer” at a day school in San Diego, relates that thirty years ago his father, also a Conservative rabbi, took the position that “we need to imbue young Jews with enough self-confidence and pride that even if (or, really when) they intermarry, they’ll insist on raising their kids as Jews.” Graubart says his father was correct:
None of the dating schemes or the refusals to officiate, or pushing away the non-Jewish spouses during bar-bat mitzvah ceremonies, or the sometimes complex conditions some rabbis put on intermarried couples — take these classes, perform these rituals, structure the ceremony in these ways, stand here during this ceremony, but not here; say this, but not this — made a dent in what we now recognize was inevitable. In a free and prosperous country, Jews are going to meet and marry non-Jews in large numbers, no matter we do.
But Graubart says his father did not go far enough:
Rather than refusing to officiate at intermarriages, we should have insisted that we were exactly who these couples needed to sanctify their union, without conditions. At least then, Jewish spirituality would have had a voice and role in the most important day in the lives of a generation of young Jews (and many non-Jews). Instead of rejecting their most important and intimate decision, we could have helped them celebrate, and kept them close. But we pushed them away.
Graubart says the issue is larger than intermarriage – it is what to think about and how to live with those who are not Jewish. The attitudes that have “colored all our thinking about intermarriage” are that they “threaten us physically. Or they engage in non-Jewish practices which tempt us. Or, more subtly, they threaten our distinctive identity. They come too close, sometimes into the very walls of our synagogue, or on the bimah.” Graubart says things have changed, “non-Jews” (his term) are a crucial part of our Jewish community, and
[O]f course, many of the non-Jews now married to Jews take the lead in creating Jewish moments for their kids. Imagine what they would have done if, instead of rejecting them on the most important day of their lives, we embraced them. It’s probably time to start.
In the meantime, Josh Nathan-Kazis reported for the Forward that a little more than a year ago, a young Conservative rabbi discovered that the Conservative movement never officially adopted its ban on blessing intermarriages, that the movement’s response was to convene a secret commission, and that the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) (the association of Conservative rabbis) recently adopted the commission’s recommendation with “new language for the rules that reaffirm most of the ban on blessing intermarriages.” The RA has also had a rule that Conservative rabbis could not attend interfaith weddings; the commission apparently reported that the RA had not enforced that rule and suggested “the beginning of a process that could allow rabbis to attend them without sanction.”
The article notes that while some “insiders” knew that the rule against attendance was not enforced, other rabbis complied with the rule at great personal expense, including not attending weddings of family members; Nathan-Kazis had a follow-up article titled Saddened Rabbis Learn They Could Have Gone to Loved Ones’ Interfaith Weddings.
Nathan-Kazis writes that some rabbis see the commission’s report, by opening up the standards and practices for discussion, “as a first step toward acceptance of intermarriage by the Conservative leadership.” Separately, Rabbi Graubart offers his take on the issue:
[I]s the debate over intermarriage really about rules?… Aren’t there other values at play — family, romance, intimacy, respect, kindness, tolerance, pluralism, freedom? Of course these questions lead me to similar inquiries about Conservative Judaism. Can a great religious movement really be reduced to a set of behaviors, or even a range of behaviors within a prescribed path? Isn’t there more to Conservative Judaism — more to Judaism — than Halacha?
I try not to say “non-Jew” any more, and would respectfully suggest to Rabbi Waxman and Rabbi Graubert that they consider not doing so either. I saw an interesting piece relating to another controversial term, “half-Jewish,” recently. In There’s No Such Thing As ‘Half-Jewish.’ It’s Simply ‘Jewish.’Alyssa Pinsker relates how as a child of a Ukrainian Greek Catholic mother and a Jewish father, and after practicing Judaism for eleven years, “somehow I am always considered ‘half’.”
The position of the half-Jew is different from any other bicultural or biracial adult: One side is rejected by traditionalists, and the other by anti-Semites. Ask most Israelis, Conservative Jews and any Orthodox Jew, and they will quickly tell you that I am not Jewish. On the other hand, during a teaching stint in Switzerland, I lost my job due because I was practicing Judaism openly and talking about it; and with my Jewish background, I could never work in Saudi Arabia. This puts me -– and all other so-called “half Jews” — in a painful twilight zone, neither here nor there.
Pinsker is considering undergoing an Orthodox conversion “so that my children don’t have to go through what I went through.” In the meantime, she says, she’s “made my choice about who I am – despite the hardships, and regardless of whether or not I go through conversion down the road….I am just another Jew. Period.”
In other news, you might want to see:
- A nice mention in the Forward of Hebrew College’s graduate certificate in Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement led by Keren McGinity.
- A great report on One Table that notes that 15% of hosts come from interfaith families.
- A nice article on Base Hillel that notes that 13% of participants came from “non-Jewish” homes.
- Yet another example of the Israeli attitude that intermarriage is the same as assimilation – with the wrinkle that Arab Members of the Knesset don’t want their children to marry Jews and be “assimilated.”