What intermarried rabbis can teach us
Should Jewish movements inclusive of intermarried families also ordain rabbinic students who are married to non-Jews? Currently, an intermarried or even inter-dating applicant to the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative seminaries would not be accepted. In the Reform movement, that position has been challenged in sermons by rabbinic students and an open letter to Hebrew Union College from the founder of Brooklyn’s Kolot Chayeinu congregation, Rabbi Ellen Lippmann, herself inter-partnered.
I’m not the typical intermarried unaffiliated Jew, since I’m also a Jewish communal professional. Still, I think I speak for many intermarried households when it comes to what I want and need from a rabbi. And that might be instructive to the seminaries, who are training clergy for a U.S. population that now has more intermarried than in-married households.
I have two admittedly broad criteria for what I want in a rabbi: Tell me I’m in and mean it — and show me why it’s so amazing.
To their credit, all the liberal movements have made strides (some greater than others) toward expanding the tent of their communities, recognizing that the kind of household the synagogue was originally built to serve — two married white heterosexuals with young children — now represents less than 20 percent of our community at any given time. Today you’d be hard-pressed to find a non-Orthodox synagogue whose leadership doesn’t believe it is a “warm and welcoming home” for intermarried families.
But dig a little deeper and you find some of the barriers that keep intermarried families from affiliating at the same rates as the in-married: Membership is often for Jewish spouses only; most of the rabbis who officiate at our b’nei mitzva won’t officiate at our weddings; many synagogues won’t let our non-Jewish family read a prayer in English or even ascend the bima during our children’s b’nei mitzva; words like “shiksa” and “sheigetz” are still in wide circulation; and “Funny, you don’t look Jewish” is still considered, well, funny.
Intermarried families are told that they’re “in,” but sooner or later we hear the “if” or “but.” Eventually, we get the message of “less than.” Holding rabbinic students to a higher standard on intermarriage — when it seems all other aspects of Jewish law are up for interpretation — maintains intermarriage as the red-line ethical transgression.
The few dozen liberal synagogues that are actually growing are invariably led by rabbis who make genuine and effective efforts to not just include but embrace intermarried families. At a time when the number of Reform congregations is in decline, Lippmann built from scratch a community that continues to thrive. Her movement should take seriously what she wrote in her open letter to HUC: Intermarried Jews like her “are capable of becoming the leaders so desperately needed in the American-Jewish community.”
Rabbis with nontraditional families like my own make me feel more included. Conveying why Judaism is still relevant to them provides me with access I wouldn’t feel elsewhere. The focus is not on how you come in, but what you get out of doing Jewish — in other words, why it’s so amazing.
American liberal Judaism in the 21st century must be about conveying Jewish meaning, not ensuring ethnic survival. Some may lament that rabbis today must first answer “what can Judaism do for me as an individual,” rather than “what am I supposed to do because I’m Jewish.” But the days of obligation-before-meaning are gone.
So tell us why Judaism is better! Why should my children’s ethical foundation be provided by Jewish wisdom rather than the universal ethics they would receive as Americans? Why should I seek spirituality in synagogue when the local meditation studio promises results I never hear offered by rabbis? How can the millennia-long conversations in Jewish texts help make my own life — or the world — better?
And what prevents me from accessing any of it because I’m intermarried? Why wouldn’t it also be meaningful to my non-Jewish spouse? Once I understand the meaning and see the value, I am much more likely to feel the obligation.
For rabbinic students at HUC, the only red line about personal observance involves interfaith relationships. Nothing about keeping kosher, lighting Shabbat candles, or wearing kipot. In Reform Judaism, meaning is derived personally. Rabbinic autonomy is valued. A blanket policy on only one aspect of Jewish observance — even if deemed the most important — seems to run counter to those values.
It also opens the doors to those who insist that there is only one “real” way to be Jewish. A former Jewish communal professional, Harold Berman, recently described how his wife converted to Judaism, his family accepted Orthodoxy, and they all moved to Israel, thanks to Jewish leaders who “gently challenged us to aim higher” — that is, who provided only one model of the idealized Jewish family. That’s wonderful for him and the tiny percentage of intermarried families who follow that path. But it is not a realistic approach for the overwhelming majority of American intermarried households, any more than it is a solution for declining membership in the Reform or Conservative movements.
Instead we need rabbis with new visions of how Jews can relate to their Judaism. Lippmann demonstrates that Jews in interfaith relationships are one potential stream of such leadership and ideas.