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Faith and Matrimony

A controversy  has recently developed within the Reform movement over its rabbinical schools’ policy of barring the admission of any applicant who is “engaged, married, or partnered/committed to a person not Jewish by birth or conversion.”  Writing in Reform Judaism magazine, rabbinical student Daniel Kirzane argues that the policy is “antithetical to our Movement’s essential focus on welcoming and Outreach.”  To prove his point, Kirzane quotes  a paragraph from one of the Union for Reform Judaism Outreach brochures, which opens with the question, “Intermarried?” and responds immediately that “Reform Judaism welcomes you.”  The brochure then cites the prophet Isaiah: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (56:7)  It deduces from this that “from the very earliest days, there have been individuals who lived with the Jewish community but who were not themselves Jewish. . . .  You [the intermarried Jew] are welcome.” 

Relevant Links
Can Reform Judaism Get Its Mojo Back?  Evan Moffic, Jewish Ideas Daily. The American Jewish community as a whole cannot survive if there is no non-Orthodox movement to which American Jews can belong; in other words, survival depends on a strong Reform movement.  But in light of current trends, is that possible?
Denominational Delusions  Andrew Apostolou, Jewish Ideas Daily. With synagogues closing, congregations ageing, and the non-Orthodox majority dwindling, American Jews are caught in a crisis. Yet no one is tackling the root of this problem: intermarriage.

In truth, what Kirzane wants to see rendered permissible has been going on, behind the scenes, for a long time.  I graduated from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994; and even then, there were plenty of rabbinic and cantorial students with non-Jewish boyfriends and girlfriends.  Most kept the relationships quiet until the partner converted or the connection ended.  Occasionally, a student dropped out to marry his or her beloved, who had decided, for whatever reason, not to convert to Judaism.  Others had to change their professional plans or find an alternative route.  The editor of my second book had turned down an acceptance from Hebrew Union College because she was in a serious relationship with a non-Jewish man she planned to marry.  I do not know if any students were forced to withdraw from programs in which they were already enrolled on account of forbidden relationships, but it is certainly possible. 

Kirzane argues that the policy of denying admission to applicants engaged in interfaith relationships is both untrue to Reform ideals and injurious.  The Central Conference of American Rabbis, he notes, affirmed in 1999 that the Reform Movement is “an inclusive community, opening doors to Jewish life to [all] . . . who strive to create a Jewish home.”  According to his line of reasoning, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion “should be the greatest exemplar of this ideal,” not an opponent of it: “I urge the Hebrew Union College to make good on the Reform Movement’s commitment to Outreach by changing its policy and opening its doors to all who strive to create a Jewish home and serve the Jewish people.” 

But what about Jewish endogamy?  It’s a lost cause.  And a commitment to the Jewish religion? Well, it is an established principle in contemporary American society that a person can have a deep and profound faith without sharing it with his or her partner.  Each of us should be free to profess his or her own faith without feeling the pressure to conform to a partner’s beliefs, and our partners should likewise be able to explore a broad range of spiritual options independently. 

Brandon Bernstein, also a rabbinic student at HUC-JIR, carefully avoids attacking the proposal. Instead, he diplomatically calls for a dialogue before any final decisions are made.  He bends over backward to express sympathy for those who have been upset or inconvenienced: “While it truly pains me to hear stories of those denied admission because of the current policy, I do not believe that the hardships they describe are sufficient to justify a change in HUC’s policy.”  Bernstein hopes that the newly launched discussion will “open the door to a Movement-wide conversation that positively articulates the Jewish values to which our leaders and congregations ought to strive.” 

Kirzane and Bernstein will be continuing their debate in next month’s Sh'ma magazine, so we will not have to wait very long to see how their dialogue develops.  I expect Kirzane’s seemingly principled liberalism to triumph and suspect that even Bernstein may eventually be won over. 

The debate that Kirzane has launched is yet another indication that the Reform movement is swiftly becoming not so much a religious movement as a Jewish activities club.  It does not matter, so it would seem, what one believes but rather how one identifies.  While this serves the “Big Tent” recruitment strategy of the movement very well, at least in the short term, it undermines any claims Reform Judaism might have to represent a true and compelling ethical monotheistic faith.  Rabbinical students at HUC do not have to believe in any specific theology or engage in any particular form of ritual practice.  As Rabbi Mark S. Miller put it in the Times of Israel, until now there have only two lines that could not be crossed: a “Reform Jew could not legitimately believe in Jesus and a Reform Rabbi could not marry a non-Jewish spouse.”  If Kirzane convinces the movement to do away with the latter, Miller explains, there would only be one remaining taboo. 

Miller, who not so coincidently recently retired after more than 35 years in the pulpit of a Reform congregation in California, speaks bluntly.  The position that Kirzane is advocating is the “logical and lamentable outcome of Reform Judaism’s embrace of assimilation, of wanting to be everything to everyone, and of exalting the individual at the expense of the community. There are simply no standards, imperatives, or obligations.  The adoration of autonomy led first to compromise, then to appeasement, and now to anarchy.” 

The rhetoric sounds familiar.  When the issue of accepting homosexual rabbis and allowing Reform rabbis to officiate at gay and lesbian weddings was being debated, an earlier generation of newly retired rabbis attacked that change as a breakdown of Jewish values that represented anarchy and dissolution.  Their voices were ignored.  This will happen again, I predict, to the voices of the new generation of old-timers fighting for values that they themselves fatally compromised some time ago.  I do not mean to say here that allowing gays and lesbians to marry or become rabbis was wrong; I do regret, however, that the decision to allow them to do so did not take place in the context of a clear and compelling Reform Jewish theology. 

This did not happen, for one simple reason: The Reform movement has no central theological positions that are advocated by our leaders and/or believed in by its followers.  The movement has such blurry principles that we cannot determine where our parameters are—or where they should be.  The result is that sociological facts determine normative values. 

As rabbis’ attitudes toward the intermarriages of their congregants have evolved, they have reevaluated their own partnering choices.  More rabbis have themselves emerged from intermarried families and they see how many of their Jewish friends also come from homes with only one Jewish parent.  If it was good enough for my parents and my friends, some will reason, it is also good enough for me.  If the Reform movement is essentially a sociological construct, then what the masses are doing defines normative behavior and legitimately serves to guide the rabbinic decision-making process.  But if that is the process by which Reform Judaism continues to evolve, I believe it will fail as an American religious movement. 

Dana Evan Kaplan is the rabbi of the United Congregation of Israelites in Kingston, Jamaica and former rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel in Albany, Georgia.  He is the author of the forthcoming The New Reform Judaism, to be published by the Jewish Publication Society.

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charles hoffman on April 19, 2013 at 4:58 am (Reply)
a newly-minted Reform Rabbi who is married to a gentile sends a message to the entire Reform Jewish community: "Nothing matters anymore"

It's one thing to condone or just accept intermarriage; it's quite another to set it as the ideal. And in any community, the rabbi is deemed to be the ideal in "Jewishness" to which his congregation should aspire. Any intermarried rabbi immediately invalidates his (her) moral standing to speak of Jewish identity.
Jean Klein on April 19, 2013 at 6:25 am (Reply)
The old Yiddish saying was that "as the Christians go to Jews will follow."The idea was that the norms of the greater society effect Jewish norms. We have finally arrived to a Jewish group saying that there really is no distinction Between a Jew and Gentile unless the Gentile believes in Christ.
Amy Caplan on April 19, 2013 at 8:56 am (Reply)
What's next - rabbinical students who aren't Jewish? Oh yeah, I forgot, one of my non-Jewish MAJS grad student classmates became the head of a synagogue religious school.
Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn on April 19, 2013 at 9:36 am (Reply)
Rabbi Kaplan hits every nail directly on the head. As an HUC musmach (81) myself, I feel a sense of responsibility for Kirzane and Bernstein. They are the unintended consequences of my progressive and inclusive teachings.
dg on April 19, 2013 at 10:43 am (Reply)
rita rabinovitz on April 19, 2013 at 10:56 am (Reply)
next, they'll enroll Italian girls who just "want to meet a nice Jewish boy"
Ellen on April 19, 2013 at 12:02 pm (Reply)
The Reform Movement in America has now past the point of tragedy and reached the stage of farce, to paraphrase a favorite quote of Karl Marx. Is there any conceivable way they could make themselves look more ridiculous than their current actions?

No matter, the whole subject has become one gigantic bore. Soon enough, their liberal funders will die off or decide they have had enough of theatrical farces masquerading under the facade of Reform Judaism. They will cut off their funding, and this whole spectacle will disappear from the stage of history. With no encore, I might add.
    chaim avigdor lieber on April 19, 2013 at 12:36 pm (Reply)
    not Karl Marx, at all.
    but Groucho - who once remarked that he wouldn't join any club that would have him as a member.
Phil Cohen on April 19, 2013 at 2:18 pm (Reply)
I cannot agree more with Rabbi Kapaln that the Reform movement, of which I am a part, is lost at sea. One of the indicators of that state of affairs came with the second Pittsburgh Platform, which enthusiastically scuttled theology in favor of what feels good. Although there are surely thinking men and women within the movement who reach for theology, the idea of a theologically grounded movement seems to be in decline. There is no better example than the argumentation put forward by Mr. Kirzane who can argue in favor of permitting rabbinical students to have their non-Jewish significant others without consequences. Such a rule, he says, is "antithetical to our Movement’s essential focus on welcoming and Outreach." Reform's commitment to Outreach is one thing. This is an accommodation to the status quo in which many intermarried couples seek a spiritual home. But to claim that Outreach, in which intermarried couples are accepted is somehow a fitting analogy to intermarried or interdating Reform rabbinical students simply isn't logical. The issues constitute two entirely different categories. It amuses me to think about an HUC-JIR class on the December Dilemma organized for the sake of intermarried students. Or perhaps in the lobby of the HUC building in NYC (the campus from which I graduated), sporting a Christmas tree, erected shortly after Thanksgiving each year. Well, enough sarcasm.

I am hopeful that wise heads will prevail and this rule will be maintained.
    ch hoffman on April 19, 2013 at 3:40 pm (Reply)
    what did you expect? this is but the next step. The first time a Reform Rabbi participated married a couple where one partner had not converted, the relationship between Reform Judaism and the Jewish family was frayed. It was further eroded with participation in joint ceremonies; and it's been further destroyed when non-Jewish partners were given lay leadership roles in institutions of worship or education.

    It shouldn't come as any surprise
Mike Morales on April 20, 2013 at 11:12 am (Reply)
I was accosted on Facebook recently because I asked for civil discourse on the issue of marriage being between a man and a woman. I was called a bigot and there was no further interest on the part of the cantor to listen to my side. Instead of talking things out, too many accept the secular agenda of our society and it's major universities. God is no longer the center of our lives. He has been replaced by self indulgence and a desire to fit in. I recently learned that a family I grew up with was Jewish. The elderly mother lamented the fact she had not raised her children in the Jewish community. But only for cultural reasons. Whatever that means. If we lose our love and fear of God we are truly lost.
Kevin on April 20, 2013 at 3:36 pm (Reply)
The announcement at the end of the article states, "[Kaplan] is the author of the forthcoming The New Reform Judaism, to be published by the Jewish Publication Society." Rabbi Kaplan admits, "The Reform movement has no central theological positions that are advocated by our leaders and/or believed in by its followers. The movement has such blurry principles that we cannot determine where our parameters are—or where they should be." How does he propose to write a book about nothing?
Jerry Blaz on April 20, 2013 at 9:26 pm (Reply)
I will not comment on the advocacy of Daniel Kirzane, but on the tzedeq of hard rules. I knew a woman rabbi who was married to a Jew. He was away at school getting an advanced degree while living off his wife's income. And when he was home, he did not care for the two children, and the rabbi would bring them with her to services, and while it was cute to see a toddler scramble up on the bimah to hug her mother around the knees, I know that it deflected her from her work as a rabbi. And when her Jewish husband got his advanced degree, he divorced her, and she found succor in the company of a former boyfriend, a non-Jew and married him. She also left the rabbinate.

She did what was right, according to the rules. However, I believe that Judaism lost a very good rabbi. Making rules are not simple.
    chamim dovid rabinovitch on April 21, 2013 at 2:31 am (Reply)
    so what's your point? that some Jewish guys can be worse than the swine they're forbidden to eat? that's not news.

    nevertheless, your friend's commitment to the rabbinate and to Judaism in general must not have been too sincere if 1) she had a former non-Jewish boyfriend, 2) she returned to that boyfriend after her marriage soured, 3) she then left the rabbinate to marry that boyfriend and 4) she made you party to the whole sordid tale.

    no sect of the Jewish religion ever forces its potential ordinates to undergo testing for their true intent and commitment in studying and preparing for the rabbinate; perhaps, if semicha was handed out a lot less frequently, we might have fewer entrants who view the process solely as a choice of graduate schools.
Ruth Chell on April 21, 2013 at 7:58 am (Reply)
Reform Judaism is a place for the fallen away men of other branches of Judaism to light, after they have found the shiksa Goddess of their dreams. Until recently, men were the main source of money and power in their marriages and demanded that their non-Jewish wives undergo conversion. This was generally enough to please the in-laws, who themselves had little connection to the Jewish community.
Now, wives are also professional and have incomes of their own. These shiksas, no longer financially dependent, are refusing to have even token conversions. In order to continue to attract congregants and dollars, liberal Judaism has had to adapt, to accept these men and their non-Jewish wives as full members and to label their children as Jews.
If Reform Judaism allows its members to be married to non-Jews, then it is only logical that its leaders should, as well. A Rabbi with a non-jewish spouse is a good drawing card for potential members who want the pretense of Judaism without the obligations.
TomSolomon on April 22, 2013 at 7:50 am (Reply)
Very good article on the further supremecy of individual rights over community standards. And if you want to see what the Conservative movement will resemble in 10 years, here it is. Whatever liberalization occurs with the Reform movement hits the Conservative movement in about that time, and at one point in the foreseeable future they will be completely assimilationst and become a footnote in history.
DL Jorgensen on April 23, 2013 at 8:19 pm (Reply)
Rabbi Kaplan has stated in a very understated way. The reality of many of today's Reform congregations is that you don't have to believe anything except be a liberal Democrat. Almost anything in the way of religious belief is at least tolerated, and sometimes the farther away from the Torah the belief is the more it is embraced. I think it would be much healthier for Judaism - and for Jews and Jewish families - if we would refocus on the Torah, The Writings, The Prophets and build on that first. And, yes, I think Reform Jews can do that and I think we will find that it appeals to a great many more people and families than we have today.
Irving Hauptmann on April 29, 2013 at 5:47 pm (Reply)
Add to what was said the fact that today the rabbinate attracts men and women who seek a way to make a good living rather then serve the needs of our people and you know where this leads: a rabbinate that will advocate"inclusion"at any price and the dilution of our religion.

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