NEW YORK – Should the Reform movement ordain intermarried rabbis? Hebrew Union College, which is the seminary of America’s largest Jewish denomination, is considering altering its current policy, which does not allow admission to its rabbinical, cantorial or education schools of applicants who are married to or partnered with non-Jews.
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A growing chorus of voices — including newly-ordained and long-time Reform rabbis — says that changing it is the only way to be a truly inclusive movement. Other rabbis, including the HUC’s president, say that doing so would undermine their graduates’ ability to model ideals of Jewish commitment, a key part of a rabbi’s role.
While the issue has been percolating for some time, it came to a head when two rabbinical students — one on HUC’s Cincinnati campus and one in New York — in the same week last October in their student sermons called on the college to change its policy. And the administration took notice. Rabbi Michael Marmur, HUC’s vice president for academic affairs, immediately began writing what he describes as “a position paper” on the longstanding policy and soon shared it with the college’s top administrators. After discussing it with “the cabinet” of advisors to HUC president Rabbi David Ellenson, Marmur decided to initiate a faculty-wide discussion across HUC’s campuses in New York, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Jerusalem.
The issue “was on my mind and I thought was worthy of being addressed with seriousness,” said Marmur in an interview with Haaretz. In the discussions, he said, “this highly contentious and volatile topic” is “evoking a strong response.”
Opinions on both sides of the issue — but especially by those who favor changing the current policy, which states that “applicants who are married to or in committed relationships with non-Jews will not be considered for acceptance to this program” — have recently been published in articles in "Reform Judaism" magazine, in The Forward and on blogs.
Even for a movement that permits its rabbis to officiate at interfaith weddings, and which upended Jewish tradition when in 1983 it adopted patrilineal descent as a criterion for defining someone as Jewish, this issue is proving challenging. HUC’s president, Rabbi David Ellenson, sounds almost rueful in an article in the current issue of Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas, writing, “I confess I favor the continuation of our current policy and regard endogamy as the Jewish ideal.”
In an interview with Haaretz he said, more forcefully, “I think it is the correct policy. I believe that someone who elects to become a rabbi or cantor has made a statement that Judaism is absolutely the central commitment of their life, and I would think that a rabbi or cantor would or should ought to have have a Jewish spouse.”
Any possible alteration of the current policy would likely not happen on his watch, as Ellenson is retiring next year and the faculty-wide discussion is, by design, taking place slowly. Ellenson acknowledged that, “certainly within the Reform movement there are significant voices who think there should be a change.”
One such voice is that of newly-ordained Rabbi Jordan Helfman, who is beginning a job as assistant rabbi at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple, which has more than 7,000 members and is more traditional than many Reform synagogues, requiring its rabbis to sign a pledge not to handle money on Shabbat, among other commitments. In his senior sermon at HUC Cincinnati last October, Helfman called the present admissions policy “racial discrimination.”
He said in that sermon, “If you were to date someone, and it just happened that their mother’s mother was Jewish, even though they knew absolutely nothing about Judaism, you could be accepted into rabbinical school as a candidate for ordination. However, if you were to date a deeply religious individual, willing to raise Jewish children to the best of their ability, but unwilling to convert to Judaism out of respect for their parents, you could not be admitted to HUC to study for ordination at this or any other campus. It is this difference – the issue of the accident of birth rather than personal belief, which makes this policy racial discrimination.”
Daniel Kirzane, who has one more year of rabbinical school to complete at the New York HUC campus, in his own student sermon last October also said that the policy should be changed. In a column in the Spring 2013 issue of Reform Judaism magazine, he wrote, “Outreach is no longer about ‘turning the tide of intermarriage,’ as it was 35 years ago. Today it is about embracing both Jewish and non-Jewish members of Jewish families, affirming their positive contributions.”
Kirzane grew up with a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, who converted to Judaism when the rabbinical student was 20. The present policy “indicates an approach to Jewishness that perceives marriage to a non-Jewish spouse as a sign of a lack of commitment to a Jewish home. I don’t believe that in today’s society,” Kirzane said in an interview.
Challenging the policy is a logical outcome to high intermarriage rates and the Reform movement’s emphasis on welcoming interfaith families, some say. A watershed moment in the denomination’s approach was its 1983 adoption of the patrilineal descent resolution, defining as Jewish anyone with a Jewish mother or a Jewish father, as long as they are educated and raised as Jews.
“It may very well be that our policies and approaches have brought this subject home to roost,” said Marmur, who works from HUC’s Jerusalem campus. “But it would be hard to suggest that we have simply brought this upon ourselves and if we would just hang tough and pretend intermarriage isn’t happening then we wouldn’t face this issue.”
The Reform movement has, in general, moved away from discouraging intermarriage, say experts. “In the Reform movement today the notion that you have to marry someone who is Jewish has been replaced by the idea that you should bring up your children as Jewish,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University, in an interview. “Since the Reform movement has made a big deal about honoring those who raise their children as Jews, it’s easy to make that claim for consistency across the movement.”
It is clear that there is an enormous difference in cultural attitudes toward dating and marrying non-Jews even between the Reform and Conservative movements. Like HUC, the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary bars rabbinical and cantorial students who are married to non-Jews. What’s more, since 2004 the denomination’s United Synagogue Youth organization has had in its handbook a guideline not permitting anyone who chairs or participates in leading a synagogue youth group to be married to or dating a non-Jew. That is in strong contrast to the Reform movement, where, according to Helfman, “dating only Jews is an option most people don’t support.”
“Many of us have friends and have parents in interfaith relationships that end up producing wonderful Jewish young kids who don’t feel lessened by their parents’ relationship. They feel they are not any less Jewish than anyone else, so then the question is ‘why would I be against this?’” said Helfman. “Condemning this would be condemning my own parents or my friends’ parents, and saying they are less Jewish than I am.”
Rabbi Ellen Lippmann, who was ordained as a Reform rabbi in 1991 and leads an independent congregation in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood, called Kolot Chayeinu, published an open letter to HUC’s board of governors in The Forward calling for the policy to be changed. Lippmann is married to a woman who describes herself as a “permanently lapsed Irish Catholic.”
“We are like the thousands of Jews across America who commit to strongly Jewish lives with their non-Jewish spouses. Interfaith families tell me that having a rabbi who mirrors their relationships makes an enormous difference to being able to commit to Jewish life,” Lippmann wrote in the letter. “Intermarriage is a fact of American Jewish life. We can do a better job of connecting intermarried Jews to synagogues, rabbis and Jewish life. One way is to knowingly ordain intermarried rabbis.”
Rabbi Andy Bachman leads a large Reform temple, Congregation Beth Elohim, just down the street. Changing the policy would be “just completely wrong,” he said in an interview. “It’s one thing for a synagogue and for rabbis to be as open as possible to people in interfaith relationships, to be welcoming to people who are not born Jewish and to encourage them to become Jews. But that doesn’t mean that rabbis ought not be setting a different example for what living a Jewish life is. That’s the nature of the business. Why shy away from that? If you don’t want to do it, then choose a different line of work.”
Other seminaries, from JTS to the non-denominational Hebrew College and the Academy for Jewish Religion, do not admit intermarried rabbinical students. But there are a growing number of distance learning courses ordaining rabbis, which do not bar them.
Rabbi Edie Mueller, who is married to a man raised Catholic, applied to HUC in 2005 with the support of the rabbi at the Boston Reform synagogue where she had been an active member. Her HUC admissions interview went great, she said, until at the end she mentioned that her husband is not Jewish. “Call us when you fix that problem,” she recalls her HUC interviewer saying. A growing number of people were asking her to officiate at weddings and funerals, and Mueller enrolled at the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute, a “universalist” distance learning rabbinical and cantorial school that ordained her in 2012. “I know that its not the education of a five year school, but at this point of my life I’m very comfortable with my knowledge of Judaism and ability to bring it to people who know less,” said Mueller in an interview.
“My daughter and all of her friends are all intermarried and probably none of them are bringing their kids up Jewish. It’s a very big issue. What’s really sad is that there’s nobody to have this conversation with,” she said. “I feel really sad that this is my religion. I love Reform Judaism but it lost its humanity. It looks at all the social justice you have to do. But what about the social justice in your own back yard?”
Some say that the growing number of alternative training options for Jewish clergy reflects the current ethos in general. “We have not only entered a post-denominational era, we may entered a post-institutional era,” said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, a Reform rabbi and the executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which he founded in an effort to change Jewish institutional attitudes toward interfaith families. “HUC will find it hard to continue to defend its position since it has not identified any other issues (other than academics and the like) on which to accept or deny admission. This us the challenge of a liberal institution when religious issues are left to the individual.”
Marmur said that the work of debating the issue among HUC faculty members is going well, and next year he will involve the other arms of the movement in the discussion. “A policy such as this has implications beyond the confines of the college institute,” he said.
“In modernity everything is fluid and up for grabs. In the case of Reform Judaism we’ve not only grudgingly come to terms with that, we’ve embraced that reality,” Marmur said. “Choice is not a dirty word in our movement. But just because we’ve embraced it, it doesn’t make all this stuff easy.”