From the beginnings of our Jewish story, we have focused on making thoughtful decisions about our future. In this week’s Torah portion, Abraham makes a clear choice: he does not want his son Isaac to marry a Canaanite, a native of the land to which he sojourned. He makes his servant swear to find Isaac a wife within the tribe.
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I was ordained as Rabbi in 2000. Calligraphed in beautiful Hebrew, four words stand taller than any others in my ordination certificate: Yoreh Yoreh, Yadin Yadin, “This one shall teach, this one shall issue judgments.” If in the earlier stages of my career I focused more on my rabbinic role as teacher of Torah, I have come to learn through the years that perhaps the most important role a Rabbi plays revolves around the field of judgment.
I am a Reform Rabbi, and a proud one at that. I know that when I issue legal judgments, such as arguing the Jewish reasons for not keeping kosher, I make no binding decisions for anyone save myself. Reform Judaism is based on the dignity of human autonomy: Reform rabbis have at best advisory capacity when it comes to matter of spiritual practice, traditional definitions, and personal politics. Yet there are certain judgments rabbis make that have wider impact than a younger version of myself might have imagined.
Of what kind of judgments do I speak? I made the decision that a member of my congregation who had committed a crime was committed enough to t’shuvah [repentance] that I testified on his behalf. I sent my own children to Eisner Camp, and encouraged my congregation to commit to the meaningful, extended experience only mission-based Jewish camping can bring. I believe it is beneficial—not an unfortunate reality and hardly a concession—to celebrate with couples who want a Jewish wedding, even if one of the partners was neither born nor identifies as Jewish. These judgments affect the lives of individuals, and sometimes entire communities. The words of my ordination entitle me to make these decisions.
But how did my seminary know I would make these judgments? What gave my faculty faith I would make thoughtful and constructive decisions about matters personal and communal? I imagine two tracks worked in parallel: First, I made it through the vigorous examinations of acceptance; second, I proved over five years of seminary I was worthy of the title, “Rabbi in Israel.” My teachers not only passed on important information about text and tradition, they mentored me. Some challenged me to open my horizons more widely; a few chastised my behavior when it fell short of the standards of the title “rabbi.” My school did its job in making sure—as much as is humanly possible—that the rabbis it sent forth in the world were ready to assume the mantle of teaching Torah and making important judgments.
Today, I fear that the institutions that placed such trust in me are being swayed by unfortunate winds of public opinion to reposit less faith in the students who will become the rabbis of the future.
When in rabbinical school, we debated the subject of what too many dismiss as “intermarriage.” We were taught it was a serious topic, and were given opportunities to explore the issue: individual classes, sustained assignments, a weekend seminar. Most importantly, we knew we would have to arrive at our own judgments on this issue once we became rabbis. It was a decision each of us would need to make on our own; we were trained, certainly, but also trusted to do so.
I was trusted to decide what counts as a “Jewish family.” That is why I find it so painful today that we even debate whether rabbis who are empowered to make these decisions for others could potentially barred from making the same judgments for themselves. Here I speak of those who gain admission to seminary, who thrive through years of study, and choose to define their own Jewish family as do so many others: as a person born and identifying as Jewish partnered with a human being neither raised nor identified as Jewish, who commit together to creating a Jewish home. It pains me to think that while all my colleagues are free to officiate at such wedding ceremonies, some might be denied entry to the rabbinate because they stood under such a huppah themselves.
This week in which we turn to Genesis’ story of finding sacred partners, my Reform movement will gather in Orlando to learn, in part, how we can bring the audacious hospitality of Abraham to our wider world. I would hope that during these discussions we can learn that celebrating our diversity and affirming our radical autonomy should hold true not just for the choices our congregants make, but for the thoughtful judgments made by rabbis as well.
From the time of our stories of Genesis, we Jews have been concerned about whom our children marry. We should not forget that two tribal eponyms, Ephraim and Manasseh, were born to a non-Jewish mother, the daughter of an Egyptian Priest to On, no less. Let us keep our minds open about the origins and families of the great leaders of our people. Let us empower our rabbis to build their own Jewish families in keeping with their deep, thoughtful, and personal judgment.
Rabbi Seth Limmer is Senior Rabbi at Chicago Sinai Congregation and is Chair of the Justice, Peace and Civil Liberties committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and as Vice-Chair of the Commission on Social Action of the Union for Reform Judaism.