Jewish Leadership as Role Models

By Sherwin Pomerantz

 I am sitting here reading the text of an open letter to the Board of Governors of Hebrew Union College from Rabbi Ellen Lippmann and I can feel my blood pressure rising.

Rabbi Lippmann urges the College to reconsider its requirement that all prospective rabbinical students sign an agreement that “any student engaged, married, or partnered/committed to a person who is not Jewish by birth or conversion will not be admitted or ordained.”  And her logic, of course, is the need for the Reform movement to be inclusive in all of its activities.

But she and others like her who have posited similar arguments over the last few months miss the point.  An individual Jew can and often does choose to live his/her life in the manner which has the most meaning to him or her.  Others may criticize the choices that are so made, but at the end of the day these are, indeed, individual choices and, like them or not, they need to be respected.

On the other hand, when it comes to people who elect to place themselves in a position of leadership within the Jewish community, their values need to reflect the highest principles of Jewish tradition concomitant with the principles of the organizations they lead.  American Jewry has been moving down this slippery slope for some time and the natural, I would say almost expected, result is that now there are those who even want to condone intermarriage by rabbis.  Can such people be so blind as not to be able to see the contradiction in terms when pursuing that goal?

For example, 40 years ago I was critical of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America  when they elected someone to head the Board of Overseers who was married to a non-Jew.  Sadly the powers that be at the time did not see any connection between personal life and community leadership.

When I still lived in Chicago I was once standing in a movie queue well after the end of the Sabbath when I saw three Conservative Rabbis and their wives leave the theater from the earlier show, which, of course, began before Shabbat ended.  When I raised this with the then president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the umbrella organization of Conservative Rabbis in America, I was told “Sherwin, you worry about the wrong things.”

The American Jewish community, even at that time, was already moving to a point where no demands on observance were made of people who chose to place themselves in the position of Jewish community leaders.  I recall once when I spoke at a south side Conservative congregation in Chicago and was introduced as the Regional President of the United Synagogue of America to which the MC added, “and he is also shomer Shabbat.”  Really?  Shouldn’t that have been an expectation of any lay leader in a movement that valued the observance of Shabbat?  But clearly it was not.

And now we come to the absurd position in American Jewish life where Reform Rabbis (for the moment as who knows which other movements will be pressured next on this topic) argue for giving the title of Rabbi even to someone who is married to a non-Jew. 

Rabbi Lippmann, of course, knows whereof she speaks.  She herself, the Rabbi of Congregation Kolot Chayeinu in Brooklyn is married to a non-Jewish woman who calls herself a “permanently lapsed Irish-Catholic.”  And here is the kicker, when Rabbi Lippmann writes:  “A rabbi is a role model, and there are many kinds of role models.  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.”

So there you have it.  Social acceptability of domestic situations now dictates religious law.  I guess the next step is that if 10% of a congregation is made up of convicted felons then we should also ordain convicted felons as Rabbis so that such people will feel “included.”  The ultimate end of this convoluted reasoning is, of course, the demise of Judaism as a value-based torah-influenced faith. But for the Reform movement in America, the genie may already be out of the bottle with the cork nowhere to be found.