What’s more important, being Jewish or doing Jewish?
Rabbi Arthur Green, who founded and recently retired as rector of the Hebrew College Rabbinical School, is now criticizing its recent decision to admit and ordain rabbinic students who are in interfaith relationships as “giving in to assimilation.”
A towering figure in contemporary Jewish life, Rabbi Green also founded the havurah that spearheaded the havurah movement, served as head of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and has written numerous scholarly and award-winning books. To explain what it means to be “religious” in my own book, I quoted one of his many articles.
Rabbi Green sees the decision as contributing to erosion in Jewish identity among the non-Orthodox and asks how that erosion can be reversed. But his rejection of the idea of intermarried rabbis is based on assumptions that should be surfaced and examined. With due and great respect, those underlying assumptions are outmoded.
Rabbi Green makes three points. He argues that fewer people will convert “if the rabbi’s spouse didn’t.” Rabbi Green doesn’t clearly define what he means by assimilation, but not maintaining Jewish identity appears to be his measure. The underlying assumption is that Jewish identity – being Jewish – is what is important – that we need more people who are Jews, in order to forestall assimilation.
But there is a contrary view – that doing Jewish is what is important, especially in the context of widespread interfaith marriage, where more than 72% of newly-formed non-Orthodox households are interfaith. Under this view, assimilation means fewer people doing Jewish.
Conversion is a wonderful, personal, existential choice, not likely influenced by an intermarried rabbi’s spouse not converting. Moreover, while encouraging conversion can result in more people being Jewish, the message that conversion is preferred discourages interfaith couples and partners from different faith backgrounds from engaging in Jewish life in the first place. The net result of prioritizing conversion is fewer people doing Jewish.
Rabbi Green argues that a rabbi should live in a richly and fully Jewish home and be rooted deeply in Jewish tradition. The underlying assumption is that being in an interfaith relationship renders those conditions impossible. Certainly that is the traditional view, where what is important is not only being Jewish, but also having a Jewish partner.
But the idea that a partner’s religious identity determines one’s Jewish engagement is deeply flawed. As Rabbi Deborah Waxman, head of the Reconstructionist movement, said in explaining the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s 2015 decision to revoke their policy excluding intermarried students: “Jews with non-Jewish partners demonstrat[e] these commitments [to Judaism in their communal, personal and family lives] every day in many Jewish communities.”
I’ve argued elsewhere that the only rationale for policies not to admit or ordain rabbinic students in interfaith relationships is the view that interfaith marriage is wrong, that inmarriage is the Jewish ideal. With widespread interfaith marriage, sending the message to interfaith couples that their marriage choices are not ideal, second rate, regrettable in the eyes of the Jewish community, will only serve to discourage them from engaging Jewishly. The result: fewer people doing Jewish.
Finally, Rabbi Green argues that the lives of intermarried rabbis fill less of an inspirational role, which will contribute to the weakening of synagogue communities. Again, with widespread interfaith marriage, what possibly could be more inspiring to interfaith couples – more encouraging of their Jewish engagement – than having intermarried rabbis as role models?
Rabbi Green characterizes the policy change as giving in to students’ assertions of freedom and rights over obligations and commitments, and unwillingness to make demands on them. I can’t imagine someone studying to be a rabbi who is not deeply committed to Jewish life and Jewish communities, whatever their partner’s religious commitments may be.
It is understandable how the idea of an intermarried rabbi is foreign, even emotionally distasteful, to those who continue to prioritize Jewish identity and in-marriage. But the Hebrew College decision, and the RRC decision before it, surely reflect that those priorities are changing.
In a just-published interview, Rabbi Elan Babchuck of Clal described a third era of Jewish life (after the Biblical and the rabbinic) that calls for “reimagining Jewish life, thought, and practice in the face of shifting Jewish consciousness and a need for greater dialogue across internal borders…. We are just as much in [a] tectonic shift in the landscape of American Judaism. This is a similar moment of unease, discomfort and anxiety, but just as much a moment of opportunity.”
One of those opportunities is how we see interfaith marriage. As Rabbi Babchuck says, “We are the first generation in which large numbers of non-Jewish people are falling in love with Jewish partners and … saying ‘Yeah, I’m going to throw in my hat with the Jews.’ That’s an incredible gift, if we can bring ourselves to experience it that way.”
The Hebrew College decision is forward looking and embraces change positively. Its underlying rationale prioritizes doing Jewish over being Jewish and does not prioritize in-marriage over interfaith marriage; its practical consequence is to potentially ordain intermarried rabbis. Both result in encouraging more interfaith couples and partners from different faith backgrounds to live Jewishly – the exact opposite of assimilation.