Intermarried rabbis? Please!

Stop working to make the tent bigger and focus on filling it with the richness of Judaism

Quite the tempest in the teapot has been brewing as of late at The Times of Israel. It all began with Rabbi Mark Miller’s quite sensible criticism of Daniel Kirzane’s demand that Reform rabbinical students be empowered to intermarry. Kirzane, a student at Hebrew Union College, seized the moment to reiterate his demand, advancing the notion that allowing for intermarried rabbis will actually “advance the mission of the people of Israel” and citing no less than the prophet Isaiah for backup.

Meanwhile, “the Jew in the street” chimed in, with Aliza Worthington describing her own marriage to a Catholic and citing Jewish inflexibility, not Jewish intermarriage, as the real threat to Jewish continuity – echoed by high school student Adin Feder citing his own pro-intermarriage survey results at his school as proof that the Jewish “peanut gallery” is causing grave insult when it presumes to oppose intermarriage (and in his case, citing the prophet Ezekiel for backup).

For all of the heat in these exchanges, as is so often the case when the emotionally charged subject of intermarriage comes up, there is precious little light. And in the end, all the flying sparks are still a tempest in a teapot – it’s fair to say that, even if Kirzane’s proposal were adopted, intermarried rabbis would be no more than a statistical blip on the screen.

So why bother adding my voice to this already crowded, noisy and strident field? Because when Jews make the choice to become Jewish leaders, their actions leave the realm of private decisions rendered for their personal benefit and become public decisions that carry deep symbolic and practical significance for us all. When Kirzane demands “marriage freedom” for Reform rabbis, he is saying that, as an aspiring public Jewish leader and role model, his private actions don’t really matter. Above all, he should be able to do whatever he pleases. If the future Rabbi Kirzane were to marry a fundamentalist Muslim calling for Israel’s destruction, or an evangelical Christian seeking to convert Jewish souls, or just an everyday person who follows a faith that is not Judaism, he’s saying that it should not matter and it’s nobody business.

To then cherry pick a verse from Isaiah originally referring to something completely different, wrench it out of context, and then (whether deliberately or out of ignorance, I’m not sure) use it to say that our tradition actually supports the idea that rabbis be married to people who do not share the same faith is…well – let’s just say that over the years, I’ve seen many justifications for all kinds of things in the name of Judaism – but this is up there with the best of them.

Some readers, no doubt, are at this point thinking: there goes another one of those intolerant, close-minded, Neanderthal, most likely Orthodox Jews who can’t stomach views that don’t conform to his own.

As to the Orthodox Jew part – guilty as charged. As to the rest, as one journalist put it, I have enough “skin in the game” on this subject to offer more than a mere diatribe.

As some readers know, I was intermarried for the first sixteen years of my marriage. My wife and I were married by a Justice of the Peace, with the participation of her minister. I grew up in the Reform movement and was a proud member for a good part of my adult life. At a certain point, we took a different turn, as I abandoned what had been a largely secular Jewish lifestyle and my wife chose to become an observant Jew. We have stood on both sides of the intermarriage divide and can say with confidence, and from personal experience, that the view from here is not the same as the view from there.

Certain experiences led us away from the Reform movement and into Orthodoxy. Still…

I am ever mindful that it was the very liberal Reform rabbi of my childhood, a survivor of Buchenwald, who taught me by example what it means to have faith in God in the face of adversity. It was a Reform rabbi who first introduced me to the concept of Shabbat, and inspired me to take my first tentative steps toward observing it. Although I may have chosen a different path, I am not ungrateful to the Reform rabbis who started me on my way.

And I’m pretty sure that neither they, nor the prophet Isaiah, would be able to stomach what Daniel Kirzane is demanding.

If you want to live a deep Jewish life – and I’m going to assume that someone in rabbinical school does – then when it comes to the person you’re going to spend the rest of your life with, the one with whom you will share your innermost thoughts and feelings, the one with whom you will create a family – wouldn’t you want that person to be someone for whom Judaism is just as important as it is for you?

Yes, I can hear the commenters now: I know an intermarried couple who is very Jewishly involved. I know a woman who is active in her church yet takes the kids to Hebrew school. I know a Jewish couple who is completely unaffiliated while the intermarried family down the street belongs to a synagogue.

Yes, all of those people exist. But there remains a profound difference between agreeing to raise your children with some amount of Judaism, or being willing to participate in certain Jewish rituals – admirable though that may be – and being Jewish and committing solely and exclusively to Judaism. Why someone in rabbinical school would aspire to anything less is simply beyond me.

Nor on a purely practical level does Kirzane’s proposal make any sense. The statistical evidence could not be more clear when it comes both to the success rate of interfaith marriages and the religious grounding of the children of those marriages. This is a general principle, true not just of Jewish intermarriage, but of any kind of intermarriage – statistically, the more disparate the faiths of husband and wife, the less likely the marriage is to succeed.

Yes, there are plenty of anecdotal success stories to the contrary, but despite all the shouting that takes place around this issue, the success stories remain a small part of the big picture.

So in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, why push this model as “a tremendous opportunity to advance the mission of the people of Israel?”

Lest I be misunderstood, I am not advocating turning our backs on the intermarried, shunning the intermarried, or in any way closing our doors to the intermarried. Quite the opposite.

When we were intermarried, there were many who met us where we were, and drew us in. I passionately believe we should be finding ways to make Jewish life so attractive that intermarried families cannot help but want to be part of it.

The question is how. Daniel Kirzane and many others answer that question by continuing to focus on how wide we can open the doors of the tent. But if we manage to open the doors wide enough, the tent will collapse for lack of support. If instead, we focus unrelentingly on the Jewish substance inside the tent, then people will ultimately beat the doors down to get in.

This can be done with sensitivity and a sense of welcoming, but without compromising the fundamental integrity of Judaism. When I was intermarried, I felt no need to justify my life choices to anyone. But on the other hand, never would it have occurred to me to demand that the Jewish community affirmatively validate my personal life choices. And so I humbly suggest that Daniel Kirzane focus less on the possibility of rabbinical students intermarrying and more on the potential of building a deeply meaningful Jewish life.


About the Author
Harold Berman is the co-author of "Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope," the first true life account of "an intermarriage gone Jewish." Harold was the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts and has held senior positions throughout the Jewish communal world. His musings on Jewish life and spirituality have appeared in numerous print and online publications.