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Marriage freedom for Reform rabbis

HUC should fully embrace the prophetic vision of inclusiveness and admit rabbinical students with non-Jewish spouses
(illustrative image via Shutterstock)
(illustrative image via Shutterstock)

What does it mean for a modern liberal seminary to restrict the marriage rights of its students? Nothing good.

Consider Miriam Block. Miriam grew up in a Reform Jewish community. She loved her temple’s religious school, and she taught there after she graduated college. By the time her second child enrolled in this school, Miriam realized her true calling was Reform Jewish education. However, even though she was raising two Jewish children and already working as a Reform Jewish educator, she was denied the right to apply to Reform movement’s seminary because her husband isn’t Jewish. She received her master’s degree elsewhere and continues to work in a Reform community – and if she applied again today, she’d once again be turned away.

The policy of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) not to admit, graduate, or ordain students with non-Jewish partners has kept many potential students like Miriam from receiving the movement’s high quality education that can prepare them for top-notch Jewish leadership. This policy is only doing harm to our community and the Jewish people.

 There are some who are skeptical of my position, including Rabbi Mark S. Miller, who appeals to “the demands of Jewish survival” in justifying HUC-JIR’s restrictive policies. However, “Jewish survival” depends not on assessing individuals’ Jewish status but rather on establishing a socially relevant and spiritually meaningful community. I believe that HUC-JIR has a tremendous opportunity to advance the mission of the People of Israel in opening its doors to potential applicants with non-Jewish partners.

Rabbis, cantors, and Jewish educators are “symbolic exemplars” of Jewish life. Thus, when we state requirements of entry into these roles, we state what’s most important to us. Sadly, we currently make this statement negatively. You cannot be a rabbi if you have a non-Jewish partner. Instead, let us declare our values positively by stating explicitly which qualities the Reform movement’s preeminent educational institution deems essential to professional Jewish leadership. Perhaps we should require our students to demonstrate (1) a mindful Shabbat practice, (2) an ethical dietary practice, and (3) a sustained commitment to social justice. Perhaps we should look for a broadly-defined “Jewish home and Jewish life.” Our values should be primary. Reform Judaism has long stood for ethical monotheism, an ongoing relationship with dynamic Jewish mitzvot (obligations), and a community-focused understanding of identity, as described by Eric Yoffie in Hyman and Meryl’s “Who is a Jew?” Conversations, not Conclusions. These principles can be front and center in an HUC-JIR admissions policy rather than the current exclusionary disqualifier.

As well, we have the opportunity to further affirm the Reform emphasis on informed choice. It is good that Jews disagree, and model Jews disagree respectfully with one another all the time; this is makhloket l’shem shamayim, “dispute for the sake of heaven” (Pirkei Avot 5:17). This pluralistic approach allows Reform rabbis to decide for themselves on issues of ritual practice, such as whether or not to officiate at weddings of Jews and non-Jews. It also allows individuals and communities to accept Jewish obligations that are both meaningful and relevant to them.

Yet HUC-JIR’s current policy denies this autonomy and denies the right of Reform Jewish leaders to make choices about their lives, even when they are rooted in Jewish thought and tradition. Reform communities should be able to decide for themselves whether they want to hire a rabbi with a non-Jewish partner. But HUC-JIR makes this choice for them. Additionally, nearly half of all Reform rabbis do not primarily work in the pulpit. Universities, hospitals, and non-profit organizations all have the right to hire a rabbi with a non-Jewish spouse. HUC-JIR should afford them that opportunity. And in fact, none of the Reform movement’s professional organizations – the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the American Conference of Cantors, and the National Association of Temple Educators – deny membership to rabbis, cantors, or educators with non-Jewish partners

Finally, we can and we should crown the Reform movement’s embrace of the ancient value of outreach. In Isaiah 56, the prophet addresses the “foreigner” and the “eunuch,” affirming that both can be part of God’s covenant. This ethic is highly relevant today. In our day, we may understand the “foreigner” as the non-Jew who lives in our communities, often identified as a contemporary ger toshav (resident alien). We may also understand the “eunuch” as someone who does not or cannot have Jewish children. Isaiah’s address to these individuals explicitly affirms that a person’s commitment to the Jewish people is not about Jewish children: each of us makes our own decisions about the religious community we wish to join. Thus, our prophetic texts teach us that it is our sacred duty to include in our communities people who live in the margins.

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) has fully embraced Isaiah’s vision. The URJ’s pamphlet for intermarried families opens with “Intermarried? Reform Judaism welcomes you,” and it continues:

The prophet Isaiah said: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7) We know from the Torah that from the very earliest days, there have been individuals who lived with the Jewish community but who were not themselves Jewish. … You are welcome.

However, HUC-JIR falls short of this ideal of inclusion. While Jews with non-Jewish partners can be leaders of synagogues and other Jewish institutions, they cannot study at our seminary to become rabbis, cantors, or Jewish educators. This double-standard counters the message of the congregational arm of our movement and, as I have noted elsewhere, is antithetical to our movement’s essential focus on welcoming.

There is much to say on each of these three points and many more; therefore, I welcome and encourage a makhloket l’shem shamayim – a debate in a genuine search for truth  – in our community on this issue. After reasoned consideration, I hope that HUC-JIR will change its policy to allow students with non-Jewish partners to apply to become rabbis, cantors, and Jewish educators. If these applicants demonstrate the high standards we hold for our professional leaders, they should be offered admission just like any other candidate. Our values, our institutions, and the members of our communities will, I believe, all be better served with this more open approach.

About the Author
Daniel Kirzane is a Wexner Graduate Fellow and rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in New York City, where he also earned a master’s degree in Jewish education; Last October he delivered a sermon at HUC-JIR entitled, “Open the Door: Our Reform Duty to Open HUC-JIR to Applicants and Students with Non-Jewish Partners” His continued dialogue on this issue has appeared in Reform Judaism Magazine and is forthcoming in Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas.