Edmund Case

Ordaining intermarried rabbis is not enough

The Reform rabbinical school missed an opportunity to fully welcome interfaith families into the Jewish community
A chuppah at a Jewish wedding. More than 60% of American Jews have married non-Jewish partners in the last decade, according to a study from the Pew Research Center. (Photo: Scott Rocher via Flickr Commons)
A chuppah at a Jewish wedding. More than 60% of American Jews have married non-Jewish partners in the last decade, according to a study from the Pew Research Center. (Photo: Scott Rocher via Flickr Commons)

JTA – I’ve been advocating for 15 years for Hebrew Union College to admit rabbinical students in interfaith relationships. As the founder of organizations that advocate for interfaith families’ Jewish engagement, I heard the voices of interfaith couples who wanted to feel that they could belong in Jewish settings and were discouraged by policies and statements that demeaned their relationships.

I have shared papers with the administrators stating their case and privately lobbied HUC faculty members and administrators to adopt a policy based on the inclusion that liberal Judaism needs to thrive in a future that is already here.

HUC’s long-awaited decision to do so is momentous. HUC’s president, Andrew Rehfeld, should be congratulated for stewarding a policy change he described as “not easy,” met by largely generational opposition.

While a major step forward, the messaging surrounding the decision does not express the fully inclusive attitude towards interfaith marriage that would encourage more interfaith families to engage Jewishly, in turn enabling liberal Judaism to thrive in the future.

HUC’s decision acknowledges arguments that I and other proponents of inclusion have been making for years: that intermarried rabbis would be particularly inspiring role models to the interfaith couples whom they served, and that HUC’s policy discriminated against any group with higher-than-average rates of interfaith marriage (including Jews of color, LGBTQ Jews and children of intermarried parents). What’s more, the policy restricted the pool of eligible students at a time of shrinking enrollment.

In the meantime, other seminaries were changing their polices: The Reconstructionist movement revoked its ban on rabbinic students who are intermarried or in committed relationships in 2015; Hebrew College welcomed students in interfaith relationships in 2023.

Unfortunately, in explaining the policy change, HUC missed a unique opportunity to express a positive and fully inclusive attitude towards interfaith marriage. The now-revoked policy followed a 2001 Central Conference of American Rabbis responsum (rabbinic decision) that says “we do not condone interfaith marriage” and that “the ideal to which we rabbis strive” is in-marriage. This amounts to an official statement by the association of Reform rabbis that interfaith marriage is disapproved and beloved partners from different faith backgrounds are undesirable. Why would interfaith couples want to be part of a community that views their marriage and one of the partners so negatively?

Instead of explicitly countering that viewpoint, HUC’s main stated reason for the change is that “many Jewish individuals with non-Jewish partners maintain a Jewish family and home in which Judaism exclusively is practiced and are deeply engaged with Jewish communal life and peoplehood.” That’s similar to the way the Reconstructionists explained their decision back in 2015, saying that Jews with non-Jewish partners demonstrate commitment to Judaism in their communal, personal and family lives “every day in many Jewish communities.”

But the Reconstructionist explanation is different in two respects. The Reconstructionists went on to affirmatively say that the “issue of Jews intermarrying is no longer something we want to police; we want to welcome Jews and the people who love us to join us in the very difficult project of bringing meaning, justice, and hope into our world.” In contrast, Dr. Rehfeld was quoted by JTA as saying, “We’re not backing down from the statement that Jewish endogamy [in-marriage] is a value.”

More important, instead of being enthusiastic, the explanation takes a crabbed approach, adding language about “exclusively Jewish practice” such that it comes across as, “We’ll take you, but because we’re taking you we are adding requirements that you’ll have an exclusively Jewish home and raise exclusively Jewish children.” As Susan Katz Miller, a longtime advocate for interfaith families, aptly writes, the decision seems “based in fear, control, and frankly, despair. There is no trace of understanding of the benefits – for rabbis, for their families, or for their communities – of the joy of living in an interfaith family.”

The requirement of exclusivity, if it is enforced, will lead to all sorts of definitional problems. It’s not as simple as Rehfeld’s example of a couple going to shul on Saturday morning and celebrating mass on Sunday. As Katz Miller writes, parents can choose one formal religious affiliation for a child, but as “anyone who is part of an interfaith family can attest, you cannot erase the religion and culture of a parent, or extended family, from the child’s experience. They will attend a beloved grandparent’s funeral in another religious tradition, a cousin’s baptism, an aunt’s wedding. These are intimate and formative experiences in the life of an interfaith child.”

Or, as Samira Mehta points out, it is a “poor pastoral practice [to ask] couples to block out one half of their families’ heritage.”

When Hebrew College changed their policy, they didn’t say anything at all about interfaith marriage; they simply promulgated new standards for admission that did not refer to the previous ban. When I expressed disappointment at the silence, one faculty member told me that if they had had to say anything one way or the other about interfaith marriage, the policy change would never have been approved. So it may well be that HUC’s statements about in-marriage as a value, and exclusive Jewish practice, had to be made in order to get the necessary buy-in for the policy change.

But in the near term, when the liberal Jewish community is beset by challenges, and needs more young people who are highly likely to be in interfaith relationships to engage, it’s more important than ever to convey an inclusive attitude.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, is quoted by JTA as saying, “Many of our best rabbis and cantors were raised in homes with only one formally Jewish parent…Many of our temple lay leaders are married to people who are not formally Jewish.” The URJ could do much more to explicitly and affirmatively invite interfaith families to engage. And it’s past time for the CCAR to review and revoke its outdated rulings like the responsum on intermarried rabbis, or its responsum that, despite the fact that the vast majority of Reform rabbis perform interfaith marriages, still officially opposes rabbis officiating at such weddings. A formal process could establish new official opinions; at the least, they could attach language to no-longer-binding opinions explaining that they are out of date and not aligned with the movement’s current policies.

The decisions of HUC and the other liberal seminaries provide hope that in the longer run, with more rabbis who are the children of interfaith parents, or who are in interfaith relationships themselves, liberal Judaism’s message will evolve so that all marriages are equally valued and that interfaith couples are invited to fully engage in Jewish life. Progress is happening, slowly but surely, and we can continue to do more to build that radically inclusive Jewish community.

About the Author
Edmund Case is the retired founder of 18Doors (formerly InterfaithFamily), president of the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism, and author of Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future, and of A New Theory of Interfaith Marriage.