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Opening Hillel to save it

History shows that the campus organization's attempt to block free discourse will backfire big time

Two weeks ago, Open Hillel announced plans for its first national conference, to be held this October at Harvard. Since it hit the news last year, the campaign to abolish Hillel International’s restrictive speech codes has inspired endless commentary. So far, however, the pundits have missed an important historical parallel: the fight over intermarriage in the 1980s. As the debate on debate rages, that kerfuffle teaches us a valuable lesson: Those who build fences are liable to see them collapse.

Early on, the Conservative and Reform movements articulated similar positions on the matter of intermarriage. In 1970, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly enjoined its members from officiating at interfaith weddings, and two years later, further instructed its affiliates not to attend ceremonies or receptions for mixed couples. In 1971, the head of Reform’s Central Conference of American Rabbis called for a ban on intermarriages. While no such resolution was adopted, the CCAR frowned on these unions.

With American Jewry’s exogamous tendencies intensifying, the movements began to offer different answers to the intermarriage question. In 1983, the CCAR broke with millennia of precedent to accept patrilineal descent as a standard for Jewishness. Though Reform rabbis’ officiation at interfaith weddings remains controversial, the CCAR continues to allow its members to do as they choose. The RA held fast to its prohibitions, and in regulations developed by its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, expressed a faith in the power of social control: Rules on the participation of non-Jewish spouses at synagogues would result in conversion, maintain group purity, and deter more exogamous unions. Lest they blur the line between Jew and Gentile, non-Jewish spouses were not to hold synagogue memberships, nor were they –males, in this case – to wear tallitot at prayer. In the case of non-Jewish parents, modifications to the roles of fathers and mothers in brit, b’nai mitzvot, and wedding ceremonies were detailed. The children of intermarriages, if born to non-Jewish mothers, were to be encouraged to convert at various points of contact with institutional Judaism.

In their logic, Hillel International’s Israel guidelines bear striking resemblance to the Conservative movement’s intermarriage directives. The reprobate Jew and his associates are to be shamed into compliance with hierarchically-imposed group norms, and if that fails, subjected to a mild ostracism. Even the words sound the same. In a December 2013 statement, Hillel International President Eric Fingerhut wrote:

[Some students] mistake their deeply held disagreements with the policies of the Israeli government as anti-Zionism, while others are swept up in the anti-Zionism of friends or faculty, or simply in the passion of being young and on campus… We will still welcome them as students for Shabbat dinner and other events, but we cannot and will not let them guide our programming.

In one teshuvah (religious responsum) on intermarriage, the CJLS determined:

A Jew who has intermarried is a transgressor of a Torahitic prohibition, but has not read himself out of the Jewish community… the intermarried Jew, while admitted to membership in the congregation, will not be entitled to hold any office or to serve as chairman of any committee, nor shall he be singled out for any special honors.

Norm enforcement meant to shift lax attitudes among Conservative Jews has only succeeded in emptying Conservative synagogues. Once the largest denomination in American Judaism, the Conservative movement has lost that distinction – along with 30 percent of its adherents – to Reform. If Hillel International blocks free discourse inside campus Hillels, it will find itself in an equally distressing situation. Three decades ago, the Conservative movement thought that its followers would make personal decisions with the preservation of religious institutions in mind. Today, Hillel International believes that its students will censor themselves to remain within the communal framework. Both assumptions ignore the two most distinctive aspects of Jewish life in America: voluntarism and pluralism.

In the past, Hillel International and the Conservative movement have been more perceptive. Until 2010, when the current guidelines were adopted, Hillel International allowed campus chapters to develop, within broad parameters, their own policies on Israel discourse. Under the banner of “Tradition and Change,” the Conservative movement has permitted driving to synagogue on the Sabbath, counted women in minyanim, and, most recently, blessed same-sex marriages. As the CJLS held in its responsum on Sabbath observance, “The power of a community to enact ordinances in the field of its religious life are virtually unlimited, provided its ordinances are made with the consent of its resident scholars and provided further that they be inspired by the purpose of ‘strengthening the faith,’ and intended only for their own time and place.”

At a conference last December, the RA heard a series of proposals, which, among other things, would lift the ban on rabbinical attendance at interfaith weddings and extend synagogue memberships to non-Jewish spouses. At the beginning of the month, Hillel International formed a committee to examine and reconsider the present Israel guidelines. If the Conservative movement can review traditions that date to the time of Ezra, we can question the much-newer conflation of Zionism with Jewish identity. We must not wait years for an inclusive dialogue on the conflict in the Middle East. Open Hillel asks us all: “If not now, when?”

About the Author
Originally from Queens, New York, Daniel Solomon is a junior at Harvard College, where he studies Jewish intellectual and political currents.
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