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Rigidity is the real threat to Jewish continuity

Her Jewish commitment was deepened by the warm welcome she and her Catholic husband got at a Reform congregation

Dear Rabbi Miller,

I really, really understand. I understand that people whose religion is central to who they are would be dismayed by assimilation, flexibility of practice, and whittling away at their faith’s traditions and rules. In my mind, no other religion is as justified in its reflexively defensive reaction to these things than Judaism. I would, though, like to call your attention to attitudes and statements of yours that might be counterproductive.

“There is no greater threat to Jewish continuity than intermarriage.” I beg to differ. Intermarriage may be a threat to Jewish neuroses, but not to Jewish continuity. I was raised a Reform Jew (not very observant) and was taught all through childhood that religion should be an invitation, not a barrier to love. A line in the sand, rather than a fence set in concrete. And above all, I was taught that the most important thing to consider in choosing a life partner – above all else – was mutual love and respect. Consider me one of those anecdotal success stories to which you refer with derision and quotation marks.

I married a Catholic. The ceremony was officiated by my grand-uncle, who was a much-respected appellate judge in New York State. As much as you mock intermarriage as a charade, I take pride in the fact that according to Judaism, our marriage was “legal” and “real,” whereas according to the Catholic Church the marriage was invalid because it was not performed by a priest.

My husband and I were surprised to find a Reform Synagogue not even a mile away from our apartment in San Bernardino, near where he was stationed. We were relative babies (21 and 23) and happily surprised to be welcomed with open arms there. There was no condescension, derision, looking askance at either of us, and we became regular attendees. Picture that – a young, newly married, not very religious couple choosing to spend their Friday evenings at synagogue because the people were so welcoming, the Cantor’s voice magnificent and the Rabbi’s sermons brilliant. Fascinating. Relevant. Thought-provoking. My Catholic husband – through the sheer, undeniable goodness of his soul, soon became one of the Rabbi’s favorite congregants, and at 6’1”, a human jungle gym for the Associate Rabbi’s toddlers. We loved it there. THAT is what sustains continuity in Judaism. To this day, 20 years later, I still really miss Temple Emanu El in San Bernardino – because we were welcomed. BOTH of us.

About people who intermarry, you say faith “is a peripheral concern for two good and nice people who can easily reconcile their respective minimal observances and undemanding beliefs.” You say that as if it were a bad thing. As if compulsory adherence to a particular faith’s practices equals devotion of the heart. As if people who look to faith to guide them rather than to dictate to them are less worthy of calling themselves religious. As if the level of comfort and education one takes from one’s religion is up to you to determine as acceptable or not.

You quote Solomon Schechter, who said of our shared religion, “…flexibility has progressed so far as to classify Judaism among the invertebrate species, the lowest order of living things.” Au contraire. I believe this flexibility has, in my case anyhow, strengthened my loyalty to Judaism. It’s helped to elevate Judaism as a religion and those who turn to it for spiritual relief. It has had the effect of drawing me in to learn more. To view with longing and nostalgia the photos I see of my friends who are living in Israel. To wonder when, if ever, I’ll be able to travel there with my family.

It is this flexibility that makes me proud to share what I’m continuing to learn of Judaism with my kids. And my parents. It motivates me to ask my Dad about Jewish principles and Hebrew. It motivates me to view Orthodox Jews with greater understanding and less judgment. As an adult, I’m happily surrounding myself with Jews of all kinds, but specifically, Jews who love their religion. Love it. Gain solace from it. Enjoy the routine of it. Look forward to celebrating it – in whatever form, at whatever level suits them. And more importantly, Jews who respect my life decisions in the same way.

There is more to Jewish continuity and survival than strict adherence to Orthodoxy. You, as a Reform Rabbi, obviously embrace and live that notion. I find it puzzling and counterproductive, then, for you to mock and decry a rabbinical student who refuses to condemn his own parents’ intermarriage. To say that should Daniel Kirzane decide to, as his parents did, marry outside the faith, his studies at Hebrew Union College should cease strikes me as counterintuitive.

You are taking people who have chosen Judaism – chosen it! – and shoving them away. Here is someone who was born of an intermarriage of faiths, and he not only chose Judaism to follow, to study, but to live and to teach! And you belittle his parents’ love because it somehow makes his Judaism less authentic to you? You deny him his learning and his future livelihood should he fall in love with someone who is not Jewish? You’re worried that a rabbi who marries a gentile is threatening and disgraceful to the Jewish faith? Even though he cherishes Judaism?

I respect your education and career. I admire your devotion to our shared faith. I worry, though, that you have grossly misidentified the real threats to Judaism: Sanctimony, Superiority, and Judgmentalism.

This post is a response to Rabbis married to gentiles? by Rabbi Mark S. Miller


About the Author
Aliza Worthington grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and now lives in Baltimore, MD; She began writing in 2009 at the age of 40; She blogs about Life, Liberty and Happiness at "The Worthington Post" Her work also appears in Catonsville Patch, Kveller, The Broad Side, Aiming Low and has been featured in the Community Spotlight section of Daily Kos under the username “Horque.”