There’s a new controversy roiling the Reform movement: Can an applicant to rabbinic school be married to a non-Jewish partner? Everyone knows that many American Jews date men and women from other religious backgrounds. But rabbis? This might shock some readers — even today, when nothing shocks us anymore. But actually, the phenomenon is not new. The question today is whether to officially accept it.
It’s a debate that offers further evidence that the Reform movement is losing its religious focus. We Reform Jews may be on the verge of not believing anything, but simply identifying with the Jewish people as defined by the Reform movement. If this trend continues, Reform Jews will undermine the claim they once had to representing a true and compelling ethical monotheistic faith. Rather, contemporary Reform Judaism would represent the consequence of a lifestyle choice rather than a theological process.
If we Reform Jews really saw ourselves as believers, then every policy would be evaluated in terms of whether it was consistent with our faith. If that were so, then the partner of a rabbi would certainly have to have beliefs consistent with Progressive Judaism. They wouldn’t need to be technically Jewish, and they might or might not practice Judaism as we understand that term in mainstream Reform circles, but criteria relating to religious beliefs would inform and define the debate. As it stands, those arguing to allow non-Jewish partners are advancing only nonreligious arguments. The impression I get is that the debate is so diffuse because the subject — what makes one eligible to represent Reform Judaism — is so amorphous.
The specific question involves admissions policies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s central rabbinical school. Admissions requirements have a symbolic importance beyond their actual impact on the students and their families, and it is for this reason that the debate is being followed closely by those interested in the development of American Judaism.
The policy, which has attracted criticism, says that HUC-JIR will not admit any applicant who is “…engaged, married, or partnered/committed to a person not Jewish by birth or conversion.” Responding to the question “Should Our Seminary Admit Students With Non-Jewish Partners?” rabbinical student Daniel Kirzane argues in Reform Judaism magazine that this policy “… is antithetical to our Movement’s essential focus on welcoming and outreach.”
At first glance, the question of whether intermarried Jews could apply to rabbinical school appears to be ridiculous, like wondering whether a Catholic priest would intend to remain celibate. Standing as a role model of Jewish continuity would seem to be part of the job requirement for any rabbi, an expectation so obvious that it should not have to be mentioned.
But Kirzane states that it should be open for debate. In 1999, he writes, the Central Conference of American Rabbis did indeed affirm that the Reform Movement is an inclusive community, “…opening doors to Jewish life to [every person]…who strive[s] to create a Jewish home.” HUC-JIR, which is the official academic institution of the movement, “should be the greatest exemplar of this ideal.”