An open letter to the board of governors of Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion:
I am writing to urge you to reconsider the HUC-JIR requirement that all prospective rabbinical students sign an agreement that “any student engaged, married, or partnered/committed to a person who is not Jewish by birth or conversion will not be admitted or ordained.”
It matters to me: I am a HUC-JIR rabbi, ordained in 1991 and partnered with a non-Jew since 1984. In 1993 I founded a now thriving congregation that has engaged hundreds of people in Jewish life. I have worked toward conversion with dozens of candidates. The HUC-JIR requirement might have prevented me from becoming a rabbi, as it will future rabbis whose efforts would be as significant as mine.
My partner is a woman. I was an LGBT student at a time when this status was not recognized at the college and there was no such required agreement to sign. We were married under a chuppah on our 20th anniversary, in 2004, and were legally married when we could do so in New York State, in 2011. We have a grown daughter who celebrates the Sabbath and holidays. In 1988, my partner began welcoming the Sabbath in our home even when my student pulpit took me away. She attends services in my congregation, reads Jewish texts with interest and annually counts the Omer with me.
And no, she has not converted. She believes strongly that one should feel oneself to be fully a Jew in order to convert, and she defines herself instead as a “permanently lapsed Irish Catholic.”
We are like the thousands of Jews across America who commit to strongly Jewish lives with their non-Jewish spouses. Interfaith families tell me that having a rabbi who mirrors their relationships makes an enormous difference to being able to commit to Jewish life.
I believe the board of governors must address this policy from two Jewish standpoints.
First, there is the question of inclusion or exclusion.
In 1864, debating the circumcision of males born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer stated that it was a “mitzvah to circumcise such children,” because, “with children such as these, there is sometimes the possibility that great leaders of Israel will arise from among them.”
Rabbi Alexander Schindler and his Reform movement accepted patrilineal descent for membership in the Jewish community 35 years ago. Similarly, we should not push away those who want to become leaders of the Jewish community as rabbis just because they are intermarried. As the governors of HUC-JIR, you must choose between an inclusive vision of Jewish leadership and an exclusive one. Let your bold decisions to ordain women, lesbians, gay men and transgender rabbis show you the way. We are capable of becoming the leaders so desperately needed in the American Jewish community.
Second, there is the question of “What is a rabbi?”
A rabbi is a role model, and there are many kinds of role models. Intermarriage is a fact of American Jewish life. We can do a better job of connecting intermarried Jews to synagogues, rabbis and Jewish life. One way is to knowingly ordain intermarried rabbis.
It is important to remember that a rabbi is a human being. Yeshayahu Leibowitz wrote in commentary on Emor that since there is no more mikdash, the ancient Temple, the function of the service of God is the study and teaching of Torah. Therefore, those leaders who serve as teachers of Torah are otherwise just like any other human being — not intrinsically holy, as some may wish to see themselves or their leaders. The ancient priest removed his special clothing and was just an ordinary human being. Today’s rabbis may demonstrate special knowledge, but once the teaching is over, the rabbi is just a human being, not elevated above any other. If a rabbi is a Jew like all others, we should welcome rabbis who are married to non-Jews just as we welcome Jews who are married to non-Jews into our congregations.
I pray that you will use this moment to overturn a policy whose time has gone.
Rabbi Ellen Lippmann
Ellen Lippmann is the rabbi of Kolot Chayeinu in Brooklyn.