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We Must Embrace Interfaith Families — With No Strings Attached

Editor’s Note: On June 9, the Forward’s editor-in-chief Jane Eisner wrote a piece entitled, “Why This Renegade Rabbi Says He Can Marry Jews — And The Jew-ish,” which discussed the controversy of intermarriage within the Conservative Jewish community. In the coming days and weeks, we will be publishing several responses to her story. The following is one of them.

I applaud Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie’s effort to change the Conservative movement’s response to intermarriage. I don’t think creating a status like ger toshav (a stranger among us) that carries certain benefits not available to others is a wise approach, but a Conservative rabbi officiating for an interfaith couple where the partner from a different faith tradition learns about Judaism and is committed to a Jewish community -– the approach of most Reform rabbis who officiate for interfaith couples –- is very positive. It is unfortunate that Rabbi Lau-Lavie will have to leave the Rabbinical Assembly, but if more and more Conservative rabbis follow his approach, we may see more widespread change in the movement.

However, the new “Joy” proposal and all the attention it has garnered -– from Jane Eisner, Steven M. Cohen, Gary Rosenblatt and others –- skirt the difficult issues that I believe must be addressed if interfaith families are going to engage in Jewish life and community.

Seventeen years ago I wrote an op-ed, Redefine Jewish Peoplehood, for Reform Judaism magazine, and a longer one, We Need a Religious Movement that is Totally Inclusive of Intermarried Jewish Families, for InterfaithFamily. I said that we need to include -– indeed, embrace -– not only Jews but also their partners from different faith traditions, and their children, as “in,” as part of “us,” as included in the Jewish people more broadly defined as the Jewish community. Not as “out,” “other,” not allowed to participate and engage fully in Jewish life. Instead of focusing on identity, on whether a person “is” Jewish, I said we needed to focus on engagement, on whether a person wants to “do” Jewish.

If we were totally inclusive, Jews wouldn’t express preference that their children marry other Jews. Doing so is like saying that it’s nice that gay people have loving partners but you’d prefer they were straight. Jewish leaders and their communities need to adapt the attitudes that Jews have about partners from different faith traditions to no longer consider relationships with them “sub-optimal.”

If we were totally inclusive, we wouldn’t welcome partners from different faith traditions with limitations, or say that their patrilineal children aren’t “really” Jewish or Jewish enough, or that conversion or some special status like ger toshav is the answer to inclusion and recognition. Partners from different faith traditions want to be welcomed as they are, without ulterior motives that they commit to something or convert, and they don’t want their children’s status questioned.

If we were totally inclusive, anyone who wants to participate fully in ritual would be allowed to do so. A parent from a different faith tradition would be allowed to pass the Torah and join in an aliyah at the bar or bat mitzvah of the child they have raised with Judaism. Those parents could say the Torah blessing with full integrity because their family is part of the “us” to whom the Torah was given. They want to feel united with their family and want their child to see them participate and be honored fully.

The “Joy” proposal doesn’t address these issues; the question of officiation that it does address should have been conclusively answered by the Cohen Center’s recent research showing a strong association between officiation and interfaith couples raising their children as Jews and joining synagogues. But the Reform rabbinate still has an official resolution that disapproves of officiation.

Statements of position set a tone that matters, and bold leadership helps people adapt their attitudes to address new realities. That’s why Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary, should follow the Reconstructionists’ lead by admitting and ordaining intermarried rabbinic students. The growth and vitality of liberal synagogues depends on engaging more interfaith families. What better role model for them could there be than an intermarried rabbi?

The real frontier of total inclusivity is how Jewish communities will respond to what appears to be a growing population that wants to educate their children about both religious traditions in the home, without merging them together. When they knock on Jewish doors –- when couples ask rabbis to co-officiate at their weddings, or parents ask synagogue religious schools to accept children who are receiving formal education in another religion — they mostly get “no” for an answer. Rabbis participating in those weddings hold the door open to later Jewish commitment for couples who haven’t decided yet, while those refusing to risk shutting that door. Similarly, while we don’t have to recommend or favor raising children as “both,” providing Jewish education to them if they seek it opens doors to later engagement.

The more confident we are that Jewish traditions are so compelling that people will gravitate to them once exposed to them, the more we will openly discuss these issues, dismantle barriers, and offer explicit statements of welcome and programs designed for them, especially meet-ups and discussion groups where new couples can talk about how to have religious traditions in their lives. That is the totally inclusive approach to interfaith families that we need to articulate and implement.


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